Former Met boss Thomas Campbell: 'I was passionate about the museum and its mission'
Source:theguardian Author:Hannah Ellis-Petersen Date: 2017-09-26 Size:
In February this year, the New York art world was abuzz with……

Thomas Campbell: ‘I found myself being a change agent, which is ironic for someone who is a historian of European tapestries.’ Photograph: Alicia Canter for the Guardian

In February this year, the New York art world was abuzz with the sound of scandal. Talk was only of one thing: a New York Times front page which had posed the provocative question ‘Is the Met a great institution in decline?’. The allegations against the museum were wide-ranging: financial mismanagement, discontented staff, inappropriate office relationships, a misguided investment in modern art and an expensive obsession with digitising the collection. And the blame landed on the shoulders of one person: Thomas Campbell, the British tapestries curator, who had taken over as director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art eight years previous.

The guillotine of public criticism was sharp and swift. Just 24 days after the first of an onslaught of damning articles were published, Campbell announced his resignation from one of the most important roles in the art world. Seven months on, Campbell, who barely addressed the scandal as it was unfolding, now avidly disputes the narrative that he ran the museum into the ground, and stands by the divisive modernising agenda that eventually led to his downfall.

“I found myself, perhaps to a degree I never anticipated, being a change agent, which is ironic for someone who is a historian of European tapestries,” said Campbell with a weary laugh when first we speak in July, just days after he has formally stepped down. “Look, the Met’s a very political place, and that meant there were voices who were partisan to one agenda or another who were whipping things up. I tried very hard as director to be even-handed.”

Two of Campbell’s most public critics have been George R Goldner and former senior administrator Harold Holzer, both of whom had worked at the museum for at least two decades. Both took the stance that the Met had found itself with an impending $40m deficit in 2015 because of Campbell’s inexperience and spending on a flashy website and an expansion into contemporary art, which had compromised the museum’s scholastic expertise and ruined its finances.

Goldner gave the New York Times the infamous quote about the Met being in decline, and later told the the Art Newspaper: “Too much was done simultaneously, and too quickly. Even though the Met is a wealthy institution, this led to certain things being done less well and to a financial crunch.” He added: “A lot of people have been pushed out, some of whom were very good … other departments have felt that their concerns have been relegated to a secondary position behind contemporary art and digital media.”

People congregate at the entrance to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met) Photograph: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Several Met insiders believe Holzer was the unnamed source in a Vanity Fair story which suggested that the former Met boss exacerbated the institution’s “budgetary looseness” in his quest to make it “new and trendy”. One board member described both Holzer and Goldner as “absolutely livid” at Campbell’s vision for the Met. “There were some real grudges being played out in the New York Times and Vanity Fair,” said one trustee.

Holzer says any suggestion that he briefed against Campbell is “ridiculous”. “I had no vendetta against Tom and to suggest I was inspired to malice by a grudge against his ‘modern-art agenda’ is ridiculous,” he said via email. Goldner did not reply when asked for comment.

Campbell, born in Singapore, raised in the UK and educated at Oxford and the Courtald Institute of Art in London, arrived at the Met as an assistant curator in 1995. “Tapestry Tom”, as he came to be known, is the first to admit that his appointment as director 14 years later came as much as a surprise to him as his colleagues. While he had curated critically acclaimed exhibitions, he was not seen as an obvious leader, nor as his predecessor Philippe de Montebello’s heir apparent.

“When they first approached me, I thought, ‘My god, you’ve got to be joking’,” Campbell recalled. “But when I thought about it, there was a logic to it. I was a mid-career curator who was passionate about the museum and its mission and had perhaps a fairly good idea of how it needed to evolve.”

“There is a degree of toughness in him”

Talking to the New Yorker back in 2009, de Montebello described Campbell as “solidly grounded, not an ivory-tower academic. He is extremely personable, he is very open, he is very articulate, and there is a degree of toughness in him.” Yet fast-forward eight years, and de Montebello had something very different to say about his successor.

“It has been a difficult period for the museum, one in which a lot of very good people have suffered and left involuntarily,” said de Montebello in an interview with Artnet recently. “As far as I know, there is absolutely no way the trustees could foresee that this man would basically become a totally different human being the day he was made director.”

