The Met in Transition

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is the largest art museum in the United States, one of the most visited museums in the world, and a backbone of New York’s cultural scene. Since it opened in 1872, it has expanded its campus to three museums, its collections to hundreds of thousands of objects, and its global profile. The collection encompasses 5,000 years of global art history, only a fraction of which are on display to the public.

But it is also an institution that has found itself in a difficult position. Per recent reporting in the New York Times and elsewhere since last summer, it is more widely known now that the Met is facing a financial deficit in the tens of millions, amid expensive initiatives such as the opening of the Met Breuer (taking over the Whitney Museum’s original building) and the rebranding campaign, but also record visitor attendance numbers and acclaimed exhibitions.

On February 4th, the New York Times ran the article, “Is the Met ‘a Great Institution in Decline’?”, which elaborated on many of the internal issues facing the Met. To be sure, the Met is not the only American cultural institution facing financial difficulties. But the fact that it is the Met, long-held as an exemplar, makes the situation all the more attention-grabbing. At the end of February, Director Thomas Campbell, who has held the position since 2008, announced his resignation, throwing another piece into an already challenging situation.

What I wanted to do here is address a few questions for people who may be less familiar with how museums, especially large museums like the Met, operate. (This is based on my own experiences as a museum intern.)

First of all, I do not think the Met is an institution in decline. But it is an institution facing a very difficult period in its history. The financial issues go hand in hand with the essential question, what is the Met going to be as a museum in the 21st century? How does a storied institution, built on values centuries old now, evolve and remain relevant in its time?

This is not a new question nor is it an easy one, and I’m sure it is one that the Met has been considering for some time. The initiatives like the Met Breuer and the rebranding campaign are a part of its evolution, as are other steps the Met has taken to make the museum more accessible and inclusive. This is a critical transition period for the museum.

Why is it so difficult to change?

The Met is literally and figuratively a labyrinthine institution. There are 2,000 staff in thirty-something departments, seventeen of which are curatorial, and each of which has its own responsibilities. The Met now runs three museums under its umbrella – the main building on Fifth Avenue, the Met Cloisters in upper Manhattan, and the Met Breuer. The short answer is that change takes time, and effective change at an institutional level requires the collaboration of many different people.

Why don’t they just sell some of the art?

This was one suggestion I heard while I was an intern at the Met. To solve the museum’s financial issues, why not just sell the art? For one, that goes against the essential mission of a museum to act as a responsible steward of objects in its collections, to ensure their care for the future, and to display them for public education and enjoyment.

Simply put, this is not something museums are allowed to do. While there are guidelines in place for museums to deaccession (remove) objects from their collections, they cannot sell off some of the collection to support museum operations. In 2014, when the Delaware Art Museum sold one of its paintings at auction to support operating costs, they lost their accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums, whose member institutions pledge to uphold the standards for museum ethics and best practices.

But doesn’t the Met have a lot of money? How is it that the Met has so much money that it cannot solve its own financial crisis?

This points to another issue in the museum world. Like other large museums, the Met does have significant funds and endowments, but legally, they can only be used for the purposes of which they were given to the museum – usually to purchase works of art or to build galleries, which often then bear the donor’s name, unless they wish to remain anonymous. Other funds endow curatorial positions and fund the fellowship and internship programs. That money cannot be repurposed toward the operating budget of the museum.

There seems to be a disconnect between high cultural values placed on art and beauty, and the less exciting things like how does one keep the museum running so that it can continue to display its incredible collection? As someone once remarked to me, donors want to give money to buy art or build galleries because those are the exciting parts of a museum; it’s a lot less sexy to give a museum money to keep the lights on.

Corridor in the Greco-Roman galleries. Source: the author.

What happens now that the director resigned?

As reported, he will stay on through the end of the fiscal year (June), and work with the museum’s president and staff on a transition plan. Eventually, the museum’s board of trustees will have to plan a search for a new director. As Wellesley College Professor Liza Oliver argued in her op-ed for the Times, now could be the key moment in which the Met appoints its first female director.

As Oliver points out, museum boards and upper management are still dominated by white men, even though 70% of curators in the U.S. are women, and women outpace men in earning doctorates in art history. While the Met has had a female president, Emily Rafferty, who served in the position for ten years before retiring in 2015, and who had worked at the Met since 1976, the museum has never had a woman in the no. 1 role.

Diversity in the museum world is certainly a critical issue in the 21st century, as it is in every other field. In keeping with its goals of diversity and inclusivity in its exhibitions and programming, I agree with Oliver that the Met should also lead by example in terms of its staff.
But for now, we’ll have to wait and see.


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