At the Metropolitan Museum, Past is Prologue

by Michael Gross Photographed by BFA
Friday, June 16, 2017

Wednesday’s report that the top tier of leadership at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is being re-organized, with museum president and COO Daniel H. Weiss taking on the new role of CEO, was the fourth in an epochal series of cultural shoe-drops.

The series of (until now) unfortunate events began on February 4, when the New York Times published an article by Robin Pogrebin—one of the first it has run since the 1970s that was openly and harshly critical of the great cultural institution—asking if the museum was in decline, citing deficits of funds and declining morale among its staff. A few weeks later, when museum director Thomas Campbell resigned, it appeared that Pogrebin’s piece reflected the thinking of at least some of the eleven members of the all-powerful executive committee of the museum’s much larger, 47-member board of trustees. Might the tale of decline have been planted to nudge Campbell from his post? On April 2, another story delivered the coup-de-grace news that Campbell had also had an affair with underling; that piece had closed, appropriately, on April Fool’s Day.

While the Times‘s Pogrebin noted yesterday that the museum “has long grappled with its leadership structure,” the evidence presented in support of that notion only went back as far as Campbell’s predecessor. Philippe de Montebello, who was asked to report to the Met’s then-president, a former IBM executive, William Macomber, when Montebello assumed his post in 1977. But he slowly accrued more power during his long tenure, which ended with two presidents reporting to him.

In fact, the ebb and flow of directorial power at the Metropolitan is a defining characteristic of its history, going all the way back to the hiring of its first director in 1879. Luigi Palma di Cesnola rode roughshod over the wealthy benefactors and officers of the museum who hired him and the three presidents who ostensibly ran the museum during his years there. But fortunately, Cesnola died the night before J.P. Morgan was unanimously elected the museum’s president in November, 1904. The next director, Sir Caspar Purdon Clarke, and his successor, Edward Robinson, were both overshadowed by the larger-than life Morgan, and by his successor, Robert de Forest, the progenitor of the museum’s American wing.

Another powerful business figure and collector, George Blumenthal, became the Met’s dictatorial president in 1934, and the next two directors, Herbert Winlock and Francis Henry Taylor, operated in Blumenthal’s shadow. Winlock left the job after a stroke in 1938. Taylor, an erudite wit with a tempestuous personality, took over in 1940. He tried to revolutionize the museum, but was exhausted by constant fights with the board and the museum’s latest president Roland Redmond. In ill health, he quit while he still could–and died less than three years later at age 54.

James Rorimer, Taylor’s replacement, had the good fortune to be on excellent terms with the museum’s most powerful patron in the mid-20th Century, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and long experience dealing with trustees and donors, so during his tenure, the power of the director increased geometrically. That trend continued under his successor, Thomas P.F. Hoving, the first truly imperial director since Cesnola. Hoving got along well with both his presidents, Arthur Houghton and C. Douglas Dillon, and cemented his position when Houghton was named the museum’s second chairman in 1969 (Dillon followed him in that job in 1972). That is, until a series of missteps and scandals brought Hoving’s exciting if tempestuous reign to an ignominious end in 1977.

The board then again severely curtailed the director’s power, only to see it rise to imperial levels under Montebello, whose arrogance and self-regard were balanced by skill and patience. As a museum staffer told me in an interview for my history of the museum, Rogues’ Gallery, Montebello was a calm and canny “corporate emperor,” a man who consolidated his own power by adopting the best of Hoving’s innovations while calming the troubled waters he’d stirred.

If recent reporting is any indication, Thomas Campbell’s sudden downfall marked the latest example of the museum’s board and executives reasserting their authority. Daniel Weiss’ ascension this week seems further proof of that theory. Candidates for the directorship will no doubt be attracted by what Robin Pogrebin called the Met’s “size and prestige,” but will also need cunning and stamina to survive, prosper and, perhaps, in time, gain the power that Campbell let slip through his hands.


A December to Remember with the Madison Avenue BID

Madison Avenue BID hosts 32nd annual Miracle on Madison

On The Avenue

Modern Manners: Accidents Will Happen

An unintentional cartoon from Anthony Haden-Guest


Rules Don’t Rule

Our columnist rues a world with too many rules