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Heir Looms

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.

The man whom the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Board of Trustees voted to hire yesterday as the museum’s next director is not an art world power broker. He is something infinitely more interesting. In selecting Thomas P. Campbell, the curator responsible for the titanic exhibitions of Renaissance and Baroque tapestry mounted at the Metropolitan in recent years, the Board of Trustees has rejected all the usual suspects. They have made a brave and brilliant choice. They have put their trust in a man who knows how to bring the most rarified artistic achievements before an avid, heterogeneous museum-going public. And that is what running a museum ought to be about. Of course, even people who remember standing awestruck before the gloriously woven narratives in the 2002 show, “Tapestry in the Renaissance,” will probably not know Campbell’s name. But that is going to change--and change very fast. There are many reasons to believe that this 46-year-old curator who has just been elevated to the most powerful museum job in the United States is destined to do great things.

This choice is fresh, daring, and unconventional. Under Philippe de Montebello’s directorship--he retires at the end of the year--the magnificent stone pile on Fifth Avenue has become the most exciting museum in the world. And I feel fairly sure that the selection of Campbell is going to be remembered as the last miraculous act of the de Montebello years. We know it was de Montebello who nurtured Campbell’s ambition to bring tapestry back into the center of the conversation about the visual arts of the Renaissance and Baroque. And if it were not for the confidence that de Montebello has placed in Campbell, I doubt the Metropolitan’s trustees would have gambled on such a gifted but relatively untested candidate. This choice is terrific news for anybody who has kept hoping, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that there are still powerful people in the museum world who believe that elite culture has an essential place in a democratic society. Annette de la Renta, who served as chair of the Trustee Search Committee, has demonstrated that the old guard can still be the avant-garde, for in rejecting some of the high-level museum directors, who one can assume were considered for the job, in favor of Campbell, a dedicated scholar and scrupulous curator, the Metropolitan’s Board of Trustees has refused to believe that museums are now mostly about bread and circuses--they have kept faith with the best instincts of the public.

De Montebello has always regarded the Metropolitan as a museum with a soul. But this museum is also an enormously complicated machine, and there are people who are going to wonder whether Campbell will be able to raise enough money and run an operation as enormous as the Metropolitan--they’re going to be worrying, in other words, that he isn’t already a battle-hardened veteran of the museum wars. True, Campbell has had a certain amount of administrative experience, as director of the Antonio Ratti Textile Center at the Metropolitan, but nobody would say that he has been hired for his reputation as an administrator. In choosing Campbell, the Metropolitan’s Board of Trustees has recognized that the museums in this country that are obsessed with the bottom line have pretty much lost their souls--have become heartless, corporate-run tourist traps. The fascination of the decision that the Board of Trustees has now made is that here we have a group of men and women who are movers and shakers in the worlds of culture and finance, and they have chosen artistic integrity over fundraising chops or extensive administrative experience. They have actually decided that a man who understands art and loves art is the person who ought to be running the country’s greatest art museum.

We do not know what the future holds--that goes without saying. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has already become a temporary home for works by Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, and it is doubtful that any director is going to be able to entirely ignore the extremely wealthy collectors who have a taste for Koons and Hirst, and pretty much regard museums as their own gold-plated amusement parks. We also do not know much about Thomas Campbell’s taste, beyond his interest in Renaissance and Baroque textiles and the people who collected them; in addition to the brilliant catalogues he has produced for the Metropolitan, Campbell is the author of Henry VII and the Art of Majesty: Tapestries at the Tudor Court, published last year by Yale. De Montebello’s tenure is ending with two landmark shows of twentieth century art--a Morandi retrospective opening next week and an exhibition of Bonnard interiors coming in the winter--and I have no idea if Campbell will be able to approach modern art with anything like his predecessor’s intelligence. Under de Montebello, the museum has had no exhibition committee; curators have gone straight to the director with their ideas. If Campbell continues this practice, which sidetracks the sort of mediocrity that decision-making by committee so often breeds, he will need the indefatigable curiosity and serene self-assurance that de Montebello has demonstrated in the past 15 or so years.

There is such a thing as institutional memory, and in certain instances it can survive, at least for a period of time, even when the people who are running an institution have lost track of the essential values and goals. Ultimately, however, institutional memory is only as vibrant as the people who are doing the remembering, and it has been deeply disturbing, in watching the weakening of the Guggenheim and the Museum of Modern Art in recent years, to see how quickly those memories can fade. One observation being made about the choice of Campbell is that there is an old Metropolitan tradition of hiring from within. If that was part of the motivation for this hire, then it is all to the good; there is nothing wrong with learning from one’s own past. It has also been said that in looking for a successor to de Montebello, who in the last 15 or so years has emerged as a figure of extraordinary, unprecedented authority, the trustees were remembering that when de Montebello first became director in 1977, he was an untested figure, a man whose very lack of authority was seen as an antidote to the over-the-top theatricality of Thomas Hoving, who had preceded him.

The difference between 1977 and 2008 is that, whereas 30 years ago, the Metropolitan was looking for a change, what the trustees now need is somebody who can sustain the excellences of the de Montebello years. In considering the museum’s future, however, the trustees have wisely refused to elevate a man who suggests a younger de Montebello. Anybody who has met Campbell can see that he is a different sort of person, a scholar-prince with his own sense of groundedness, his own way of dealing with the world. What connects Campbell and de Montebello is nothing you would discover by reading a resume; it goes much deeper than that. What they have in common is their sense of the museum’s essential mission, which is to present the finest works of art in the finest possible way. In the end, nothing else really matters. I cannot remember when the announcement of a new museum director has left me feeling so excited, so optimistic. 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.

Jed Perl is The New Republic’s art critic.

By Jed Perl