From Tapestry to Twombly: Thomas Campbell on Why He Became the Met’s Surprise Champion of New Art

The former Met director spoke to artnet News's Andrew Goldstein about how a star turn as "Tapestry Tom" gave him the opportunity of a lifetime.

The former Met director Thomas Campbell. Photo by Henri Neuendorf.
The former Met director Thomas Campbell. Photo by Henri Neuendorf.

On February 28 of this year, a stunning piece of news ricocheted through New York and then resounded out across the world’s great art capitals: Thomas Campbell, the scholar known as “Tapestry Tom” who had been director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art for eight years, was suddenly out of a job. While the abruptness of his departure was head-turning, given the genteel profile of the Met and the fact that its previous director, Philippe de Montebello, had served for three decades, it did not happen in a void. The previous weeks and months had seen a torrent of negative newspaper stories, painting the Met as a mighty institution in extremis, reeling from financial ineptitude and a demoralized staff.

Now, with Met president and CEO Daniel Weiss—a medievalist with an MBA—at the helm, and with a search underway to find Campbell’s replacement, the storm seems to have passed. The museum’s finances are said to be stable, and its future secure.

But now that a new page in this institution’s history is turning, how are we to understand the record of Thomas Campbell? A gifted curator with a talent for bringing musty subject matter to life for modern-day audiences, he rose through the Met’s design and decorative arts department to become—with minimal managerial experience—the leader of America’s most important museum. In that role, he sought to use new art to lure audiences to visit the museum’s more historical treasures through the inauguration of the Met Breuer satellite and an enhanced Modern and contemporary art department. Now that he has left the museum, his legacy hinges in large part on how successful this strategy is perceived in hindsight.

In the first installment of a two-part interview about the director’s tenure, artnet News’s Andrew Goldstein sat down with Campbell to discuss how he ascended to his unlikely post at the head of the Met and why he felt compelled to become a maverick advocate for the new.

Of all the directors of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you surely have had the catchiest nickname: Tapestry Tom. To begin, I’m curious, why tapestries? How did you get drawn to such an unexpected subject?

I was at the Courtauld Institute, studying patronage in North Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. I was interested in what motivated patrons to commission art, and I was particularly keen on the Court of Charles the First and the artists who came from the continent to work for Charles. While I was studying these artists—mostly painters and sculptors—I stumbled over the fact that Charles spent as much, and maybe more, money on tapestries as he did on paintings. And yet there was almost nothing written about it.

It was this loose end of the thread that I started to pull and pull, and I quickly discovered that the patrons of the day saw tapestry as this grand art form. It was the woven version of the paintings by the great artists of the time, but it was much more expensive than the paintings themselves because of the materials. At the same time, it was portable, and it was a form of propaganda.

So, I was a young art historian looking for a subject to work on, and here was this huge subject. That, really, was the beginning.

It’s interesting that tapestry was the Veblen good, the great luxury commodity of the time. What would you say occupies the equivalent role as a luxury commodity today?

Today, the high-impact, grand-gesture purchase is very often expensive contemporary art. That’s in part because Old Master art may not be available anymore. But for me, when I was really getting into it, the analogy that struck me again and again was Hollywood. Tapestry was not a tiny artisanal production, although it can be. Really high-end tapestry production in Europe, from the Middle Ages until the Rococo, was big business.

You had teams of artists creating cartoons. You had very large workshops full of highly skilled weavers making the tapestries. You had investment by financiers, because the high-end materials were so expensive. It was the prevailing medium to demonstrate power, wealth, and aesthetic sensibility. So it invites the analogy of Hollywood, where you have so many players.

When one thinks of tapestries, one thinks of castles and battlements, heroic victories at war and also treachery and palace intrigue.

“The rat behind the arras.”

Did this world, with its different manifestations of power and politics, lend tapestry a certain romance for you?

Very much so. When I did my PhD research, I worked on Henry VIII and his contemporaries. He had two or three hundred paintings. But that collection is dwarfed by his tapestry collection.

