After years of rumbling and rumors, the announcement came today: Thomas P. Campbell, head of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, is stepping down. The pervasive assumption within the art world is that the decision was not his.
Campbell, head of the largest art museum in the United States, will leave his post in June. In many ways, his resignation may be the most high-profile symptom of a paradoxical new age in which major museums are struggling with success. During Campbell’s tenure, audience traffic at the Met increased by 40 percent, and several of the large exhibitions mounted under his watch were both critical and popular successes. The Met also received a phenomenal gift of cubist art collected by Leonard Lauder and valued in the billion-dollar range, and it opened a monumental “pop-up” space in the Marcel Breuer-designed former home of the Whitney Museum of American Art.
“I couldn’t be more proud of The Met’s accomplishments during my tenure as Director and CEO,” Campbell said in a statement released by the Met. “The Museum has evolved into a beacon of scholarship and understanding, not only for visitors to our New York sites, but globally through digital platforms, leadership exchanges, and more. At a moment when art and culture have an especially profound role to play in fostering mutual understanding, I am especially proud that our visitor base is the largest and most diverse in the Museum’s history.”
But for all of the success the Met had with audiences, including tourists and digital visitors from around the globe, there were mounting financial problems. Last year, in response to a $30 million deficit, the Met announced it was laying off 34 employees. Major initiatives launched under Campbell’s direction had to be curtailed or cut. A proposed $600 million new wing devoted to contemporary and modern art proved to be unfeasible, and some questioned the wisdom of the $17 million annual cost of the eight-year lease the Met took on the Breuer building.
Insiders reported tensions among the staff and increasing demoralization. Despite well reviewed and revelatory exhibitions, the Met seemed to be flailing; one widely cited example was a remake of its iconic logo into something blandly contemporary that fell awkwardly on the eyes.
Campbell rose to the Met’s top position from within the museum’s staff, having joined the institution in 1996 as a tapestries expert. He became head of the Met in 2009, but his troubled tenure followed that of Philippe de Montebello, who served the Met with unflappable aristocratic panache for 35 years. Campbell set about to “modernize” the museum, but his changes also brought discord.
The Met will not immediately seek a replacement for Campbell. Instead, Daniel H. Weiss, the Met’s president and chief operating officer, will work with Campbell and others in the administration on a transition plan. The job is one of the most sought after in the museum world. But today, when museums are trying to convert their popularity into stability without sacrificing their essential role as cultural and academic stewards, it is also one of the most complex.