Perfect Storm: Why Smaller Institutions Should Pay Attention to Turmoil at Met

The art world is still buzzing over the resignation last month of Thomas P. Campbell, Director and Chief Executive Officer of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

On the surface, other museum directors—particularly those located in cities not named New York or Los Angeles—probably view the development as an intriguing case study involving the complex machinations of the largest art museum in the United States, far removed from their own experience.

I'd argue that this would be a grave misreading of the news.

Indeed, the perfect storm that contributed to Campell's resignation, eloquently articulated in this New York Times piece, consists of challenges affecting museums regardless of size or location. Directors and their fundraising teams ignore them at their peril. The good news is that foundations, as we'll soon see, are on the same page.

So where to begin?

First off, the Met's primary challenge is, admittedly, unique to their abnormally outsized role on the international art stage: How can an institution transition from a "19th-century analog museum to a 21st-century semi-digital institution?" There wasn't much consensus around the best way forward. But before we look at what Campbell actually did, let's look at the market dynamics that forced his hand.

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the Met was the fact that it was late to the contemporary art gold rush. Campbell’s predecessor as director, Philippe de Montebello, wasn't keen on the stuff. In fact, the Met's board made Mr. Campbell’s pursuit of contemporary art a condition of hiring. But by the time Campbell took over and attempted to make up for lost time, the market was overpriced.

I imagine many other acquisition directors can empathize with Campbell's plight. Unfortunately for him, he was unable to turn the corner; fortunately for other art directors, the market, while still overpriced, contains untapped pools of contemporary art for the taking

Audiences also changed. As the Times piece notes: "Armies of selfie-takers-and-sharers were arriving, more interested in photogenic events...than in archival objects." But the Met was aware it had to become more tech-savvy. All the way back in 2013, it received a Bloomberg Arts Engagement Initiative grant "to bring people into contact with the arts through mobile technology and uses technology to help improve visitor experience."

But it seemed as if Campbell was still playing catch-up—and it didn't come cheap. Campbell's push to give the Met an expanded digital presence entailed the hiring of a whole new staff. And the costs continued to mount, an alarming development further exacerbated by the Met's host of expensive capital projects, including the recently delayed plans for a $600 million southwest wing dedicated to modern and contemporary art.

Finances aside, each of these challenges would be difficult to pull off for a museum in say, Columbus, Ohio. Just imagine trying to effectively right the ship at an institution as large as the Met with its layers of bureaucracy and decades-old structural calcification.

But before you, dear reader (who may very well be a museum director in Columbus, Ohio) sit back and thank your lucky stars for not facing these kinds of Herculean institutional obstacles, remember this: The Met's problems are merely magnified by scale. The root-cause challenges apply across the board, as confirmed by recent gives from both individual and institutional art philanthropists. Small-town museums are scrambling for contemporary art, experimenting with digital technology to boost engagement, and struggling very hard to resist the capital project siren song

What's more, the Times' recommendations for the Met moving forward not only apply to smaller museums but map rather elegantly to foundation priorities as well. These recommendations include conjuring up innovative ways to present traditional art, a concept integral to the Henry Luce Foundation's American Art program, and diversifying the museum's staff, a huge issue for the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

As for what's next for the Met?

"We are not looking to appoint a new director immediately," said Daniel Brodsky, the museum’s chairman, in a letter to board and staff members, "but instead will take some time to consider the leadership needs of the museum in a thoughtful and deliberative way."