Art

Metropolitan Museum Galleries Closing: Cure or Symptom?

by Michael Gross Photographed by Michael Gross
Wednesday, March 28, 2018
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If you love the European Painting galleries at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, get there soon.  They’ll be closing (in two stages) beginning next month. Highlights of the collection will be shown in the Robert Lehman wing on the west side of the museum while the bulk of it goes into storage for years.


The Met “is embarking on a four-year-long project to replace the skylights in the European Paintings galleries—originally constructed in 1939—and replace them with an up-to-date system,” Keith Christiansen, John Pope-Hennessy Chairman of the museum’s Department of European Paintings, announced in a mostly unnoticed blog post in December. 


Christensen’s words left the impression that the move is being made primarily to improve the experience of viewing the world-renowned collection. But another page on the museum’s web site hints at what’s really going on, even if, to use a journalism term, it buries the lede.  “The skylights that admit natural overhead light into the galleries for optimal viewing of the collection will be replaced, in order to update and improve the quality of light in the galleries and resolve basic maintenance issues [emphasis added],” that page says. 


AVENUE has heard that those “basic maintenance issues” are just the tip of a dangerous iceberg.


In recent months, the museum has weathered many storms, from the postponement of a $600 million project to tear down the Lila Acheson Wallace Wing, and build a new home for its modern and contemporary art, to the abrupt departure of director Thomas Campbell; subsequent revelations of staff unrest (including an “inappropriate relationship” between Campbell and a female staff member), and fiscal troubles that most recently led to the partial abandonment of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s forty-year-old pay-what-you-wish-but-you-must-pay-something admission policy (created to circumvent provisions in its lease of its building from New York that require the museum to offer free admission).


But it appears those weren’t the only clouds darkening the museum’s skies; those “basic maintenance issues” are threatening its priceless holdings.


A source close to the museum, which has a long history of opacity in its dealings with the public, says the problem is that the skylights above the soon-to-close galleries, housed in the oldest part of the Metropolitan Museum’s sprawling complex, are leaking so badly, buckets are sometimes placed below them to catch the rain.  Photos taken on a visit to the galleries today (see the gallery, above), as well as a conversation with one of the guards on duty there, confirmed the delicate condition of those skylights.


More troublesome still, the source says, the Metropolitan has a “deferred maintenance” backlog–a punchlist of unaddressed repairs–that will cost about $1 billion to clear.  Wikipedia defines deferred maintenance as “the practice of postponing maintenance activities …in order to save costs, meet budget funding levels, or realign available budget monies.”


No wonder the museum’s Board of Trustees is now asking out-of-state visitors to cough up mandatory admission fees of $25 for adults; $17 for seniors; and $12 for students.  (Students from New Jersey and Connecticut can still pay what they wish). 


Ken Weine, the museum’s Chief Communications Officer, said by e-mail that “some of” the source’s claims are “not accurate,” declined comment on the question of the $1 billion deferred maintenance bill, and added, “As for finances, we are well on the path toward a balanced budget in 2020, as has been reported.”  




n.b.  This post is by the author of Rogues’ Gallery: The Secret History of the Moguls and the Money That Made the Metropolitan Museum.  Though banned from the museum’s retail stores since its 2009 publication, it remains on sale at other bookstores and online.  


 


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