The Wing Can Wait: Takeaways From the Met's Decision to Delay a $600 Million Project

The logic behind expensive capital projects stipulates that while donors may fork over millions for a glamorous new wing, they'll be less jazzed about funding more mundane expenses like, say, skylights and a roofing system.

In related news, the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced it will delay plans for a $600 million southwest wing dedicated to modern and contemporary art and instead focus on replacing the skylights and roofing system above its European paintings galleries. 

What can we make of the Met's change of plans?

First off, and as previously noted the museum is facing some significant challenges, not the least of which is a $10 million deficit as of late April. In fact, officials said the Met's deficit could balloon to $40 million if it didn't take action. And so pushing back a $600 million project can rightly be seen as a prudent financial decision. (Thomas P. Campbell, the director of the Met, said the museum is “on track” to balance the budget by 2020.)

Compounding these challenges is the fact that seemingly mundane maintenance projects aren't a drop in the bucket. Work on the Met's skylights and roofing system won’t start until 2018 and is expected to last about four years. Imagine the downstream costs for a $600 million new wing?

“It’s logical that that’s the urgent project we pursue first," said Campbell, noting that the museum was “baking these long-term projects into a responsible master plan that matches our capacity with our ambition.”

What's more, I'm wondering if the earlier hypothesis—the idea that donors love cutting mega-checks—is becoming outdated.

The fact that not all donors are keen on expensive capital projects isn't news. Nor is the fact that effective altruists have been railing against such projects for years. (As its unofficial spokesman Peter Singer once said: "Giving tens of millions of dollars to established institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art? I think there are better things you can do with that money.")

What is intriguing, however, is the fact that we've seen recent examples of museums and donors subtly and not so subtly deriding such projects in the press. In announcing the receipt of a $5 million donation back in December, Maine's Portland Museum of Art's press release read, "While we recognize the importance of buildings, we also recognize the tremendous importance of economic stability for cultural institutions."

Then there's the well-heeled Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago's proposed $16 million renovation, which it announced in mid-November. Commenting on the relatively modest project, Madeleine Grynsztejn, the museum's director, said: "Bigger isn't always better." And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention this zinger from billionaire art collector J. Tomilson Hill: "I'm not into wings, I'm into art." (Which is a shame, because Hill sits on the Met's board.)

It would be foolish to look at the Met's decision and conclude that donors are wising up to risky capital projects, especially since there have been plenty of examples to the contrary. And yet the idea that such projects may not be in the best interests of museums continues to gain currency across the art philanthropy world and national outlets.

To that end, when asked whether the wing’s delay was the result of an inability to come up with a major lead gift, Thomas P. Campbell, the director of the Met, said: "We’re very confident about raising funds for this project when the time comes."