7 Takeaways From Vanity Fair’s Deep Dive Into Thomas Campbell’s Tumultuous Exit From the Met
From a rebellion against digital, to Campbell's "friskiness."
In a substantial feature for Vanity Fair, which appears in the April issue but is live online today, intrepid writer William D. Cohan digs into the turmoil that led to the recent shock announcement of the departure of Metropolitan Museum of Art director Thomas Campbell (effective at the end of June). The slab of an article sheds new light on a story that has everyone in New York art world circles—and far beyond—buzzing.
“It’s not a very complicated story,” one “source close to the Met” says at one point, arguing that Campbell was simply put into a position over his head. That may be so, but what the Vanity Fair story conveys is just how much there is to take into consideration, and just how much can go wrong. Below, some of the key points:
1. Shock of the New
Campbell’s early tenure at the helm went well, including grappling with the economic crisis that was in full swing as he assumed the helm in early 2009. “Then somehow things started to go awry,” said a former administrator who talked to Vanity Fair. In particular, Campbell’s drive to make the Met “new and trendy” seemed to rankle.
This included an expensive overhaul of the Met’s storied “M” logo, resulting in a new, scarlet-red logo of “The Met” that was widely lampooned and criticized by one architecture critic as resembling “a red double-decker bus that has stopped short, shoving the passengers into each other’s backs.”
2. Digital Drift
On a similar note, many curators took issue with Campbell’s decision to put “considerable resources” behind the big museum’s new “digital” division. “There were as many as 75 people working in it at an annual cost of around $20 million,” says the source. Initiatives included digitizing the collection’s two million artworks, and improving the experience for visitors using their mobile phones in the museum.
One former administrator makes this eye-opening assertion: “There were more people working in the digital department than there were in any five or six other departments combined. That was another big expenditure, and it tied together with this ever growing sense that the Met was going to be young and cool. I think that it just got out of proportion.”
3. Bad Manners
Among several management and interpersonal missteps cited in the piece, Campbell had a habit of selecting so-called “annointed ones” but then flip-flopping on those choices. An unidentified board member is quoted saying Campbell is “not a particularly good listener,” and “not as sensitive to a lot of the interpersonal dynamics” as he should have been.
Campbell is a former tapestry expert who had the nickname “Tapestry Tom.” Given such a “narrow focus, in hindsight the obvious question is why, when he was being considered for the top job, the Met’s board didn’t delve more deeply into whether he had the necessary management skills and temperament to lead an ‘encyclopedic’ museum with 2,500 employees,” writes Vanity Fair.
Perhaps the most explosive—but (almost irresponsibly) underdeveloped—revelation is this: “Another problem was Campbell’s friskiness with certain women on the staff. He had been warned about it early in his tenure but still carried on. More recently a legal action was brought against him and the Met, but it was settled.”
It is not clear, exactly, what “friskiness” means, or what the nature of the lawsuit was. The former administrator cited in the piece says Campbell’s behavior was “especially problematic because women make up three-quarters of the Met’s administrators.”
5. Cubist Quid Pro Quo
Billionaire collector Leonard Lauder’s extraordinarily generous 78-piece, $1 billion, Cubist art donation in 2013 was a triumph for the Met—but was also perhaps way more complicated and problematic than it seemed.
Cohan questions about whether there was a quid pro quo in place under which the Cubist art would be shown in the Leonard Lauder research-center area of a new contemporary wing:
Previously, the Met had embarked on a $600 million project to demolish the existing Lila Acheson Wallace Wing, on Fifth Avenue, and to build a new wing, in the southwest corner of the museum’s footprint, which would double the size of the Roof Garden and house modern and contemporary art. In 2015, after a year-long study, the Met chose David Chipperfield Architects to design the new building, which was to be completed in 2020 to coincide with the museum’s 150th anniversary.
Some observers think the Met made a mistake in agreeing to build the new wing, to house Lauder’s Cubist collection. As a matter of principle, says Robert Storr, a professor at the Yale School of Art and a former senior curator at the Museum of Modern Art, “it’s one thing to accept such a collection. It’s another thing to accept that you’re going to have to increase the space of exhibition, given such treasures. . . . What makes a vital collection over long periods of time is not to have chapels to particular art, much less particular collections.”
Lauder denies any such stipulation, Cohan reports.
6. The Times Is On It…
George Goldner, a longtime former curator in the museum’s drawings and prints department who retired in 2015, was quoted in a New York Times‘s early Feburary story on the internal woes at the Met. It was titled “Is The Met A Great Institution in Decline?” In the Vanity Fair report, Cohan quotes a former Met administrator who says the Times story went off “like an atomic bomb in the room.” It appears to have sealed Campbell’s fate since it effectively “denounced” the Met on the front page of the Paper of Record, a blow described as unprecedented for the beloved institution.
Cohan noted that Goldner now serves as an art adviser to billionaire collector Leon Black, whose wife, Debra, serves on the Met board.
Three weeks after the story, Campbell resigned under pressure.
Campbell, however, is not the only one at fault here, says one source, who notes that the board initially backed Campbell’s agenda. In that sense, he has simply become the face of a much broader drift in leadership at the Met, and his departure on its own is unlikely to set things right.
“He forged an agenda with the board,’ the source says. “He had some management issues. They together made all these decisions to get ahead on digital. Tom wasn’t on his own. They together decided to invest in modern and contemporary. The place is politically, totally insane.”
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