It’s a cutting critique and Campbell visibly winces when de Montebello’s comments are brought up (the pair used to have regular lunches but haven’t spoken in months). “I’ve been portrayed as a bit of a hick in the press lately but when I took on the job I learned quickly,” he says, still noticeably stung by the widespread accusation of ineptitude. “It was absolutely a baptism of fire because my appointment was announced on 9 September 2008 and a week later Lehman brothers collapsed, and the whole world went into meltdown. The Met lost 22% of our endowment by the end of my first year.”

Campbell, who has the demeanour of a kindly headmaster, is most animated when discussing his recent attendance at a global museum conference in Hong Kong. He recounts how directors of some of the most staunchly traditional scholarly museums in the world paced on stages with mics “like TED talk presenters” and spoke of their modernising, digital ambitions to transform archaic, scholarly institutions. After his own similar vision for the Met was publicly dragged through the mud over the past few months, Campbell felt somewhat vindicated.

“It was a fascinating reflection of this moment where many museums, especially in the west, are challenged by the finances – and we’ve all been challenged to make ourselves relevant not only to existing audiences but to new audiences,” he says. “It really made me feel validated, as one of the things I’ve done here over the last eight years has been to modernise the Met.”

The tussle between the old and the new would become a defining factor of Campbell’s tenure the Met. “It was highly regarded as one of the great museums of the world but perhaps had a reputation of being a bit austere, not that friendly,” Campbell says. “I think that the museum was very stuck in its ways in some respects, both in terms of who its scholarship was being addressed to, and in the way it thought about audiences. So I was asked to digitise and modernise the museum – the board were very specific that was my mandate.”

“Too much, too fast”

Yet there are those that have said that Campbell became blinded by his enthusiasm for digital, an expensive infatuation that led him to throw more cash at the website and social media department than five other departments combined (at its peak it had a staff of 75 and ran at a cost of $20m – though he insists this was only temporary). These efforts did draw in younger audiences, and visitor numbers went up by a record-breaking 50%, but it was “too much, too fast”, according to Goldner. Social media appeared to swallow money once used to fund core curatorial departments, and that was not an easy sell to staff. One trustee said that had the technology board been more aware of the impending precarious financial situation of the museum, which would lead to over 100 jobs cuts, they may have been “less gung-ho to approve Campbell’s very expensive digital plans”.

Campbell has also been accused by some former staff of weak leadership and playing favourites. Managing personal and professional agendas was not Campbell’s speciality, said insiders, and he had a “tight inner circle” which was widely perceived to be impenetrable and often alienating for those not in it. “He didn’t have the broad base of support among the senior curators and the staff, and I think that is a fault and it probably goes back to a lack of prior management experience,” commented one trustee.

These accusations of favouritism became a particular problem for Campbell in 2012, when Erin Coborn, who he had appointed as his chief digital officer in 2010, filed an official complaint that Campbell was having an “inappropriate relationship” by playing favourites with another female member of staff in the digital department (Met executives investigated Coborn’s claim but he was exonerated of any wrongdoing).

When the allegations of behaving inappropriately (or as Vanity Fair salaciously put it, his “friskiness with women staff”) are put to him, Campbell is resolute that the “unfounded complaint” has been manipulated to discredit his digital agenda and tarnish him as a director. “It’s gossip and innuendo,” he says bluntly. All he did, he says, was use his position as director to “identify rainmakers, and that inevitably leads to people saying ‘this person is a favourite’ or ‘that person’s a favourite’. But there’s no grounding to it.”

Yet, if his digital programme had been the cause of some internal friction at the Met, it had nothing on Campbell’s other key agenda as director: to finally make the Met as respected in the field of modern and contemporary art as it was in its pre-20th century collection. It was an area which had long been neglected – the museum had only established a department of contemporary art in 1967 – but Campbell felt that if the Met wanted to remain relevant, it could not be ignored any longer. “Seeing modern and contemporary at the Met is different to seeing it at MoMA or at the Whitney or at Tate because you see it in this bigger context of an encyclopedic collection, so it has resonances for the contemporary but it’s also very invigorating for the historical collection.”

Thomas Campbell after becoming a US citizen at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York Photograph: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

What would eventually prove most controversial was not the modern art itself, but the spaces where the modern art would hang. First there was the now infamous southwest wing saga, which began as a small vision of renovating the widely-panned contemporary art galleries, the Lila Acheson Wing, to make them look less like an airport lounge-cum-motel.

