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At the entrenched Met Museum, the new Director shakes things up
Max Hollein, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, at the museum in New York, Sept. 4, 2019. Hollein, now one year into his tenure as director of the Met, is helping the museum rethink collections in dialogue with social, political and cultural shifts. Lelanie Foster/The New York Times.

by Robin Pogrebin

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- When curator Denise Murrell was looking for a museum a few years back to help her develop an exhibition about black models who influenced art history, she struck out at one institution after another. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, she recalled, never even responded.

Murrell ultimately presented her show — “Posing Modernity: The Black Model From Manet and Matisse to Today” — at the Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University, where it opened to rave reviews last year and was hailed for its scholarship on African influences in modern art.

This week the Metropolitan Museum of Art will announce that it is hiring Murrell, who is African American, for the newly created full-time position of associate curator for 19th- and 20th-century art. Her appointment is noteworthy, and not only because the Met has been historically lacking in curators of color. She is also one of the first hires made by the Met’s director, Max Hollein, who is now one year into his tenure — and emblematic of the multi-discipline, multiethnic direction he is steering one of the world’s largest, most entrenched museums.

“It’s a new day at the Met,” said Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, who championed Murrell. “What it says about Max is he is willing to do bold things, he is willing to disrupt the normative practices of the museum, he is going to innovate and transform.”

Hollein’s efforts include his commission of two contemporary exhibitions by people of color that he has placed in prominent spaces. Starting Dec. 19, two monumental paintings by Cree artist Kent Monkman, including one that reimagines the iconic 1851 oil painting “Washington Crossing the Delaware” with indigenous people steering the vessel — among them, the artist’s gender-fluid alter ego — will go on view in the Great Hall, its majestic main entry. In September, the Met opened its Fifth Avenue facade niches for the first time with a series of bronze sculptures inspired by African women, by Kenyan-born artist Wangechi Mutu.

Such initiatives speak to Hollein’s emphasis on manifold ways of looking at art and his determination to break down boundaries between the museum’s traditionally siloed departments. As the Met prepares to celebrate its 150th anniversary next year, Hollein is expanding the definition of contemporary art to include work from all over the world, and activating public areas in the Fifth Avenue building to show it.

“If you have one of the greatest collections you almost have an obligation to recontextualize it in regard to the narratives it provides,” Hollein said in an interview. “I want to make sure it’s not only one voice but multiple voices.”

The hiring of Murrell, who starts in January, represents one step in that direction. She will work jointly with the Met’s modern and contemporary department, led by Sheena Wagstaff, and with the European paintings department, led by Keith Christiansen, while reporting to Andrea Bayer, the deputy director for collections and administration.

“Max and his team want to proactively move toward a more inclusive presentation of art history across all periods,” Murrell said. “This is a moment of inflection at the Met — a reconsideration of the West that moves away from an exclusively European culture; a deeper presentation of artists of color and a greater breadth of images depicting people of color.”

Hollein also said he wants to make sure the Met does not simply celebrate the subjects of its exhibitions but also explores the underbelly, contrary views and gray areas. “Not every show needs to be 100% laudatory about the art that it shows,” he said. “We need to also show complexity.”

That complexity is evident in the current show, “The Last Knight: The Art, Armor, and Ambition of Maximilian I.” Previewing the loans — like multiple square sandstone reliefs — before the exhibition opened in October, Hollein urged the curator in charge, Pierre Terjanian, to make a show about a Renaissance emperor feel modern and nuanced.

“Art cannot solely be perceived in regard to its beauty and craftsmanship,” Hollein said. “You also have to evaluate it in light of its political messages.”

While a regal suit of armor was ostensibly made for Henry VIII’s great campaign to conquer France, for example, Hollein said, “the truth is, he had gout and could barely walk. There was no way he would ever wear that armor, let alone go into war. It was propaganda. Like George Bush standing on the aircraft carrier, it’s being used for messaging.”

Highlighting the social and political context of exhibitions dovetails with a nationwide effort by institutions — namely the Museum of Modern Art, with its recent rehang of its vast collection — to rethink the presentation of art history.

“He’s very much a director of the 21st century,” said Andrew Bolton, the curator in charge of the Met’s Costume Institute, “stressing diversity of entry points and perspectives.”

Those inside the Met have taken note of Hollein’s approach — as evidenced most starkly by the facade project. “The niche idea has been out there for a while,” Wagstaff said. “It took a director and confidence in that kind of idea to make it a reality.”

A Director’s Learning Curve
Art world denizens have been struck by how easily Hollein moves among them — down the aisles of the Frieze Art Fair on Randalls Island; shaking hands at the High Line annual gala; previewing the auctions; attending Rosa Barba’s electronic music concert at the Armory; celebrating artist Sarah Sze at her gallery opening dinner.

Some expected the Vienna-born Hollein, 50, to be something of a Eurocentric outsider, given that he spent much of his career as director of the Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, the city’s Städel Museum, and the Liebieghaus sculpture museum. But for two years, before coming to the Met, he was director and chief executive of the Fine Arts Museums in San Francisco, overseeing shows by artists like Julian Schnabel and Sarah Lucas, which connected him to this country’s white-hot world of contemporary art.

And New York represents something of a homecoming: Hollein cut his teeth at the Guggenheim, working under Thomas Krens — first as a 21-year-old intern and later as Krens’ chief of staff. So Hollein arguably fits more comfortably into the city’s art world than did his two predecessors, given that Thomas P. Campbell was a tapestry curator before becoming director and Philippe de Montebello specialized in European paintings.

