NEW YORK — Last year, the Metropolitan Museum of Art was in crisis. On June 28, it announced that more people visited the museum, across its three campuses — the main building on Fifth Avenue, the Cloisters and the Met Breuer — than ever before.
So whether the Met is “a great institution in decline,” as one former curator described it, or whether its problems are merely temporary is debatable. It’s true that the museum was running large and growing deficits in a strong economy and had tabled plans to build a $600 million wing for modern and contemporary art. Three-quarters of the museum’s curatorial leadership had departed or resigned since Thomas Campbell became director in 2008, and many people criticized his costly expansion of the museum’s digital operations.
In February 2017, Campbell resigned.
Daniel Weiss, hired as president and chief operating officer in 2015, became interim director. In March, facing budget shortfalls and a decreasing willingness among visitors to pay the voluntary $25 admission fee, the museum imposed mandatory fees on out-of-town visitors (excluding students from New Jersey and Connecticut).
Early this year, Campbell’s successor was announced. Max Hollein, director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, will share with Weiss the responsibility for leading the institution.
The Washington Post spoke to Weiss about the museum; the following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: What's significant about the new attendance figures?
A: This year we will clock in at about 7.4 million visitors across three institutions. (Last year was about 7 million.) What's satisfying about that number is that it comes from all over the world. We are a New York City institution. We're very well supported by the citizens of New York. But we are also a tourist destination for people from all over the United States and the world.
Q: Did the Michelangelo show artificially boost the numbers for this past year?
A: Over the last five to 10 years, we have seen our attendance continue to grow. If we didn't have Michelangelo, one of the top exhibitions we've ever had, we would have had something else, and instead of 700,000 we would have had 520,000, say, and our attendance numbers would have been a little better than last year.
Q: Has the decision to impose mandatory admission fees on out-of-town visitors discouraged people from coming?
A: We are seeing no diminution in attendance whatsoever. None. Our numbers, to the contrary, continue to go up. We'll have a full year of experience next year. But we're already four months into it, and it's pretty clear what's happening.
Q: Are you worried about the implications of asking New Yorkers to show ID cards to prove that they are New Yorkers?
A: We are not worried. An institution of this importance in the world has to get funding from somewhere: 8.5 percent of our budget comes from the government. Once we laid that out, we said to New Yorkers: "We want you to feel welcome. Bring ID so we know. But we're not going to press you. We're not going to give you a hard time. If you don't bring ID we're going to let you in anyway, and we're going to let you pay whatever you want." And they have. It's actually an example of something about New York culture that isn't always obvious. People here are generous, they're thoughtful. They get it. In the beginning there were a few people who tested us. One guy came in with a Yankees cap and he said, "There's my ID." And we said: "Great. Okay. Next time, if you'd like to bring something more tangible that's fine."
Q: What's the latest on the modern and contemporary wing?
A: About five years ago, the museum did a complete assessment and master plan for all its facilities. The board and the leadership concluded that the highest priority for major projects would be to replace the modern wing. It's still our highest priority. It was tabled two years ago because of our other challenges. We've addressed those. We're in a much different place. We're on a path to a balanced budget next year. We have a really thoughtful long-term financial plan. And we're now thinking again about capital projects. We're looking at variations on what we did two years ago, working with the same architect.
Q: Why is modern and contemporary your highest priority? New York already has many great institutions dedicated to modern and contemporary art. Why aren't you redoing, for instance, the Asian galleries, in the same spirit as the Islamic galleries, which were done so beautifully and inexpensively a few years ago?
A: We are not chasing the Guggenheim or the Modern or the Whitney and trying to be like them. But it's very important for the Met to collect, study and exhibit art from our own era, as we always have. We were collecting impressionist art when it was contemporary art. If we didn't, we would be more like a mausoleum than a living museum. We don't believe it is our place to be a leading edge, risk-taking contemporary art house. So how do we participate in contemporary art in a way that's authentic to who we are? We collect the work of artists who are of established reputation, who are going to be of enduring importance. But the galleries in which that art is displayed are wholly inadequate. The South West Wing project is, more than anything else, part of the ongoing project of the Met to build facilities that are commensurate with the standard we set. That's true of all our collections. It's just their turn.
Q: You're undertaking another big project before that.
A: The European paintings galleries are about one city block worth of galleries that are sky lit. Those sky lights need to be replaced. They were built in the 1930s and were due to be replaced when Lyndon Johnson was president. They weren't. It's a $150 million project. We're not doing the modern wing until it's taken care of. It's less sexy, but it's important.
Q: Why did the Met get into financial trouble?
A: There were three factors. One was that we were doing too much. We had a lot of ambitious activity, including digital, and we didn't prioritize as we should have. The second was that we had not been attending to our deferred maintenance and infrastructure as we need to. The third was that we have all these revenue-generating activities at the Met — restaurants, retail shops, admissions policy, membership — which were underperforming. We thought they could all be making more money for the museum if we managed them a bit differently. So you put all those together and you get a little bit of a perfect storm. We thought we had to address it all head on. And we did.
Q: How are you going to make the new power-sharing arrangement work with Max Hollein?
A: We will interact with each other every day. Max oversees all the programmatic activity, the acquisitions, collections, scholarship, conservation. I oversee all the administrative work and run the facility. But because I'm an art historian with an interest in the content side, and because he's a museum director with an MBA and an interest in marketing, budgets and digital technologies, we have great points of intersection. I have someone whose office I can walk into and say, "I have a problem, help me figure this out." Where we can get into trouble is if we see ourselves as competitors. We spend a lot of time talking about this. I would not have wanted to hire such a strong individual if I was worried about having a strong partner. Max is a strong partner. That's what we were seeking.