He had about 2,500 tapestries, and they ranged from mille-fleur tapestries, which were for everyday decoration, to incredibly expensive silk-and-gold woven tapestries that cost the equivalent of a battleship. It was in these tapestries that the Tudor court had its finest art, its richest subject matter. But it was also the propaganda Henry used as he broke with Rome and presented himself as the head of the English church. He surrounded himself with tapestries of Old Testament patriarchs and the apostles, particularly the apostle St. Paul, in line with the new religion that was taking root in Britain at that time. He presented himself as the kind of the living heir to this tradition.

That, really, was my grounding, looking at Henry VIII, and looking at the way Charles V commissioned overtly propagandistic subjects—battles, victories, and so on.

It’s amazing—as museumgoers, we tend to encounter tapestries in the dimly lit corner of some museum, where they seem flat and lifeless against the wall. But viewed through this lens of history, it actually has all the grandeur, intrigue, and incredible gamesmanship attached to it that we associate with “Game of Thrones,” a show you are known to be fond of.

One of the things I was proud of, as a curator, was that when we did a big show of Renaissance tapestries back in 2002 [“Tapestry in the Renaissance: Art and Magnificence”], I tried to select pieces that were significant in terms of their artistry, but also that were in relatively good condition. When we finished hanging the show, and these tapestries were just drifting ever so slightly in the breeze of the air conditioning, with the silk, the silver and the gold thread just glistening under the spotlights, it really gave one a kind of visceral sense of how magnificent the interiors of the day must have been. You know, not faded, not dingy, not sepia colors, but bright, fresh, bold, really in-your-face dramatic figurative subject matter.

You spent a decade and a half as a tapestry specialist in the Met’s Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts before rising to the director post, having joined the museum in 1995 as a 33-year-old assistant curator. Before that, you had spent seven years working for the London-based tapestry gallery of David and Simon Franses, laboring on a comprehensive database of the European tapestry that survived in the world’s private and public collections. What was it that brought you to the Metropolitan Museum of Art?

Going to conferences in Europe, I met Edith Standen, a great curator and scholar who had retired from the Met in 1980 but continued to work there as an emeritus scholar. She invited me over to the museum and gave me access to the archives, both in 1990 and in 1992, so this really was my introduction to the museum’s wide-ranging collection and amazing faculty. You know, it was and continues to be the biggest faculty of art historians in the world.

I found it a very vibrant place to visit, and when I was invited to join as a curator, I was delighted to enter that milieu and thrilled to be coming to an institution that I felt would give me a platform to promote the subject that I loved.

This was the beginning of a stellar career in the curatorial department, which was particularly impressive in that you rose in stature at the museum not through European painting, ancient art, or one of the other popular departments, but because you managed to make an unpopular subject suddenly relevant to a broad audience. Your Renaissance tapestry show, in particular, was a massive hit. But then, a few years later, you suddenly entered the running to succeed Philippe de Montebello as director of the museum, alongside other contenders like Gary Tinterow, then the Met’s world-renowned curator of 19th-century, Modern, and contemporary art. How did that unexpected turn of events come about?

It came as a bit of a surprise to me. I had been a curator for 13 years, and obviously had got to know the institution quite well. Because my subject of textiles and tapestries ranged across a broad period of European history, and because of my work running the Antonio Ratti Textile Center [an endowed conservation center at the Met], I had engaged with many of my colleagues in other departments and become involved in a number of museum committees. But was very happy as a curator, and certainly had no thought beyond that.

However, when Philippe announced his retirement and a search was undertaken, I was one of a number of people to whom the search firm spoke as they were trying to develop a profile of what we collectively wanted in the future director. Perhaps because I felt I had no skin in the game, I was very frank about what I thought were the enormous strengths of the institution, but also some of the areas I felt needed work, where there was opportunity. And somewhat to my surprise, a few weeks later they came back and asked if I would be interested in being part of the search process myself. So I got involved, and there were several rounds of interviews, and again, somewhat to my surprise, in September 2008 my succession to Philippe was announced.

