At the Museum yesterday, Fossil Darling and Ray Soleil and I passed a gallery that has been there for decades but that is now marked with the name of Leonard Lauder, not, as it was for decades, that of Lila Acheson Wallace. Quite aside from the faithlessness with which the Museum, as well as other cultural institutions, treats the names of former benefactors, there is the gossipy question, raised in a recent Vanity Fair article, of the extent to which Lauder’s promise of important Cubist paintings led the Museum’s leaders astray, namely in the acquisition of a long-term lease on the old Whitney Museum, now known as the Breuer Building (after its architect — a far better criterion for naming than moneybags). Another dubious project, the demolition and replacement of the old Wallace galleries, was halted before it began. These contretemps invite fair questions about the role of curating recent art that the Metropolitan ought to play. But they also spark tittle-tattle about the outgoing Director, Thomas Campbell.
The Times appears to be following this story with a view not to heaping disgrace on Campbell but to inspiring a reform of the Museum’s board of directors, which currently consists of a small band of executive overseers floating in a puddle of ill-informed socialites. This morning, the paper reported an amorous imbroglio involving Campbell and an employee, her name withheld to protect her (quoth the Times). It reported that the precise nature of the amour was unknown — perhaps Campbell and the lady, who have been friends since before his great elevation from the ranks of assistant curators, are just friends. But that was neither here nor there, because the problem was that, with her pal as Director, the lady, working in the digital media department, was exercising power far beyond her pay grade. She had became “hard to manage.” A new director of digital media, “lured” from the Getty, found it impossible to do her job, and, after a formal complaint, left with a handsome lagniappe.
All of this is more or less off the record. Also out of focus is the ghostly legacy of Philippe de Montebello, who ran the Museum for more than thirty years before retiring on the eve of the financial meltdown. What great timing! Because what brought his successor down, at least so far as the record is concerned, was the Museum’s finances, which have not only not recovered from the meltdown but worsened for reasons having nothing to do with it. You could say that Montebello was better at fiscal responsibility than Campbell, or you could say that Montebello ran his board. More cautious than Campbell, Montebello may have imposed his caution on the trustees. It was an arrangement that worked, but it was not a suitable arrangement, because it depended on the self-respect of the Director, not the probity of the board.
It’s hard to list all the changes wrought during Thomas Campbell’s directorship — almost all of them real improvements. I’m thinking especially of the new galleries of American painting and Islamic art, respectively. The new plaza on the Museum’s Fifth Avenue front is most welcome. These three things alone would constitute memorable signatures for any Director — and they were all achieved within ten years. But there’s more — perhaps too much. In addition to the Breuer Building lease, a rebranding campaign proved to be very unpopular. (It turns out that everybody loved the little metal buttons.) When the new logo was introduced, the price paid to develop it was an unattractive part of the picture, and it was then that a susurrus of criticism began to hum. Insiders began to talk — off the record. Gradually a new portrait of the Director unfolded. Whereas before he had been presented as a top-notch arts man, gifted with encyclopedic knowledge and elegant taste, he now became an unskilled executive, with little or no managerial experience. What didn’t change was the impassivity of the Board of Directors, which continued to behave as though Campbell and others had taken advantage of its good faith.
In the past decade, New York’s cultural life has suffered more from the negligence (and worse) of its institutional fiduciaries than from any other cause. From City Opera to Cooper Union and NYU, trustees have betrayed their public obligations by succumbing to the lure of expensive but unnecessary projects. Their personal wealth has enabled them, in the absence of reflective checks, to indulge grandiose schemes with childish thoughtlessness, usually at no personal expense. I can only hope that the Times will increase its attentiveness to such idle chicanery.