Mutiny at the Met? Thomas Campbell on the Price of Modernization at America’s Greatest Museum

The former Met director spoke to artnet News's Andrew Goldstein about the achievements of his tenure—and their unexpected side effects.

Thomas Campbell at the "Manus x Machina: Fashion In An Age Of Technology" press conference in May 2016. (Photo by Randy Brooke/Getty Images)

What, exactly, happened to Thomas Campbell? After eight years of pushing through a modernization campaign at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, heavily investing in digital technologies and dramatically expanding the institution’s engagement with Modern and contemporary art, the onetime director of the Met departed in July. The official word was that he resigned. But the undisguised animus that this agenda had aroused from numerous powerful constituencies at the museum—including the retired Philippe de Montebello, Campbell’s patrician predecessor—suggested that he was pushed out. Months after Campbell’s resignation, key questions remain unanswered.

To shed some more light on the circumstances around the director’s departure, artnet News’s Andrew Goldstein spoke with Campbell about the resistance to his directorship, the various competing factions at the museum, and what he will be doing next. This is the second installment of a two-part interview.

The Met’s push into social media was part of your robust campaign to energize the museum’s digital component. In 2013, you hired Sree Sreenivasan, who had formerly been a social media guru at Columbia University, to be the museum’s first chief digital officer, and the digital team reportedly grew to a $40 million budget with some 75 staffers. What was this division intended to do?

I think there’s been quite a lot of misperception about the digital operation, and some wild numbers and figures have been thrown around, implying again a sort of a crazy investment without any control. That really was not the case. When I became director, we probably had 40, 45 people working in media, film, and media in different parts of the museum. What I did was create a digital media department, where I brought them all together.

The last 10 years have obviously been a period of phenomenal change, and I felt that we had a responsibility—and that I had been charged by the board—to digitize the institution. And the exciting thing about this was the opportunity to expand our audience.

At its peak, the head count in the digital department was somewhere around 70, but a lot of those people were part-time, or working with end dates on projects that were funded in large part by the Bloomberg Foundation, who have been very generous to us.

So, I think that some of the things that have been said in the media really misrepresent the situation. We were making a considerable, but I think thoughtful, investment. We now have a very significant educational online presence.

Did the board sign off on the investment in this digital operation?

Yes. The budget of the museum, and of the different departments, is reviewed by the finance committees and by the executive committee. As director, I could make no investment of over $100,000 without approval by the finance committee or by the executive committee, and ultimately by the full board.

Looking at the full picture, here, it seems that the table was set for an inevitable confrontation. Because you have an ambitious board that supports the two very investment-heavy directions for the museum, digital and recent art, that are seen as critical to the museum’s continued relevance and success. But, at the same time, as soon as you came into the directorship, in the throes of the financial crisis, you had to issue a series of demoralizing cutbacks to the staff and programming funds. One would have to imagine that, as these years proceeded, some people who work at the museum may have seen a stark disconnect between the diminishment of the legacy staff on the one hand, and the $600 million price tag of a new Modern and contemporary wing, plus a huge digital team, on the other. Could you tell that the Met’s staff was on the verge of mutiny?

That is how it has been presented in the media in the last six months, but I think what you have to do is take a step back and look at how this actually played out over a longer period of time. Between 2012 and 2014, [balancing the budget] became increasingly complex—to the point that, in 2014, I was about to enter discussion with the board to bring in a new COO to help me really drill down and get a handle on this.

But, in the summer of 2014, with the retirement of Emily K. Rafferty [as president of the Met], rather than looking for a separate COO, I was suddenly looking for a new president. I was, essentially, looking for a COO to fill that role, and in Dan Weiss we got the perfect person: a combination of financial, managerial, and leadership skills. He joined the museum in the summer of 2015.

During that period, the pressure to extend the museum increased. We had taken up the $250 million bond issue because—as part of the feasibility study—we had identified a huge amount of deferred maintenance that we just had to deal with. Interest rates were low, so it was a good moment to do it, but at the same time, that added $8 million or $9 million [per year] in debt repayment.

By law, we also had to put more money aside for pensions—that was another factor. At the same time, we were moving ahead with this schematic design with David Chipperfield. So, yes, we were balancing an ambitious agenda while at the same time we were having to think carefully about the finances.

When Dan arrived, we did a deep dive on the finances, and we realized that we were going to have to undertake a financial restructuring, reduce the headcount, and reduce the programming a certain amount. But I think we were doing it from a position of strength. We had a $3 billion endowment, we have a very generous board. But we did a soft hiring freeze, we had a salary freeze for one year, and we were aiming to reduce the headcount by about 100 people through the combination of a voluntary retirement program, attrition, and a small number of layoffs.

Of course, change like that is a difficult thing. The people who work at the Met are very invested in the museum. So in a period of change, you get quite a lot of turmoil, and I think the press picked up on that and presented it as a crisis. But I did not believe then and I do not believe now that there was ever any crisis. If anything, I think it was a manufactured crisis—a perception manufactured, in part, by the press.

