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Thomas Campbell, new Director of the Metropolitan Museum

Eric Gibson has written several important articles in the Wall St Journal on the announcement of the appointment of Thomas J. Campbell’s appointment as Director and Chief Executive of the Metropolitn Museum of New York and earlier on the process of the search for Philippe de Montebello’s successor. Commenting on the announcement (“The Met gets it right”, September 10, 2008) Gibson wrote that Campbell, “created an archive that is the most up-to-date information resource on European tapestries and textiles in the world, has organized multiple exhibitions, expanded the Met’s textile collection, and in 2003 received the coveted Alfred H. Barr Jr. Award from the College Art Association for distinguished exhibition catalog.”

Gibson continued, “In this day and age it’s hard to imagine a museum lavishing all the resources necessary to expand and reinstall its Greek and Roman collections. Still less can one expect them to elicit more than a passing interest. Yet under Mr. de Montebello the Met did just that, and those galleries are regularly as crowded as any blockbuster exhibition.

“After all, in the topsy-turvy logic of today’s art world Mr. de Montebello’s belief in enduring values and high aesthetic standards has led him to be dismissed by some””even by a few in his own profession””as an elitist.

“In selecting Mr. Campbell, the board has demonstrated that it knows what Mr. de Montebello has wrought and doesn’t wish to tamper with it. Tellingly, Mr. Campbell comes with a curatorial background””not, as is the case with some museum directors these days, a business or management degree. This means he is steeped in the culture and values of the museum, not the bottom line.

By extension, the appointment shows that the board itself understands what a museum is supposed to be. It isn’t just a pleasure dome, though it should be a source of pleasure. Nor is it a place where the public must be, to use some of today’s trendy argot, “challenged” force-fed unpalatable or shocking art like the inmates at some Communist re-education camp because the cultural commissars think it’s good for them. The Met’s trustees clearly see the art museum, instead, as an institution that society relies on to preserve, present and interpret its cultural patrimony in order to answer the questions famously posed by Paul Gauguin in his 1897-98 painting “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?””

And here is one of the most important points in the announcement. Gibson continued, “In this regard, perhaps the most revealing passage in yesterday’s announcement was not the recitation of Mr. Campbell’s scholarly credentials, the list of exhibitions he’s organized and his other professional accomplishments, nor the account of his steady upward rise through the ranks. It was board chairman James R. Houghton’s praise for “his great passion for art.”

“That might seem a rather routine observation””a prerequisite even. Yet the fact that it was considered worthy of mention is itself an indication of what a rarity such talk has become in today’s museum world. You hear about buildings, economic impact, prices. But a great passion for art? Fugeddaboutit. Last winter Thomas Krens, president of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, unveiled its latest international initiative, a new museum in Abu Dhabi. He assured the assembled crowd that the collection would be of the finest quality””or, as he put it, “blue chip.” Another director at another time might have used the word “masterpieces.”

“A great passion for art has always been the centerpiece of the Met experience under Mr. de Montebello, and the museum’s most prized resource”¦ Fortunately, it looks as if with Mr. Campbell in charge we can expect that to continue. Somehow I doubt we’ll hear much “blue chip” talk from him.”

Gibson’s article contains a link to an earlier aricle about the search for de Montebello’s successor.

In “A New Voice From Within at the Met“ (September 9, 2008) chief art critic of the New York Times Michael Kimmelman observed, “Other museums these days have looked toward polished administrators or contemporary-art wheeler-dealers to raise money and deal with neophyte collectors. Since Philippe de Montebello announced his pending retirement, among the names bandied about in the art-world echo chamber for the longest time were a few lightning rods and contemporary-art favorites who, it was suggested, could provide useful connections to new money and links with living artists “” so that the Met might become, as if it weren’t already, sufficiently “relevant.”

“The chattering class was wrong as usual. In selecting Mr. Campbell, 46, the museum affirmed its own priorities, never mind the unsolicited advice, and continued a tradition of promoting from within. Mr. Campbell, untested in a director’s chair, has nonetheless been immersed for the last 13 years or more in the ways of this institution and is clearly committed to it; he is regarded as energetic, level-headed, popular, not visibly unhinged “¦

… How refreshing to discuss an art museum director whose bona fides are not the millions he has raised or the buildings he has built or the architects he has hired but the art he has studied and illuminated.”

Kimmelman reported, “Reached by telephone, James R. Houghton, the board chairman, said, “Clearly we wanted a scholar and art historian who is respected in his field, has a keen intellect and can be decisive.”

… when Mr. Campbell’s name surfaced recently, many of the Met’s seasoned curators started rooting for him. Respected among his peers as a scholar, he also happens to be well liked.

“Although he has not run a big department, his managerial skill was tested when, shortly after his arrival, he became the supervising curator of the Antonio Ratti Textile Center, which houses the Met’s encyclopedic collection of 36,000 textiles.

In a statement Tuesday, Mr. Campbell said he would build on the Met’s traditions of scholarship, “in ways that are fresh and relevant for the age in which we live.”

And Carol Vogel (“Curator at Met Named Director of the Museum” New York Times September 9, 2008) added, “In the last few weeks, the committee was said to have narrowed its choices to one internal candidate, Mr. Campbell, and one external one, Mr. Hollein. Both are relatively young, as the Met wanted a director who would serve for an extended period.”

The New York Times has links to reviews of Campbell’s tapestry exhibitions.