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The Met Gets It Right: A scholar for Director!

September 14th, 2008

Thomas P. Campbell was named 9 September to succeed Philippe de Montebello as Director and Chief Executive of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The Met is considered by most people to be the most prestigious art museum in the USA and by some as the most prestigious in the World. Campbell, 46, was born in England and holds a doctorate in art history from the Courtauld Institute in London. He is currently a curator in the Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts and has worked at the Met since 1995. A specialist in European tapestry, Thomas Campbell organized “Tapestry in the Renaissance: Art and Magnificence” in 2002 and a sequel last year, “Tapestry in the Baroque: Threads of Splendor.” Campbell will be the ninth director in the Museum’s 138 year history. (Some museums I know have had as many directors in the last 40 years!)

De Montebello announced this last January his intention to retire at the end of 2008.

The numerous reports on this important appointment are of considerable significance in several respects.

Campbell is a distinguished scholar noted for his outstanding exhibitions and wonderful accompanying catalogues, not because he has demonstrated a capacity to raise funds, appoint celebrated architects or because he has a business or management degree.

Campbell was already on the staff of the Museum, as were two of the other contenders for the position. He is relatively young which is also significant: he was appointed because the board wanted someone who would serve for “an extended period”.

Campbell represents a field of art scholarship in which the Museum is a world leader, not a field such as modern art which some claim is needed to make the Met ‘more relevant’.

One report said, “The Met’s trustees clearly see the art museum as an institution that society relies on to preserve, present and interpret its cultural patrimony…”

Reporting on the appointment, New York Times reporter Carol Vogel (“Curator at Met Named Director of the Museum”, September 9, 2008), says, “For years the museum has been faulted for its spotty 20th- and 21st-century holdings and its halfhearted presentation of younger, contemporary artists. While supporting important acquisitions over the years like Jasper Johns’s 1955 “White Flag,” Mr. de Montebello made no secret of his lack of interest in cutting-edge art.

“In a phone interview, Mr. de Montebello praised Mr. Campbell’s appointment. ‘He’s the most modern of us all,’ he said, invoking Met directors. ‘We’ve had a Romanist, a medievalist, but he goes up through the Baroque. This is the right choice’ he added. ‘Tom is a very distinguished scholar. I would have been surprised had they brought in someone from the outside.’ ”

Boards and governments take note!

For further extracts from the reports on Campbell’s appointment in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times go here.

I have to say I found the photos accompanying several of these articles to speak volumes about this decision and its reception.

Here are two further articles on this important announcement:

Heir Looms by Jed Perl The New Republic September 10, 2008: “The Met’s fresh, daring, and unconventional choice for a new director this week demonstrates that the old guard can still be the avant-garde.”

This article concludes, “I believe there is a real possibility that September 9, 2008, when the Board of Trustees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art chose Thomas Campbell as its next director, will turn out to have been a great day in the history of American museums.”

From Tapestries to Top Job, Ready for Met’s Challenges by Carol Vogel, New York Times September 11, 2008: “For most of his career Thomas P. Campbell has presided over a tiny corner of art history that few people know or care much about: those grand European tapestries that were the obsession of kings and queens, popes and noblemen.”

You can watch a three part curatorial talk “Tapestry in the Baroque: A Curatorial Talk” by Thomas Campbell (on youtube) commencing here.

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