Thomas Campbell on How He Got His New San Francisco Museum Job, and What He Plans to Do There

artnet News's Andrew Goldstein spoke to the former Met director about his surprising new appointment.

Thomas Campbell, the new director of the Fine Art Museums of San Francisco. Photo by Scott Rudd, courtesy of FAMSF. © 2018 Scott Rudd [email protected] @scottruddevents

When the news broke last week that Thomas Campbell, the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was going to take over the Fine Art Museums of San Francisco—the very museum that the new director of the Met, Max Hollein, left to replace him—there was an immediate reaction in the art world akin to the witnessing of a marvelously witty occurrence, like non-tragic version of an O. Henry story. As time wore on, however, some people began to question the feat of museological chiasmus as something less savory. Isn’t that rather convenient—two white men at the apex of power, casually exchanging roles like two gentlemen swapping horses over a game of whist at the club?

Then again, you can’t fault a hiree for being hired, and it’s easy to see why the Fine Art Museums of San Francisco would jump at the chance to bring Campbell on board. A gifted curator who rose from organizing tapestry exhibitions—his specialty—to overseeing the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Antonio Ratti Textile Center to ultimately running the Met itself, America’s finest universal museum, for eight years, Campbell brings with him a range of experience, connections, and earned expertise that a much smaller institution like the FAMSF could usually only dream of acquiring. At the same time, for the 56-year-old English museum veteran, the San Francisco post offers the possibility of a fresh start, since his rather abrupt departure from the Met in 2017 was marked by allegations of financial overreach, reports of staff mutiny under his watch, and other bitter public airings of laundry rare to the august New York institution.

Comprised of two distinct museums, the de Young and the Legion of Honor, the Fine Art Museums is a much smaller institution than the Met—with 500 employees, compared to 2,000 at the New York landmark—and also relies less on its comparatively modest endowment and more on ticket sales, membership dues, and donor support. After Max Hollein joined the museum in 2016 as its director and CEO, he was able to right its listing finances, winning the acclaim of the staff and the community and making his mark on the institution. (The Wikipedia pages for both the de Young and the Fine Art Museums of San Francisco still list Hollein as the director, despite his departure this summer.) A big part of Campbell’s new job as the institution’s director and CEO will be to maintain and build upon that financial trajectory.

The day after the news of Campbell’s appointment broke, artnet News’s Andrew Goldstein spoke to the museum director—who recently spent the year pursuing a Getty/Rothschild Fellowship (in Los Angeles and at a castle in England) to ruminate on the major challenges facing art institutions—about his dramatic move to San Francisco, and his plans to ease into the role.


Just to start in with a little tick-tock about how it came to pass that you and Max Hollein have effectively swapped jobs—it seems from the outside to be quite an incredible situation, like something out a French novel….

Or Trading Places!

How did this turn of events happen? Did the Fine Art Museums of San Francisco reach out to you soon after Hollein went to the Met, or did you reach out to them while you were in San Francisco talking to people in the tech industry?

Back when Max was being recruited [at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco], I had suggested him for the role, and I was one of the people who encouraged him to take it, because I felt it was such an interesting museum in such an interesting location, with such potential. And then, when, over the course of time, I left the Met, Max was one of the people that I suggested to the Met as my successor—and I believe that when Max made that decision to move to the Met, he may have been among those who suggested that the Fine Arts Museums should look at me as a potential successor. I suppose it all sounds a little bit incestuous, but it all comes from our professional friendship, and that relationship perhaps played a key part in some of this.

It is a rare aerie of museum directors that you two occupy, where you both have amassed a certain amount of experience that very few people have. At the same time, I imagine there will be some people who will say this raises a diversity issue, because it speaks to such a cozy kind of relationship in the hiring process—this is something that I have already read voiced in the coverage of your move. What would you say to the community in San Francisco in response to that issue?

Whatever role our professional friendship and respect may have played in simply drawing one another to the attention of the search committees, in both cases the searches were undertaken by leading search firms—the Metropolitan was overseen by Phillips Oppenheim, and at the Fine Arts Museums it was Russell Reynolds. In both cases, there were full searches undertaken, looking at wide array of candidates. Honestly, I can’t speak to the ins and outs of either search, but clearly that’s the process that led to our individual and separate appointments. To the question of diversity—look, this is one of the most significant issues that is facing not just cultural institutions but society as a whole in the US.

I think it’s a work in progress. I was certainly involved in efforts to diversify the board, staff, collections, and program at the Met, and I think we made some significant progress. I’m also very aware that, in coming to San Francisco, I’m coming to a city where diversity and inclusion are core civic values, and that this a very important topic here, and the Fine Arts Museums have some initiatives in place in this area. In fact, I’m meeting with a diversity task force as early as this Thursday, so this will be a significant priority for me as I take up this new role.

The Fine Art Museums of San Francisco is clearly a very different place from the Met. How would you describe the differences? What opportunities does this new role present that are different from what the Met offers, and what are the different challenges that it presents to a director?

There are several large questions there. The Met is obviously an enormous institution—it’s the supertanker of the museum world—and change is complex there, since it’s an administration-heavy institution. I’m looking forward to working in an institution where I can have more direct contact with many of the key players and the program, where the touch on the tiller is faster and more responsive than it is in a big, bureaucratic institution like the Met.