Well, the press was not making this narrative up on their own—there was an enormous amount of leaks to the media, in particular the New York Times’s Robin Pogrebin, by evidently well-placed Met insiders, that made the situation look fairly dire. The frequency of the leaks was akin to those coming out of the White House, as if they were part of a campaign to destabilize the administration. In one instance, a confidential memo that was written to Met leadership from a group of veteran Met employees, the Forum of Curators, Conservators and Scientists, was made available to the Times, detailing an outcry over cuts to an employee benefits program. You also had a former Met drawings curator, George Goldner, who is also a personal art advisor to one of the Met’s trustees, express outspoken criticism of your leadership to the press. A prurient story about an affair you allegedly had with a staffer was wafted to Page Six. It all becomes very complicated, to be honest, the level of intrigue in play.

As I said, people who work at the Met are passionate about it. Our donor base is passionate about it. And everyone works under the roof of an institution that has the art of the past 5,000 years. There are many different agendas, and so in that period of restructuring, it generated a certain discussion. There were voices both inside and outside the museum who I think contributed to this growing sense of crisis.

How would you describe your relationship with the staff during this period?

You know, it’s complex, undertaking a restructuring. I felt we were all in it together, but at the same time I knew that I was, understandably, a lightning rod at that moment.

I also feel that we had thought carefully about where we needed to get to. The museum is on track to have a balanced, sustainable, fully balanced budget over the next two to three years, with a level of understanding of its finances and future projections that it has never had before.

As I step away, along with all of the programmatic elements that I’ve helped to lead, I’m very proud of having brought Dan in and having worked with him and with the board leadership to put in place that financial restructuring.

There’s something a little perplexing about all of this, because now, just a few months after your departure was announced, the narrative coming out of the Met is that the museum is in rude, robust heath—whereas if you backtrack a little more than six months ago, it seemed like the Met was on the verge of a financial collapse, with a $40 million financial shortfall looming and the front page of the Times suggesting that the museum was “a great institution in decline.” The main thing that seems to have happened between the Met being in a financial death spiral then and now suddenly being completely fine is that you stepped down. How is that possible?

The dust will have to settle a little bit. The museum was strong six months ago, it is strong today. Our scholarly and exhibition program is second to none. We’ve invested enormously in the collections and the presentation of the collections. Yes, we have expanded digital, we have expanded Modern and contemporary, and those have been expensive investments, but at the same time they’re just part of a much larger picture. I also believe that they were proportional, and that certainly I was doing the job I was asked to do.

I feel that I became director at the time of extraordinary change, and that I’ve helped the museum move with that change, take advantage of that change, and anticipate what it needs to be in the 21st century.

I think a careful analysis would have recognized that we were doing the right thing. I think that we were badly served by some of the press, which has been very sensationalist. I think it’s been led by some voices, George on the record on the front page of the New York Times making the charge that we were “a great institution in decline,” and others anonymously and behind the scenes who’ve clearly tried to steer the discussion in certain directions. I have great respect for George as a scholar, a great department head, but I flatly rejected his statement, and the fact that that statement was carried on the front page of the New York Times without any balancing narrative very much colored the tone of discussion around the museum in the last six months.

Robin Pogrebin’s report came out in the Times on February 4, and then, 24 days later, she broke the news that you were stepping down as director. What transpired in those three intervening weeks?

I don’t want to go into too much detail on this. I think what I can say is that I’ve been at the museum for 22 years. I had had eight very exciting years as director. I had turned down other offers in the past. A moment came where I felt that I had really achieved what I’ve been asked to do by the board—that we had gotten through this financial crisis, and that we got where we needed to go. The institution clearly has got to make decisions about certain priorities as it goes forward. What its commitment is going to be to Modern and contemporary is the key question. Clearly, I have worked in support of what I believe is a balanced approach to these issues, and I think that as I step away, the museum is a very strong place to think carefully about these choices.

The Met Breuer opened with a show titled “Unfinished”—a beautiful exhibition of incomplete artworks that was curated by the Sheena Wagstaff, who you hired from Tate Modern to assume the newly created position of chairman of Modern and contemporary art—and, in a way, that same title could be applied to your tenure at the museum. The planned Modern and contemporary wing has been pushed back seven years, with construction instead beginning to refurbish the European painting galleries. The scope and ambition of the digital operation is at the mercy of your successor. Do you think that it’s fair, the way that this situation has come to pass?

Look, I’m a very proud of what the museum has done under my leadership. We’ve grown our audience faster, I think, than any museum in the Western world. That’s not just numbers—each of those people is having, I think, meaningful experiences.

Unfortunately, Modern and contemporary get so much discussion, but we’ve done amazing things elsewhere, bringing in a wonderful collection of Native American art, expanding our Latin American coverage, bringing in amazing masterpieces across the collections from African to Oceanic to Arms and Armor to European paintings. Each area has grown. I’m confident that, as time passes, all of the rest will just fall away.

The Met board that you dealt with in negotiating your resignation was different from the board that you joined with, is that correct? Did this changing of the guard contribute to your departure?

