Sure, the Met Has Mounted Great Shows—So Why Haven’t They Registered?

THE DAILY PIC: Thomas Campbell fostered some great exhibitions at the Met—and only a few people noticed.

THE DAILY PIC (#1746): Yesterday, after publishing my column on Thomas Campbell’s tenure at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the voice of my conscience (aka, some readers, plus my wife) called on me to think again about the Met’s roster of shows.

After all, I had ranted about a small number of exhibitions that seemed way below the standard the Met ought to set, despite the big crowds they drew. But I failed to mention any number of serious, scholarly shows that were absolutely superb, however many fewer people may have seen them. I’m thinking of the Met’s show on the global textile trade; its amazing presentation of Cézanne’s portraits of his wife; the fascinating “Art of Dissent in 17th-Century China”; the nearly perfect study of Gertrude and Leo Stein as collectors (from which I drew today’s Daily Pic, Cézanne’s Bathers from about 1892). Even shows where the art seemed to me less consistently excellent—surveys of Valentin de Boulogne, Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux and Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, for instance—all clearly deserved to be mounted.

But the problem is that the Met’s significant tally of great scholarship has somehow lived under the shadow of its crowd-pleasing blockbusters. Those are inevitably the exhibitions mentioned (and often touted) in the coverage of Campbell’s recent resignation. It’s almost as though less challenging shows that come closer to popular culture prevent the more serious offerings from registering at all.

Or even when they do register, we are left with the sense that once standards have been lowered for certain events, it’s hard to believe that the Met really believes in them on other occasions. When an institution’s standards aren’t consistent they can also come off as optional, rather than as central to its vision of itself and its mission.

It looks as though, when it comes to judging museum directors, their institutions are only ever as good as their worst offerings. (The Cézanne is from the Musée d’Orsay, Paris on deposit at the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon)

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