At the same time, there are many museums facing common challenges. One of the things I’ve been looking at during the Getty Rothschild Fellowship is how museums have been very successful over the last 20 years in reaching out to new audiences, but how with those new audiences come new challenges. How do you find the balance between traditional activities—and the longstanding audiences that are interested in them—and new programs that are going to be engaging and interesting to younger and more diverse audiences? I think that challenge—and opportunity, really—puts museums right at the center of a wider cultural, sociopolitical dialogue in this country. And it’s very exciting to be a part of that, but it’s also a responsibility.

Your move to San Francisco also puts you in the breadbasket of American technological innovation. You partnered with Google Arts & Culture at the Met and during your Getty fellowship I know you took advantage of your perch on the West Coast to meet with several tech companies. Now that you are squarely in Silicon Valley’s living room, do you hope to further incorporate your new museums and the tech community, or do you see the potential for greater integration of the art sphere and the technological sphere as a very slow work in progress?

With San Francisco being at ground zero of the digital revolution, I’m certainly personally excited by the prospect of looking for ways to collaborate between the Fine Arts Museums and technology leaders in the Bay Area. On the one hand, the digital realm is providing museums with a way to reach audiences beyond their physical walls; at the same time, the downside is that we’re living in a world where we’re all snacking continuously on more and more information. But snacking doesn’t always feel very nourishing. We’ve got to find the right way of balancing between the analogue—the real object—and the digital enhancement. There was a moment when we were all quite quickly introducing digital into galleries, thinking that would be helpful. I’m almost pulling away from that myself now. It’s going to be an interesting dialogue here in San Francisco, trying to find the right balance.

There was a recently a fascinating article in the New York Times about how many members of the tech community are actually the most skeptical of the value that screens present for their children—that they are placing a premium instead on real-world activities, with the belief that the “last child in the class to get a phone wins.” You might find that drilling down on the aspects that are oppositional to the digital might resonate with the tech community—which also includes key potential donors.

I think it’s not one or the other, but a question of figuring out the right relationship between the analogue and the digital. Museums are fundamentally about the preservation and understanding of physical objects, and we mustn’t lose sight of that. For many people, there’s nothing more exciting than looking at and understanding a work of art from the past. That takes work and concentration, and sometimes the danger of the digital is that it makes everything seem so easy and predigested. We have to create an environment that keeps curiosity alive.

There’s talk these days of a slow art movement.

Exactly. I think we’re all going to be looking for the right balance between slow art and digital.

Going back to your arrival at the Fine Art Museums of San Francisco, the institution has been whipsawed over the past decade by two much-heralded directors who came, got everyone excited, and then left after tiny, two-year tenures. What is the climate like currently at the museum, and how do you plan to provide assurances of stability?

There’s good reason actually for the climate to be positive. Max Hollein and the board stabilized finances and established a strong set of strategic goals, and the management team did a very good job of running things between directors. I’m looking forward to an onboarding that’s as seamless as possible. And I’m sure the staff understands that I’ve had only two jobs in my life, one where I stayed for seven years and the other where I stayed for 23. People will realize it’s not in my nature to hop around.

Fairly or not, your departure from the Met occurred under a cloud of allegations of financial overreach and staff disgruntlement, after the New York Times asked “Is the Met Museum ‘a Great Institution in Decline’?” How has that shaped your reception in San Francisco? Is there anything you plan to do to put that firmly in the past?

I had good and wide-ranging discussions with the search committee about my experience running the Met. We were open about everything, including the many achievements of the Met’s team during my tenure. Now that I’m here in San Francisco, my immediate goal is to get to know everyone well, to listen carefully, and to understand people’s hopes and concerns. Everything else will flow from there.

What role will contemporary art play across the two institutions? The museums have only been collecting it since 1988, but under Max Hollein contemporary art gained a bit more of the spotlight, which audiences seemed to respond to positively. 

Audiences want to see museums thoughtfully engaging with Modern and contemporary, but it mustn’t be at the expense of attention for our historical collections. We need to find the right balance. Fortunately, Max laid the groundwork here, establishing a new department of Modern and contemporary art that has programs in both the museums. I look forward to continuing that program.

Will there be an expansion of the museum as well? Dede Wilsey, the president of the Fine Art Museums’ board, has been said to want to expand into the 66,000-square-foot lot next to the de Young. Is that on the table?

I think it’s much too early to begin speculating about expansion. I am interested in learning more about the possibilities.

What is your relationship with Dede Wilsey like? Did you know each other from before your appointment?

We were acquainted before the search began. I feel we’ve already forged a good partnership, and look forward to the many successes it is sure to deliver.   

What did you learn at the Met that you plan to apply in San Francisco? 

I’m proud of what we achieved at the Met in terms of program, audiences, collections, digitization, and modernization in general. If I had to sum up the lessons from 30,000 feet, I’d say that many large museums are trying to find the right balance between traditional programming and programming that is relevant and appealing to new audiences. Inevitably, tensions arise. I look forward in San Francisco to addressing these issues in a way that’s specific to these museums and this community. And I strongly believe that communication is key. It’s why my highest priority now is to listen to our staff, our board, our donors, and our community.

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