There’s been quite a lot of evolution. We’ve brought in, over the last eight years, probably 25 new board members, whose interests, again, span the whole breadth of areas. But many of the old board members are also there in an emeritus capacity.

Audiences are changing, behavior is changing, scholarship is changing, and I think I’ve helped move the museum in the direction that it needs to be moved in to be successful in the future. It required making some fundamental decisions, and now I’ve played the part I can play there, and I’m looking forward to moving on and thinking about the cultural sector in a broader way.

In terms of your future plans, you recently received a prestigious Getty Rothschild Fellowship to conduct research at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and then England’s Waddesdon Manor, a period that you have said you will use to continue your exploration of the digital future of museums. I have a feeling that there’s no shortage of people at Cupertino and other tech companies on the West Coast who will be eager to speak with you, given your experience embracing digital tools at the greatest, most popular museum in the United States. I wonder—given what you’ve learned at the Met, what are some of the ways that you envision carrying this digital reformation forward?

Things are changing so fast it’s hard to kind of summarize. Thomas Friedman has just written a great book, Thank You for Being Late, in which he talks about how much has changed just since 2007 when the iPhone was introduced. We’ve been trying to respond to that at the museum by getting the collections online. We’ve made huge progress there. You know, I was in Paris at an exhibition of Bonnard at the Musée d’Orsay. Some of the pictures were labeled and some weren’t, and I saw one of the Met’s pictures was there without a label, so I put it into my iPhone and had Philippe de Montebello’s voice booming out about the painting. It was an example to me of how amazing it is to have this kind of access to information.

Now, we’re trying to refine that information and make it richer and more interconnected. One of my curators was at a conference in Lima, Peru, recently, and she said that there were professors there from schools in the Andes where the students can’t afford to buy textbooks, but who are eagerly using the authoritative information they can get from the Met website.

So, I think that’s very exciting, and at the same time I’m hesitant, because it all has to be kept in balance. Our goal is to bring people to connect with art, and we don’t want the digital to be gimmicky, to become a distraction. That’s something we have to think hard about when we’re in the galleries, and especially now that we’re on the threshold of this whole new potentiality of virtual reality, which again could have amazing educational application. The idea of taking kids into a virtual Sistine Chapel, to Angkor Wat, could be an incredible educational experience—but we don’t want it to compete with, or get in the way of, the real object.

What about virtually bringing a student from Cambodia into the museum?

Exactly. And so one of the things I’m looking forward to doing when I’m out in California is spending time with some thought leaders in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, really thinking about the benefit of these potentialities in the future.

Before you mentioned that the younger audiences that are being lured to the Met through social media outreach are paying less in admission. Are there any opportunities to use the museum’s enormous digital following to create an additional revenue stream for the Met?

I would be sad to see the museum trying to monetize our content. I think that our mission is educational, so the larger an audience we can reach online for free, the better. I feel that if we try to monetize access that people we would go elsewhere. Obviously that would be a decision for future leadership. I certainly think that if you build a large website, you can always direct people to the shop, to membership signups. There’s potential advertising and sponsorship. But no, looking to the bigger world, at what the Google Art Project is doing, what you guys are doing here, I think there’s real potential for sort of some big new projects—a big new vision to evolve and let everybody around the world have access to whatever their interests are, whatever inspires them.

How big is the Met’s digital footprint currently?

Traffic to our website is something like 30 million-plus, of which about one third comes to the Timeline of Art History, but then we’re reaching tens of millions more through social media, including Facebook, the traffic to various videos we have on YouTube, and elsewhere. That’s all grown.

So tens of millions of people engage with the museum digitally, even if they’re not able to be physically present and engage with the object in a traditional fashion. Virtual reality clearly holds out interesting possibilities for museums, to close that distance even further. Say a student in North Korea magically got access to an internet connection and was able to virtually visit the museum, even though they wouldn’t be able to physically leave their country. How would such a mediated experience rate, in your estimation, with the traditional, in-person experience?

I think it would be significant. The analogy, perhaps, is how does watching a sporting event on a high-definition TV compare to being in the stadium? I think the true sport fan would always aspire to be in the stadium. But the digital realm and virtual reality unquestionably will allow us to create better and better virtual experiences to expand our audiences. It’s an exciting moment.

I read that when you were first appointed director of the Met, there was a book that you had been excited to begin working on, but that you had to put aside. What was the book, and will you be writing it now?

The book I was writing then was about tapestry and I might well get back to that as a hobby at some point. But at this moment, after eight years of expanding my own knowledge of the art world, traveling extensively in America and Europe and Asia and elsewhere, what I’m really interested in doing is researching the changing nature of the world in which art institutions are operating—the change in audiences, digitization, funding sources. So I’m relieved that’s what I’m going to be focusing on in the next year or two. But we’ll see. I’m sure there’ll be books and articles.

As you move onto your next chapter, a new director will be appointed at the Met. Do you have any advice for them?

Spend a lot of time in the galleries. The museum is a truly unique and remarkable institution, staffed by truly unique and remarkable individuals. As director, or president and CEO, you are responsible for steering this great institution forward, and the better you know them, the better you know the collections, the better a job you’ll do.

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