I’m curious—what were the areas of the museum that you said needed refurbishment?

I think that I am very much a product of the institution that Philippe created—an institution that places scholarship at the center of its activities and lets the program evolve in large part from the interests and the research of the curators. So I was first very respectful of that, and very much saw my primary responsibility as sustaining and growing that culture.

At the same time, I felt that the museum had a reputation for being a little austere, a little unfriendly—that it was perceived as being a bit elitist—and that we could make the museum more open and friendly. The search, of course, coincided with this moment when it was clear that something very dramatic was going on in the digital realm, and that there was the exciting possibility of taking the museum’s mission outside its walls. And there was also a clear perception on the part of the board that our audience desired for the museum to become more engaged with Modern and contemporary art, and that was something I agreed with, and continue to believe in.

Tell me about the board at this time. I believe James R. Houghton, the scion of the Corning glass dynasty, was the chairman of the board—who were the other principals?

Yes, Jamie Houghton was the board chair, and the vice-chairs were Parker Gilbert, the great financier of Morgan Stanley; Henry Schacht, a great operations guy; and Annette de la Renta, the very generous patron and collector. They were the board leadership.

What was your relationship with them like?

Very close. There was a big search committee, perhaps 16 people, so as I was anointed I had built up a relationship with that search committee. We had clear discussions about what the priorities were, and I had a clear written mandate in the job description that I was given. So it was a very good, very close relationship. It was exciting.

What was in your written mandate?

The job description specified growing and cultivating the scholarship, growing the audience, digitizing the institution, and, yes indeed, expanding the Modern and contemporary programming—not at the expense of the other areas, but in balance with the other areas.

Were there some members of the board who were more invested in the scholarship aspect, and others who were more invested in the digital, and others who were invested in contemporary art?

Yes, I think that is probably a fair assessment. The Met’s collections span 5,000 years, and the Met has always tried to build a board that supports the breadth of those different areas. Inevitably, some trustees, just like some members of staff, are more interested in one area than in another.

When it came to Modern and contemporary art, did they say, “We know we have a gap here and we want to fill that gap,” or was it more amorphous than that?

I think that there was this clear sense that we could and we should be more engaged with Modern and contemporary. Gary Tinterow, as the head of the Modern department, was already beginning to build a more robust program, with a staff that he had inherited from Bill Lieberman. So one part was continuing to develop the staff and build a more robust program.

The other part was the challenge of the physical space. The Modern collection is shown in a space that is, in comparison to some other areas in the museum, somewhat compromised—it’s hard to find, and confusing when you’re there. And roughly coinciding with my appointment, Leonard Lauder had approached the Met to see if the museum would be interested in taking over the Whitney Museum’s building when they moved downtown. That’s a conversation that started with Philippe and Gary before my appointment.

In a way, though, the whole question was put on one side at the time I became director because of the financial crisis in fall 2008. I spent the first nine months of my tenure really working in response to that financial crisis, contracting the museum by 10 percent, reducing head count, reducing program, and so on. But we resumed the conversation in fall of 2010. We set up a board committee and we looked in considerable detail at what taking over the old Whitney building would entail.

Eventually, in early 2012, there was a consensus that this was an exciting opportunity and the contract was eventually signed.

When one thinks of the Met’s engagement with contemporary art, the original-sin moment was the decision in 1929 not to accept Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s gift of her extensive contemporary collection, which, thusly spurned, went on to become the foundation of the Whitney Museum.

Yes.

Ever since then, the Whitney, MoMA, and the Guggenheim made enormous strides in building contemporary art collections, whereas the Met has done it in a much more piecemeal fashion. How did you, or how did the board, want that dynamic to change? What position did they hope the Met would gain within this landscape?

Obviously, this has been a central tension in the evolution of the Met from its founding. In the first three decades of its existence, the Met collected what was then the equivalent of Modern and contemporary, which was the Hudson River School, the American Impressionists, and so on. However, it pulled back from collecting contemporary in the 1910s, because what was coming out of Europe was just too radical for the tastes of the board and the curators at that time.

