How to Fix the Met: Connect Art to Life

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The departure of Thomas P. Campbell as director and chief executive officer of the Metropolitan Museum of Art comes as no surprise.

But from the time he took over from Philippe de Montebello in 2009, there were doubts — not about his art expertise; his credentials are sterling — but about his managerial chops. Scholarship won’t get you far in leading an institution as complex, high maintenance and structurally antiquated as the one he inherited.

Trouble was already brewing when he took over. Cultural tides in America had turned, and the Met hadn’t turned with them. The audience for art, and for the traditional art museum, was changing. So the Met had to change, basically from a 19th-century analog museum to a 21st-century semi-digital institution. But nobody knew quite how.

Armies of selfie-takers-and-sharers were arriving, more interested in photogenic events, like the Costume Institute’s theatrically installed “Manus x Machina” show last year, than in archival objects. They kept the attendance numbers high, but unevenly distributed. Some 750,000 visitors saw “Manus x Machina,” while worthy scholarly shows went all but unvisited. Such imbalances have to worry any institution, and will eventually start to determine what is put on the bill.

With the precipitous decrease in art and history education in schools, much of the museum’s encyclopedic collection now means little to younger viewers. It feels foreign and remote and unsociable in a way that contemporary art, with its familiar references, does not. The Met has its own strong education program, but its effects seem to be uncertain and selective. A generation or two ago, the museum’s Renaissance painting galleries were crowded places; today, even after a splendid refurbishment, they draw scant traffic.

A new emphasis on contemporary art was reinforced by people who ran the museum itself. Mr. de Montebello was hostile to new art; he disparaged it outright. But when he retired, the board of directors was hot for it. They made Mr. Campbell’s pursuit of the contemporary a condition of hiring. Did no one notice that any buying would be at the top of a bloated market? That a Jeff-Koons-whatever would cost more than Mr. de Montebello’s $45 million-plus Duccio, “Madonna and Child”?

In any case, contemporary was a field Mr. Campbell didn’t know much about — his specialty was European tapestry — so he was learning on the job, just as he was in his push to give the museum a digital presence, which entailed the hiring of a whole new staff.

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