A Nimble Museum Veteran, Max Hollein Vows to Bring New ‘Energy’ as the Met’s Next Director

After a yearlong search, the Met has chosen the Vienna-born leader of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco for the job.

Max Hollein. Courtesy of the Staedel Museum.

After months of speculation, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art has chosen a seasoned museum leader to take the helm as its next director. Max Hollein, the director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF), has been chosen after a yearlong search. The Vienna-born museum leader marks a new course for the Met, which for the past 60 years has chosen its directors from among its own ranks. He will begin the new role in August, according to the museum.

Hollein has been a museum director since he was 31 years old. He is a well-liked administrator known for his digital savvy, his diplomacy, and his rare ability to speak fluently about Old Masters and contemporary art alike.

Before he moved to San Francisco in 2016, Hollein spent 15 years leading major museums in Frankfurt, including the Städel Museum, which is known for its collection of Northern and Italian Renaissance masterworks, and the Schirn Kunsthalle, which specializes in Modern and contemporary art. He is also the former chair of the Bizot Group of leading museum directors.

Unlike his predecessor Tom Campbell, who occupied the roles of both director and CEO, Hollein will report to the Met’s president and CEO Daniel Weiss. While both men will be responsible for fundraising, the lion’s share of the financial management will fall under Weiss’s purview. Hollein will focus his attention on the artistic direction of the museum and the management of its curatorial team, conservation work, and collection.

The Met tweaked the director’s job description after it found itself in challenging financial straits, a factor that led to Campbell’s departure under pressure early last year.

Some wondered whether the Met would be able to attract top candidates for the role in light of the new management structure. But many of the sector’s top talents were reportedly in negotiations for the job. Taco Dibbits, the director of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam; Adam Weinberg, the director of the Whitney Museum of American Art; and Emilie Gordenker, the director of the Mauritshuis in the Hague, were among the finalists, according to the New York Times. (Sources familiar with the selection process also confirmed these names to artnet News.)

The search committee received around 100 nominations for the job and met more than 25 times before deciding on the final candidate, according to the museum. In a statement, the Met’s board chairman, Daniel Brodsky, described Hollein as “an innovative and inspiring museum leader” with a “proven record of building collections and organizing outstanding exhibitions.”

In his relatively brief stint in San Francisco, Hollein prioritized original exhibitions at the de Young, a museum that had been famous for importing expensive blockbuster shows, and developed a reputation for programming that was crowd-pleasing but still had scholarly value.

He also worked to bridge the gap between Old Masters and contemporary art, a vision shared by the Met Breuer. During his tenure, the Legion of Honor organized a Rodin exhibition drawn from its collection and invited contemporary artists Urs Fischer and Sarah Lucas to respond to the artist’s work through new installations.

He did not avoid politics, either. Soon after his arrival, he announced plans for the exhibition “Contemporary Muslim Fashion,” which examines the global influence of Muslim style. Although many museums swiftly sought to borrow the show, some individuals said “a museum should not deal with Islam,” Hollein recounted to the Art Newspaper last year. But, he added, “a museum about the culture of the world and for the world, being asked not to cover the Muslim world—nearly 25 percent of the population—because we should stick with our Western values, that seems like a strange view of what a museum can do.” The show opens in September.

Hollein has also worked to diversify the museums’ collections. Six months into his tenure in San Francisco, he announced that FAMSF had acquired 62 works by contemporary African American artists from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation in Atlanta. (The Met acquired a number of works from the same foundation in 2014.)

Nevertheless, the Met represents a formidable increase in scale for Hollein. At 2,000 people, the New York institution has one of the largest staffs of any museum in the world, and Hollein’s success will depend in some measure on his ability to get top curators on board with his agenda—an element of the job that reportedly challenged his predecessor.

The Met also has a $305 million annual budget—a far cry from the Fine Art Museums of San Francisco’s operating budget of around $60 million, according to its 2016 annual report. And the Met serves around seven million visitors a year, five times FAMSF’s attendance of 1.6 million.

Hollein, who began his career working for former Guggenheim director Thomas Krens, will also have to put his diplomacy skills to the test to jump-start the museum’s fundraising. The museum’s deficit has shrunk over the past year, but currently stands at $10.1 million, according to its most recent annual report. Last year, the Met put its planned $600 million David Chipperfield-designed overhaul of its Modern and contemporary wing on hold. Hollein oversaw a smaller $69 million expansion during his tenure at the Städel that doubled its gallery space.

“I am deeply honored to work for this great institution and very much look forward to collaborating with its esteemed staff, the board of trustees, and Dan Weiss,” Hollein said in a statement. “Together with Dan, I hope to provide the guidance, energy, and support needed to lead this beloved institution into the future and inspire its audiences in New York and around the world.”

Dede Wilsey, the chairman of the board at the Fine Arts Museums in San Francisco, said she was “sad to see Max leave,” and that while “we wished to be able to benefit much longer from his strong and visionary leadership, we are impressed and energized by all the achievements, development, and momentum that be brought to our museum.”

Follow Artnet News on Facebook:

Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.