Then there was, as you say, this moment when the Whitney collection might have become part of the Met collection, and then didn’t. But, you know, there were figures like William Ivins, the head of the drawings department, who was actively pushing to collect contemporary in the 1940s. That all culminated with a moment of great re-engagement with Henry Geldzahler running the department when Tom Hoving was the director in the 1960s.

Which was very controversial, but very popular.

Very popular.

So, if I understand correctly, the Met did not intend to compete with these other museums, but rather simply try to fill this gap in its holdings.

Exactly. I think that some misperceptions have been pushed hard by, perhaps, some of the voices who feel strongly against the Met’s engagement with Modern and contemporary, and it’s been suggested that I was just trying to reproduce MoMA or the Guggenheim or the Whitney. And that is absolutely not the case. The Met was created as an encyclopedic museum. Everything we own was once contemporary.

I think that for the museum to continue to evolve and remain relevant, there is a place for Modern and contemporary art in this broader continuum. What we’re trying to do is create meaningful narratives about the development of art around the world in the 20th century.

When you think of the person who comes to the Met, what do you think they are hoping to find there? I know this is very particularized in reality, but what would you say is the expectation of most people who come?

That’s a hard question to answer, because there are as many different expectations as visitors. We’ve just broken our own attendance record with seven million visitors last year, and that’s a huge spectrum of different kinds of people, from the scholars who want a deep dive—and to whom we’re catering with shows like Vigée Le Brun or Valentin de Boulogne or Hercules Segers—to the fashion students who come for the Costume Institute shows. Then, there’s the broad local, national, and international audience. Forty percent of our visitation is local, and they tend to come for the exhibitions. But the 60 percent, national or international, are coming for the collections.

There is a constituency that argues that contemporary art is driven by the realities of the art market and the laws of supply and demand, and that while the market can make your average newspaper-readers drop their jaw over astronomical prices, the actual art itself leaves this general audience nonplussed. That it’s a bit of a freak show, a jarring mix that alternates between provocation and abstruseness. How do you respond to that?

I think that, yes, it’s absolutely true that many visitors are confused by contemporary art. At the same time, they’re fascinated by it. Even if people don’t understand it, they gravitate towards it, because it’s the art of our time. The role the Met plays is to help cut through some of the hype. So much Modern and contemporary art is referencing either earlier periods or other Modern and contemporary artists, but that’s perhaps taken for granted by the artists and the dealers and the specialists.

I mentioned the critics of contemporary art, but there’s another argument to be made as well, which is that contemporary art has become prominently woven into the culture at large today, from the Instagram trophies of celebrity art collectors to the collaborations between rappers and artists to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s VR project “Carne Y Arena” at Cannes, and the international renown of artists like Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst. It seems relevant to a huge amount of people, not just in the US but worldwide.

We live in a very rapidly changing world, in part because of digitization, and a lot of the old silos are breaking down. Artists are experimenting with different media, musicians are experimenting with art, and so on. It can be quite confusing. I think it’s exciting. Also, the capitalization of the contemporary art market is allowing some great artists to do some very ambitious projects. At the same time, it’s allowing some overhyped artists to do some terrible things, and time will tell.

I think that’s an area of activity for the museums that really specialize in that—the Whitney, MoMA, Tate, and others like them. While it’s fun to have a certain amount of contemporary, I think that the Met’s focus is more logically weighted more on Modern art as the canon is evolving. One of the issues that had been most in my mind, in nurturing our Modern activities, is the fact that there is a lot of very significant Modern art in private hands, but, because of the huge values attached to it, quite a lot of that art is going to be donated to institutions to offset taxes.

MoMA already has an incomparable collection; the Whitney’s is significant, too, so it’s not going to be chasing much of this art. One of my goals was to make the Met an attractive venue that some of these collectors would consider for their collections, or even individual works, during the coming 20, 30 years of this transition from one generation to another.

One of the Met’s landmark achievements in this field was bringing in the Lauder collection.

