New York’s Metropolitan Museum has been in the news a great deal of late. That’s not unexpected given the Met is the largest and most prestigious art museum in the United States. Last year, Philippe de Montebello, the Met’s longest-serving director stepped down after 31 years and was succeeded by one of the venerable institution’s own, Thomas P. Campbell, a curator there since 1995. Dr. Campbell specializes in tapestries in the department of European sculpture and decorative arts. While the choice of Campbell came as a surprise to some, many were pleased and believe he will be the perfect man to carry the Met forward into the 21st century. The New Yorker magazine’s July 27 2009 issue has a fascinating profile of Dr. Campbell (see an abstract of it at: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/07/27/090727fa_fact_mead). And to put the history of Metropolitan in perspective, get a copy of Michael Gross’s 2009 Rogues Gallery: The Secret History of the Moguls and the Money that Made the Metropolitan. Gross’s book is the first independent and unauthorized look at the nec plus ultra of art museums—it’s fun, gossipy, fascinating reading; the perfect museum lover’s book for summer at the beach or at home.
As someone who has been a curator for a little over thirty years, I have observed an interesting progression. When I began my career in the late 1970s at The Art Institute of Chicago, art museum directors were often curators or art historians who had risen in the ranks to lead an entire institution and not just a department. But by the 1980s, art museum boards began to want professionals with MBA degrees, men largely, although there were a few notable exceptions, who had business-sense and ran their museums almost as for-profit institutions. This was the Golden Age of the blockbuster exhibition and big corporate funding. Gradually though, it seems that we have returned to the previous way of thinking, that art museums are best understood and led by the people who lived their professional careers in them—and often those people are curators. Our own director, Nannette V. Maciejunes was a curator and chief curator here for several decades before she was appointed executive director. Do all curators aspire to be directors? I think not. Most are happy to work directly with great art and the people who love and collect art. At the same time, it makes a good deal of sense to have a director who understands the day-to-day concerns, challenges, frustrations, as well as the joys of being a curator.
Dominique H. Vasseur
Curator of European Art