From Tapestries to Top Job
Source:the New York Times Author:CAROL VOGEL Date: 2008-09-17 Size:
For most of his career Thomas P. Campbell has presided over a tiny corner of art history that few people know or care much about: those grand European tapestries that were the obsession of kings and queens, popes and noblemen.


Thomas P. Campbell has been selected as the Met's next chief.

For most of his career Thomas P. Campbell has presided over a tiny corner of art history that few people know or care much about: those grand European tapestries that were the obsession of kings and queens, popes and noblemen.

"It was an art form of magnificence, and it was an art form of propaganda," he said Wednesday afternoon in an interview at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. "It was a subject that engaged the greatest patrons of the day and the greatest artists of the time."

Although he is often typecast as Tapestry Tom, Mr. Campbell views these sumptuous textiles as a reflection of a far bigger cultural canvas. "This narrow area is in fact a subject that has allowed me to range very broadly," he said. It's that dual vision that helped win him the nation's biggest museum job. On Tuesday he was named the Met's next director and chief executive, succeeding Philippe de Montebello, a leader with a monumental presence, who is to retire on Jan. 1 after 31 years in the post.

Less than 24 hours and some 250 congratulatory e-mail messages later, Mr. Campbell said he was running on adrenalin. Yet he exuded a kind of serenity as he sipped coffee in the patrons lounge and talked about his new role.

Asked what he thought was the biggest challenge museums faced these days, he said without hesitation, "A crisis of confidence."

In his view museums are often cowed by an audience that they don't fully understand.

"There is a fear that the collections themselves are not sufficient, that one has to somehow gussy them up with presentations and dumb then down to two-syllable labels that can be read by a 6-year-old," he said. "And of course you should never underestimate your audience.

"In this age of communication and the Internet our local and international audiences are actually very sophisticated. So the big challenge is how to deliver different levels of information to different audiences."

A tall order perhaps, but Mr. Campbell, 46, seems ready for the challenge, exuding a kind of English schoolboy enthusiasm and resolve that won over a tough board of trustees. He triumphed over dozens of candidates interviewed for the job over the last eight months.

His career trajectory hardly suggests that he has had his eye on the corner office. Growing up outside Cambridge, England, he began drawing and painting at a young age. "I still paint watercolors occasionally, mostly landscapes," he said. His father was a businessman, his mother a painter.

But when he arrived at Oxford as an undergraduate, it was theater, not painting, that initially consumed him.

"At first I thought of directing plays and musicals, bossing people around," he said. "I wince now when I think about the touchy-feely exercises we would do. It wouldn't go down well with the curatorial staff here."

But soon his love of the visual arts trumped his theatrical aspirations, and upon graduating he headed to London, where he took a year's course in fine and decorative art at Christie's auction house.

It was something of a culture shock. "I came down from Oxford having spent three years soaking up academic worldviews," he explained. He recalls landing in a class with Pietro Raffo, a passionate teacher from Italy.

"I remember very early on he would throw up images on a screen and ask us what they were," Mr. Campbell said. "One was a Titian bacchanal, and when he asked me what it was, I said, 'It' s a bacchanal by Titian.'

"He took me to task and said: 'What do you mean? What is it?' "

Mr. Campbell said he groped for some scholarly term, until the teacher screamed that it was a "drunken orgy, and they're all having sex."

It was a basic lesson hammered home over a year, Mr. Campbell said, "how to put aside your preconceptions and look at something with fresh eyes."

After his stint at Christie's he took a year off and roamed from Paris to Venice to New York, taking odd jobs to stay afloat. "I worked as a travel guide in Paris and a waiter at the Odeon in New York," he said. "It was really my vehicle to allow me to visit museums and broaden my knowledge."

He went on to study at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, where he homed in on tapestries, a passion that led him in 1995 to the Met job, first as an assistant curator, and then in 2003 as a full curator.

In 2002 Mr. Campbell organized the Met's "Tapestry in the Renaissance: Art and Magnificence," which attracted some 215,000 visitors and drew broad praise. He presented a sequel, "Tapestry in the Baroque: Threads of Splendor," last year.

He has also been the supervising curator of the museum's Antonio Ratti Textile Center, which was the first Met department with a computerized image database.


His experience there has made him eager to position the museum as a technological pathsetter. "I think we are on the cusp of a whole new evolution," he said. Although he said it was too early to go into detail, he spoke of delivering different levels of information that would be tailored to Web audiences, ranging from the casual visitor to the scholar. Given the speed at which technology is developing, he added, the traditional audioguide would soon give museumgoers a wide variety of options for choosing the sort of information they wanted to hear.

Mr. Campbell is not unaware of criticism that the Met has failed to keep pace with contemporary art. So he is trying to keep up with art being made today. Without losing sight that the Met is above all an encyclopedic museum embracing millenniums of art in varied cultures, he said he recognized that a "very vibrant audience" exists for contemporary art.

"Last Monday I visited Dia: Beacon," Mr. Campbell said. "It's fantastic. I took my 7-year-old with me, and she had great fun running around the Richard Serra sculptures."

"There is absolutely a place for contemporary art" at the Met, he said. "But seeing it here in a context of historic art gives it a very different kind of meaning than seeing it in places that are more exclusively focused on this area."

More generally, Mr. Campbell said he hopes to make better use of the Met's rich collections, given that increasingly rocky economic times will make expensive loan shows harder to produce. He envisions smaller shows focusing on perhaps two or three works from the museum's permanent collection in addition to a panoply of special exhibitions.

But he said he did not want to get too far ahead of himself. "It's early days," he said. From now until January, when he succeeds Mr. de Montebello, he said he planned to talk to as many people as possible inside the museum and out. "It's a time to be learning, to be challenging any ideas I may have had," he said.

Although the advent of any new director signals change, it is unlikely to be felt overnight at a sprawling institution like the Met.

"This place is so big, so strong and so powerful in so many areas," Mr. Campbell said. "It's a question of evolution rather than change."

[Editor] Mark Lee