The Met museum and the curse of growth

Recently-defenestrated Met director Thomas Campbell has given a fascinating interview to The Art Newspaper, where he talks a bit about the art-architecture nexus:

We can’t go out into the marketplace to buy works of art that are $50m, $60m or $70m apiece. What we can do, and what the Met has always done, is build beautiful galleries so that donors and collectors will see us as a worthy destination. That’s what happened with our Chinese collections. We rebuilt our Chinese galleries back in the 1980s and early 1990s and, based on those beautiful spaces, we have received gifts that have turned us into one of the most important destinations for those who want to see Chinese paintings anywhere in the world.

As the slogan goes, collectors collect art, and museums collect collectors. It seems that in practice, if you’re fishing for collectors, one of the best things to use as bait is a shiny new piece of architecture.

When you’re making fill-in acquisitions to round out an existing encyclopedic collection, that strategy makes sense. You spiff up your Chinese galleries (or your Islamic galleries, or your American art galleries, or your tapestry galleries), and collectors with the museum-quality works you covet will be that much more likely to donate them to your shop rather than someone else’s. Especially if the spiffier galleries also provide a world-class level of scholarship and curation.

But when it comes to contemporary art, the calculus necessarily changes. There’s a good reason why you don’t find contemporary art in the Louvre, or the Prado, or the British Museum, or anywhere on Berlin’s museum island. Beyond the fact that it’s generally enormous and there’s nowhere to put it, the inconvenient thing about contemporary art is that, well, it’s contemporary. Every decade throws up a whole new slew of artworks, being collected by a whole new slew of potential donors. By collecting contemporary art, you essentially force yourself to grow in perpetuity.

Perpetual growth isn’t just exhausting, it’s nigh-on impossible, and what’s more it inevitably diverts attention and resources from the husbandry of your existing collection. If you improve the Chinese galleries, that benefits your entire Chinese collection; if you build a new wing to house future gifts of contemporary art, then by contrast you’re entirely neglecting your raison d’être.

The proximate cause for Campbell leaving the Met was that it was having difficulty balancing its budget: while donations were healthy, they were all too often earmarked for capital expenditures, and revenues weren’t enough to cover operating costs. (One under-reported aspect of all this is the retail apocalypse we’ve all been hearing about of late – the Met used to get a lot of money from its stores in shopping malls, but that formerly-predictable flow of funds now seems to be gone forever.)

In that context, the last thing the Met should aspire to is further growth, especially now that it has bitten off the entire Met Breuer building and is having great difficulty chewing it all. Expansion doesn’t just cost a lot of money up front, it also means higher operating budgets in perpetuity. What’s more, there’s no shortage of fantastic institutions devoted to modern and contemporary art, both in New York City and beyond.

The problem here is common to most boards: Filled with alpha types, they are used to chasing growth in the private sector, and therefore work on the assumption that growth is good in the non-profit sector as well. But they’re generally wrong about that. Once a museum reaches a certain size (and the Met is already much bigger than that size), growth pays no dividends. Better to concentrate on maximizing what you have, than on adding to it. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but a very important one.

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