Troubled times for New York's Met

The entrance to the Asian Art wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where expansion into a satellite building cost millions of dollars more than expected.
The entrance to the Asian Art wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where expansion into a satellite building cost millions of dollars more than expected.PHOTO: NYTIMES

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is facing a deficit of $56 million and had to lay off 90 employees

NEW YORK • The bad news had been building for months at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Even as crowds poured into shows on Hellenistic kingdoms and high-tech fashion, the Met's deficit was approaching US$40 million (S$56 million) and had forced the buyout or layoff of some 90 employees.

An expansion into a satellite building cost millions of dollars more than expected. A new Met logo and marketing plan were rolled out at great expense - and greeted with ridicule. And last month, a new US$600-million wing was postponed by several years, frustrating the Met's efforts to become a serious player in the competitive field of modern and contemporary art.

Tension inside the Met, the country's largest art museum, is running so high that when curators and conservators recently wrote a letter protesting compensation cuts, the museum's leaders chose not to show it to trustees for fear of leaks and bad publicity. Those who wanted to see the document had to go to the office of the Met's general counsel and read it under observation.

After enjoying boom years, one of the most pre-eminent cultural institutions in the world is now struggling with missteps and the perils of overreaching at a time of uncertain resources. While many museums face financial and competitive pressures, the Met's troubles are magnified, given its stature on the world stage.

How can a behemoth like the Met, the thinking goes, possibly stumble? Some curators and trustees have zeroed in on Mr Thomas P. Campbell, the Met's director and chief executive since 2008, as well as the board that has backed him. The anguish can be intense, given the love that all involved have for the Met.

"It's a tragedy to see a great institution in decline," said Mr George R. Goldner, who in 2014 retired after 21 years as the chairman of the Met's drawings and prints department and has since served as a consultant to the museum. "To have inherited a museum as strong as the Met was 10 years ago - with a great curatorial staff - and to have it be what it is today is unimaginable."

Several people in the museum, most of whom spoke anonymously for fear of losing their positions, said the Met under Mr Campbell had tried to do too much too fast: overhiring in the digital department; overspending on an additional building, the Met Breuer, and on rebranding; overdrawing from unrestricted endowment funds to cover costs; emphasising modern and contemporary art at the expense of core departments; and pursuing the new wing before the financing was in place.

Instead, the Met should have been contracting, given falling revenue from its retail stores and admission fees and rising expenses.

At the same time, some hope that by reckoning with its troubles, the Met is poised to turn a corner.

"We're getting to the same page," said Mr Keith Christiansen, chairman of the Met's European paintings department. "One benefit from all this: It's brought the departments together with the administration to sit down at a common table and that's something. Now what do we do to move forward and make sure the mission of the museum is not compromised?"

Efforts to right the ship have been difficult and painful. In addition to staff cuts, curators were asked to curtail spending for shows and acquisitions. The Met stages nearly 60 exhibitions a year, far more than most museums, but now expects to reduce its exhibitions to about 40 a year.

Instead of moving forward with architect David Chipperfield on a wing intended to help attract art and money from contemporary collectors, the Met has been forced to prioritise the replacement of its ageing skylights and roof above the European paintings galleries.

In an interview, Mr Campbell acknowledged that the museum had "been through a trying year". "My colleagues have every right to feel upset," he said. "At the same time, one has to step back and look at the success of the institution."

To be sure, most agree that the museum's expansive collections and ambitious exhibitions remain strong. The recent Kerry James Marshall survey at the Met Breuer was widely judged a success, though some critics say the museum's first retrospective of a living black artist would have been even more momentous in the hallowed main building.

In addition, the museum's attendance has increased to about seven million visitors a year, including the Cloisters. The Breuer, which opened in March, has drawn 557,000 visitors, exceeding projections.

"We've got a whole modern art collection in the Breuer we didn't have before," said Mr Hamilton E. James, a Met trustee. "Attendance is at all-time records; critical acclaim has never been as good. An awful lot of wonderful things have gone on."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 06, 2017, with the headline 'Troubled times for New York's Met'. Print Edition | Subscribe