Change is in the air

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Thomas P. Campbell, Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2008-2017

The resignation of Thomas P. Campbell, Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City, raises the usual questions whenever a major museum goes through this transition. Campbell, who will leave his position in June, has overseen a period of great, perhaps excessive, expansion in the museum’s behind-the-scenes activities. The increase in social media staff and creation of a digital department is often cited as factors that has led to increased deficits (an estimated $40 million in 2016) and the layoff of 34 staff members. However, the digital department was filled from the existing staff, so its contribution to the deficits is limited.

Attendance has risen, and the opening of the Met Breuer (the former site of the Whitney Museum, now on long-term lease as the Met’s venue for contemporary art) has been a great success, albeit a very expensive one. Still, the bottom line has been red for too long.

It has been suggested that Campbell was asked to resign. This is quite possible, though it’s unlikely we will ever hear about it. As I have probably written elsewhere, museum directors are almost never fired; a situation has to be truly toxic for it to come to that. The Met needs to re-assess its structure and finances, and a new Director can come in without the baggage of his/her predecessor.

This transition raises some questions, some common to all transitions, some specific. Here are a few of them:

A Director is not a dictator. Decisions are made with the consultation of committees composed os Trustees and staff. Campbell’s struggling directorship was not his fault alone. Will the Board of Trustees take the time (aside from searching for the next Director) to assess their involvement and responsibility? This process can be done internally, though it’s best of some show of culpability is displayed; there are even firms that will come in and work with corporate Boards to help them in this analysis.

Campbell was promoted from within, and had never served as a museum Director before. So far, potential candidates are purely speculative at best, but all are Directors at other institutions. Will the Met look within again, or is it a case of “once bitten, twice shy?” I’m sure there are Met staffers who aspire to the big chair, and might even apply.

It’s not enough to change the guard; the conditions that caused the problem need to be changed. Take a minute to read this interview with former Met curator George Goldner, given before Campbell’s announcement, about the museum’s challenges. The re-assessment he calls for is certain to happen now.

Transitions are often when plans are put on hold, yet the museum must continue to move forward. The exhibition schedule must be maintained – fortunately, shows must be scheduled well in advance, but that means the incoming Director will inherit whatever has been scheduled before he/she arrives. Will the museum take care to see that everything is prepared for a smooth transition?

It is likely that the changes Campbell made in his last year to address the deficits will have to be continued or added to. Staff morale must be addressed and mended before a new Director arrives. Will the museum work to be in the best possible situation in regards to the staff, to heal the work environment for the good of the staff and the next Director?

And that’s just the start. Director searches, especially for a museum of this size and scope, can take a year or more.

 

 

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