With $125 million gift, Met Museum jump-starts new modern wing

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With $125 million gift, Met Museum jump-starts new modern wing
Oscar Tang, a trustee at the museum, and Agnes Hsu-Tang, his wife. The couple have made a game-changing gift that will help build a long-sought Modern and contemporary art wing and provide a home for Leonard Lauder’s Cubism collection. Eileen Trabell/Metropolitan Museum of Art via The New York Times.

by Robin Pogrebin

NEW YORK, NY.- Seven years after announcing ambitious plans to rebuild its wing for Modern and contemporary art — which then had to be put on hold because of financial problems — the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced Tuesday that it had finally secured a lead donation of $125 million, the largest capital gift in its history, from its longtime trustee Oscar L. Tang and his wife, Agnes Hsu‐Tang, an archaeologist and art historian. The wing will be named after them for a minimum of 50 years.

“It is coming from within the Met,” said the museum’s director, Max Hollein, in a telephone interview. “It shows the confidence the museum has in this very important project.”

With their donation, the Tangs join a rarefied group of philanthropists who have made game-changing gifts of $100 million or more to underwrite cultural building projects (and secure naming rights). These include oil-and-gas billionaire David H. Koch, benefactor of New York City Ballet’s renovated Lincoln Center home, in 2008; private equity billionaire Stephen A. Schwarzman, for the New York Public Library, in 2008, and a new cultural center at Yale, in 2015; and entertainment mogul David Geffen, whose 2015 gift went toward the gut renovation of the former Avery Fisher Hall.

The gift represents an important leap forward for the Met project, which is now expected to cost about $500 million and calls for creating 80,000 square feet of galleries and public space with an architect to be announced this winter. An earlier design by David Chipperfield had ballooned in price to as much as $800 million.

While the Met still has to raise the remainder of the money, Daniel H. Weiss, the museum’s president and CEO, said that “we’re not concerned.”

“We know what it’s going to cost more or less to build it, to staff it,” he continued. “Our finances are very stable.”

The museum, which last year projected a shortfall of $150 million because of the pandemic, has responded by raising money, cutting expenses and reapportioning costs. The Met has also taken advantage of a two-year window in which professional guidelines were relaxed to permit museums to sell works of art to help cover operating expenses.

Weiss said the museum had not yet determined whether it would seek funds for the project from the city, which owns its land and building.

Tang, the first American of Asian descent to join the Met’s board 30 years ago, said he was moved to support the museum’s efforts to upgrade the mazelike, awkwardly configured Lila Acheson Wallace Wing, which has been considered problematic ever since it was first completed in 1987.

“The Met has a special opportunity to be much more global in the context of Modern and contemporary,” Tang said in a telephone interview. “In the art field, there has been insufficient focus on this. We wanted to help the museum move in that direction, beyond the Western canon.”

While Tang, 83, and Hsu‐Tang, 50, have not put conditions on their gift, both said that they were encouraged by Hollein’s inclusive approach to art. “The new director is oriented that way,” Tang said.

The new wing will also finally give a proper home to the important 2013 gift of 79 cubist paintings, drawings and sculptures from philanthropist and cosmetics tycoon Leonard A. Lauder.

Some have questioned why the Met needs to up its Modern and contemporary game, given that the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney and the Guggenheim have the territory well covered. But the Met is not only encyclopedic, the Tangs said; it is uniquely positioned to present a narrative of interconnected periods and disciplines. “It’s the only museum that can tell the holistic story of humanity beyond these demarcations,” Hsu‐Tang said. “Art is visual history.”

The Met had initially hoped to complete the project while it occupied the former Whitney — then called the Met Breuer — on Madison Avenue. But its eight-year lease on the Breuer ran out, and that building is now being used by the Frick Collection, which is undergoing a renovation of its own Fifth Avenue headquarters.

The wing’s delay had in part been attributed to the Met’s apparent inability to come up with a major lead gift, a theory the museum’s former director Thomas P. Campbell denied during his tenure. The museum was also criticized for announcing the new wing before raising money for it, a flaw Hollein addressed this week. “We’re not going to announce a project or an architect and then start fundraising,” he said. “We have a significant amount of money in hand.”

Since becoming director in 2018, Hollein said he has updated the wing project to encourage interdisciplinary work among the Met’s 17 curatorial departments. The museum has also made clear its commitment to including more female artists and artists of color, which will be reflected in the new wing’s programming.

In keeping with a movement underway at museums across the country — notably MoMA, which in 2019 reopened after a significant redesign — the new wing’s physical organization will reflect a multiplicity of perspectives, moving away from the traditional linear narrative of art history.

Tang in the past has mainly supported the Met’s Asian department; his earlier gifts of art include 20 important Chinese paintings from the 11th to the 18th centuries. He also donated a Song dynasty hanging scroll, “Riverbank,” which the Met attributes to 10th‐century artist Dong Yuan, although the authenticity has been disputed.

Now retired, Tang co‐founded the asset management firm Reich & Tang in 1970 in New York. After the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, he teamed up with architect I.M. Pei, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and others to establish the Committee of 100, a Chinese American leadership organization for advancing dialogues between the United States and China.

Born in Shanghai, Tang was sent to school in America at age 11, after his family fled from China to Hong Kong during the communist revolution in 1948. He attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, Yale University and Harvard Business School, the third generation in his family to be educated in the United States.

Tang also serves as a co-chairman of the New York Philharmonic. In early 2021, he and his wife founded the Yellow Whistle campaign to combat historical discrimination and anti‐Asian violence, which has distributed 500,000 free yellow whistles emblazoned with the slogan “We Belong.” The couple wed in 2013; Tang had been widowed, and his second marriage ended in divorce.

Hsu‐Tang, who holds a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, is a former Mellon Fellow at Cambridge and Stanford. She has advised UNESCO in Paris as well as President Barack Obama’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee, and has worked on international cultural heritage protection and rescue since 2006.

She is also the chair‐elect of the board of the New‐York Historical Society and a former managing director on the Met Opera board.

Tang said he was keenly aware of the potency of a Met wing named after an Asian couple. “This country has been good to me — good to both of us,” he said. “And we want to put our stamp on it.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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