To be sure, Hollein has had a learning curve since arriving at the Met. He came from smaller institutions and a European tradition of government support for museums, which requires less private fundraising. Now he has to contend with a staff of 2,200, an annual operating budget of $320 million and 17 assertive curatorial departments.

Hollein realizes he needs to limit his ambitions, said Hamilton E. James, chairman of the Met board’s finance committee. “I think he’s cognizant of the fact that the Met is a much bigger, more complicated institution than anywhere he’s been before,” he said. “Take your time, start building relationships one curator at a time, don’t come in guns blazing.”

“Max understands he can’t do everything, that the budget is not unlimited,” James added. “Max gets the fact that choices have to be made and he is making them.”

Acknowledging “there is always the risk, and maybe the tendency, to do too much,” Hollein said he has been mindful of trying to concentrate on a few clear priorities, namely exploring different ways to tell stories — in part through commissioning works like Monkman’s. “He certainly advances an alternative narrative about the development of America,” Hollein said of the artist.

Job-Sharing and Growing Pains
While Hollein’s beginning at the Met appears to have been relatively smooth, he has nevertheless encountered bumps along the way. The typically vigorous director was visibly depleted from an illness early in his tenure, a matter he said he preferred to keep private, since his health has improved and there was no interruption of his Met activities.

In addition, Hollein has had to adjust to sharing the helm with Daniel H. Weiss, the Met’s president and chief executive, to whom he is technically subordinate. Each has his distinct turf — Hollein oversees the artistic and programmatic side of the operation, Weiss the business and administration. But Hollein was accustomed to running his own show in his previous director positions.

Similarly, Weiss, who led the Met solo after Campbell was forced to resign amid financial mismanagement in 2017, had grown used to being the only guy in charge. It was Weiss, for example, who greenlighted the curator Carmen C. Bambach’s recent presentation of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Saint Jerome Praying in the Wilderness,” a special loan from the Vatican Museums to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the artist’s death.

Both Hollein and Weiss admitted to some growing pains in the early stages of working together, mostly in having to keep each other abreast of decisions they might have formerly made unilaterally. “It’s a leadership model that has its advantages for sure, but also its challenges,” Hollein said. “You have to always remind yourself to communicate more. In my previous institution, I had all of this in my head.”

But both said they valued the partnership. “The challenge is, how do you build an integrated team among two people who are fully formed on their own?” Weiss said.

They have the wind at their backs, now that the Met has managed to extricate itself from a downward deficit spiral and to move forward on more solid financial ground. The museum is on track to break even this year, James said, having built up a new reserve for deferred maintenance; lowered the endowment spending to 5%; and stopped regularly dipping into its “quasi endowment,” or rainy-day fund. In August, Moody’s Investors Service revised its outlook on the Met to stable from negative.

Still unclear, however, is whether the two executives will succeed where the Met previously failed in raising $600 million for the museum’s new modern and contemporary wing, which was put on hold in 2017 and has since been inching its way back to the front burner.

No lead gift for that project has yet been announced. A person close to the fundraising process said that the Met is being cautious to ensure that a donor is not vulnerable to political objections.

The Met recently agreed to swear off funding from members of the Sackler family linked to the maker of OxyContin, in the wake of protests, and institutions everywhere are under intensifying pressure to evaluate the people behind such gifts as well as their trustees.

The Met’s $70 million renovation of the Rockefeller Wing, with art from Africa, Oceania and the Americas is to begin late next year. Emphasizing the importance of having collections in dialogue with social, political and cultural shifts, Hollein noted that “the Ancient Near Eastern galleries have not been changed since the 1980s,” and need updating. “So much has happened in that area and our understanding has evolved,” he said.

Ian Alteveer, a curator of modern and contemporary art, said the variety of works in Hollein’s office reflect the new director’s ecumenical tastes. They include Warhol’s “Mona Lisa,” a Madonna and Child painting from the Verrocchio workshop, a bronze from the Chola period and an Egyptian female head. “There’s clearly a deep interest besides the contemporary,” Alteveer said.

Hollein said that shoring up the Met’s modern and contemporary program in the main Fifth Avenue building will be one of his primary aims, but “by no means the only one and not the defining one.”

“We are too important in other areas,” he said. While bringing modern and contemporary art back to Fifth Avenue, he intends to put them “in conversation with other areas,” he said. “I don’t want to see contemporary art confined to a couple of galleries. Putting a piece in context with Greek and Roman can be a contemporary opportunity.”

On March 4, the museum will start a new series of installations from its permanent collection called “Crossroads” that explore themes across departments whose galleries are near one another, namely Medieval, Asian and Greek and Roman.

Hollein also wants to get people talking. Anna Wintour, a trustee and chairwoman of the annual Met Ball, described the new director as “interested in exhibitions that are culturally relevant but also will create conversations.”

“He likes provocation, he likes to take risks,” Wintour said. “That has not necessarily been the museum’s thinking in the past.”

Hollein has an opportunity to shake things up with the Met’s 150th anniversary. The main celebratory exhibition, “Making the Met, 1870-2020,” will look at how the museum’s collection developed over the course of its history. This will include some exploration of the Met’s role as an active excavator of cultural artifacts — which has been an ethical challenge for museums like the Met, which recently returned an ancient coffin to Egypt that after learning it had been looted.

“A leading institution like the Met has multiple responsibilities,” Hollein wrote in a blog post last year, naming in particular the need to ”research the history of objects,” and “to be transparent in our policies and practices.”

Hollein is also thinking seriously about the visitor experience — namely making it easier for newcomers like himself to navigate the often-overwhelming museum, with better directional signage. He admits that he only recently mastered finding his way around.

“It took me a while,” he said with a smile. “But now, more or less, I got it.”

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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