By 2014, this had snowballed into a major project which would see the entire southwest wing of the gallery, which included the Lila Acheson Wing, completely renovated. A design for the project was selected: an ambitious vision designed by David Chipperfield, which involved a new entrance to the museum from Central Park and would cost an eye-watering $600m.

Running parallel to this was the project of the Met Breuer, the former home to the Whitney museum, a building Campbell signed the lease for in 2011 with a vision it would become an outpost for a bolstered contemporary art collection and exhibition programme at the Met. But what had seemed like a pioneering idea instead became an extra $17m drain on already-straining resources when it opened in 2015.

At this point, a deep dive into the finances by newly appointed chief operating officer Dan Weiss had found that if internal costs that had been building for decades weren’t cut, the museum faced a possible $40m deficit. While the deficit had little to do with Campbell’s decisions as director, for a museum with a $3bn endowment, and an annual revenue of $390m, it seems hard to understand how this impending financial black hole blindsided the director and the board. Campbell’s penchant for transformative but expensive projects became a harder sell to staff, who felt they were “bearing the financial burden”, according to one observer.

“With hindsight I should probably have done less of everything, but I was only as good as the financial information I was being given,” Campbell says, in a rare concession that his agenda may have got a little out of hand.

“But the financial situation got blown up by some pundits as a crisis, which it wasn’t,” says Campbell. “It got blown out that we were in a crisis when we were actually taking steps to make sure we didn’t get into a crisis. ... But I realise it was demoralising and it generated anxiety and agitation in an institution that has always been very resistant to change.”

“We were not comfortable being made to feel that we were part of the problem”

Jeff Rosenheim, chief photography curator at the Met, described first hand the impact the ensuing cuts had on morale at the museum. “I would say that the pain for many of us at the museum was triggered mostly by job cuts, and by seeing colleagues pushed towards early retirement when they were really not done with their careers or not ready to retire,” he says. “We – that is all of us on the staff – were not comfortable being made to feel by the board that we were part of the problem.”

By this point in 2016, the board had got cold feet about Campbell’s push for contemporary art. No big donors had instantly stepped up to contribute towards the $600m for the southwest wing, which was seen by many as a direct failure on the part of Campbell to convince the monied figures in the art world about his vision. He claims otherwise, though undoubtedly his enthusiastic public communication around the whole project was misguided. “I had not started on a large-sale fundraising campaign, I’d merely had some quiet conversations with some potential donors,” he says.

In January, a decision was made by the board to pause going forward with the wing, and instead attend to the more pressing and costly issue of replacing the skylights over the European painting galleries. The press pounced on it as proof of Campbell’s failures, and internally, staff who had pinned their hopes on finally having a fitting space for modern art were frustrated by this change of course. “I thought there was momentum behind the wing and I thought we were on a schedule for 2020 that was set by the board and the administration,” says Rosenheim. “We’d chosen an architect and I believed we were moving forward on this. So yes, I mean it’s somewhat disappointing.”

Yet, for all the internal rumblings of discord, Campbell said that by the beginning of 2017, he believed “we were over the hump, that the dust was beginning to settle”, especially as visitor numbers remained at a record high of 7 million. He therefore did not expect to see his name splashed across the front page of the New York Times on 4 February 2017, nor was prepared for the backlash that followed. For certain board trustees who had lost faith in Campbell over the past two years, the articles were final proof he, and his agenda, had failed. For Campbell it was clear that he no longer had the full support of the board, and that what he calls “some nasty personal agendas” had gained too much momentum. On 24 February, Campbell said enough was enough and he resigned, effective 1 July. The board did not fight for him to stay.

Campbell’s take on the manner in which he found himself unexpectedly unemployed is one of cautious diplomacy rather than bitterness – “obviously I’d rather this all hadn’t happened but it goes with the territory” – though the speed at which the tide turned against him, both inside the museum and out, clearly left him reeling. He also agrees with me when I suggest that no matter whose side you take, that the whole thing feels extremely juvenile and petty for a museum of the Met’s stature. Yet for all the facade of gracious defeat, he clearly thinks history will remember his agenda as progressive rather than crippling.

The search for his replacement at the Met has now begun, but Campbell, who is to spend the whole of next year on a Getty Rothschild Fellowship, says that after all the mudslinging and efforts he believes were made to discredit his modern agenda, “the board need to take stock and think about what they want for the Met. Do they still want the same modernising mandate they gave me?”

[Editor] 张艳