That’s a fascinating example, because Leonard focused with laser-like precision on a period of early Modern art that was exactly the period that the Met had turned its back on a century ago. Many institutions would have just been thrilled to receive that promised gift, but ultimately Leonard decided on the Met, because the Met has this broader context, from the 19th-century painting that preceded Cubism to the 20th-century painting that was impacted by it. It has the African art. It has the classical art that inspired certain elements. So it was the rich context the Met provided, and in a world where Modern art is so expensive, that context is always the Met’s ace up its sleeve.

Was there any particular element that finally sold him on the donation? I know it had been in the works for years and years.

I think ultimately it was the context and the dedicated galleries that the Met will build eventually for his collection. We also created a center for the study of early Modernism. It was a combination of all these factors.

You mentioned the dedicated Cubism galleries, which brings us to the topic of the new wing that you had planned to construct to house the Modern and contemporary collections. You came into the directorship in 2008, right as the financial markets are collapsing. Over the course of the economic crisis, the Met lost 22 percent of its endowment. As you mentioned, staff positions were eliminated to cut costs. Yet still the board signed on to construct a $600 million wing designed by David Chipperfield and to also take on the fiscal responsibilities of operating the Whitney’s Breuer building. How did that happen?

Let’s spread that out a little bit. In 2008 through early 2009, the museum lost 22 percent of its endowment, and we contracted our operating costs by about 10 percent in the first six months of my tenure. We reduced head count and programming to bring ourselves back into line with what we believed was appropriate given our expenditures and our income.

Between 2009 and 2012, we managed to grow our audience by about 30 percent, so there was a strong sense of things turning around—that with this growing audience we’d get growing admissions revenue and other revenues. The stock market had a couple of good years, and our endowment began to recover, so there was this real sense that we were moving forward. We didn’t rush into anything. The decision to take over the Whitney building was overseen by a board committee that thought long and hard about the pros and the cons.

Then in tandem with that, we had finished a number of significant infrastructure projects that were the sort of tail-end of a master plan that had been started under Tom Hoving and which evolved under Philippe. So, in 2012, I commissioned a feasibility study that looked at all of the infrastructure needs of the building and the elective projects that we might undertake to transform the museum in the coming years.

When we finished that feasibility study, the board decided that the southwest wing, where the Modern collection is presented, was the top priority—that it would be the transformative project.

And you agreed?

Absolutely. I fully believe that in due course this will be a transformative project for the museum. It resulted in an architecture competition, overseen by a board committee. We selected David Chipperfield, who undertook first a preliminary analysis, and then developed a schematic design—again, all under oversight of a board committee. If the question is, “How could you commit yourselves to this big, expensive project when finances were tight?” it’s a kind of chicken-and-egg, because you have to develop a design that is compelling and really understand what the potentiality is before you fundraise.

So as we developed that plan, we always knew that there would be a point where we would have to pause while we thought about that project in the context of other projects. At the same time, you know, we had an evolving financial picture. And I’d say that between 2012 and 2014, it became clear that our finances were under pressure because of a variety of factors.

One of these factors was internal inflation, or annually growing staff costs, if I’m not mistaken.

Yes, perhaps the biggest component was internal inflation. About 68 percent of our budget goes to salaries and benefits, and that compounds at a rate of three, four percent a year. So that’s quite a big internal factor. And then there were external factors such as the fact that, for various reasons, our income from admissions flattened out in 2012, even though our audience continued to grow. And of course, our expenses continued to grow.

It’s been reported that part of the reason for the revenues failing to rise in step with the attendance is that many of the new visitors were young people, and they were choosing to pay less than the suggested admission fee.

We were successful in attracting a younger audience, who, yes, were likely paying less. There also was a court case about the nature of our admission policy [that alleged the museum did not adequately alert visitors the fee was pay-what-you-wish; the case was settled, with the Met signage becoming more overt], so that, of course, contributed to the discussion.

Click here to read part two of this interview, about Campbell’s departure and what comes next.


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