Daniel Weiss and Max Hollein might not be the men for the moment.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s online auction Photography of the Civil War, ending October 7, was devoted to things from its collection. The Met, of all places, with an endowment north of $4 billion and a bevy of billionaires among its trustees, is crying poor. It’s doing what a few years ago was unthinkable. It’s selling art to plug the hole in its budget caused by the effects of the COVID mass hysteria on tourism in New York, and by the Met’s failure to cut its spending to meet the new environment.
The sale, like too much of what the Met does these days, was a damp dishrag. Of 168 lots, only 107 sold. The sale made $257,625, a piddling amount and less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the Met’s $287 million budget last year. I looked at the objects the Met took from its vaults. What a bunch of junk, with things “possibly by,” “attributed to,” and “formerly attributed to” artists such as Matthew Brady, Timothy O’Sullivan, George Barnard, and Alexander Gardner. The Met did both worse and a bit better at a live auction on October 6 of photographs in which it sold only seven of 16 lots and made $458,250. Starting November 4 and running until November 18, the Met is selling modern and contemporary prints at Christie’s online sale A Graphic Century, 1875-1975.
I wrote a few weeks ago that the Met is trashing its reputation by hawking its name, but it couldn’t even convert its prestige to cash. Potential bidders expected diamonds and pearls and saw instead rhinestones and chintz. How embarrassing to pimp the collection and hear the johns say, “No, thanks.”
Financially, from the Met’s perspective, the two sales already ended have to be considered flops, with the museum’s take running below the low estimate. That doesn’t even consider what Christie’s is taking as a seller’s premium since I don’t know the deal that Christie’s made to get the Met’s business. The Met has hired Tobias Meyer, a private art dealer and once one of Sotheby’s top auctioneers, to advise the museum on what to sell. I’m sure he’s not giving his advice for free.
I started wondering a couple of years ago about whether the Met’s in good hands with Dan Weiss as its president and Max Hollein as its director. I’ve stopped wondering, and it’s not. I’ve had many what I’d call affiliations: political life, Wesleyan, Williams, and Yale, museums, and churches are the core ones. Family’s family, and we’re either blessed by who we have in our lives or stuck with them.
Whenever I hear Weiss and Hollein, or read about them, or follow their doings, I think about college presidents and ministers I’ve known, people who reached their peak, usually of modest height, and are on a long, slow slide.
“When are they going to go away?” I ask myself. The Met’s got a case of malaise, and it starts at the top.
Weiss, as president, runs the operations side of the Met and is first among equals while Hollein runs the curatorial and acquisitions side and serves as the public face of the museum, except when Weiss wants some of the spotlight. It’s not a new model for the Met, which is an enormous place that no one person can run. Big chunks of the Met have nothing to do with exhibitions or art or visitors but involve a huge building, unions, raising money, food services, technology, security, a shop, a legal staff, and managing a $4 billion endowment.
Hollein is peppy and smooth and has a German accent since he grew up in Vienna and directed two museums in Germany. Accents go far on the Upper East Side in Manhattan, further at least than in the southwest corner of rural Vermont, where I live. The last director of the Met who didn’t have a foreign accent was Tom Hoving, who left there in 1977. Hoving had an accent all right, but it was part Princeton, part Marine.
Hollein isn’t a scholar. He has an M.A. in art history and an M.A. in business and was a protégé of Tom Krens when Krens directed the Guggenheim and Hollein was his assistant. Before he came to the Met, he was director of the San Francisco museum system for a year and a half, smoothing long-troubled waters there. He proved himself an effective courtier of Dede Wilsey, the board’s autocratic chairman. He treated her like a Hapsburg empress — and as a well-born Austrian, he knew the shtick.
After three years at the Met, Hollein, at least to me, seems a good salesman and showman who knows contemporary art best. He’s never been a curator, though. I see almost all the Met’s exhibitions. Most of the big ones — Alice Neel, the Medici show, the last two big Costume Institute shows, and the 150th-anniversary show come to mind — suffered from incoherence and aimlessness, each to a different degree. Token PC points are awkwardly squeezed into narratives that are otherwise shopworn. I can see in each a failure in quality control, in scholarly rigor, of the kind a director prescribes. Neither quality control nor scholarly rigor is a ruling concern in the contemporary art world, I think.
Hollein looks at an exhibition in terms of marketing and the number of visitors it can attract rather than as an intellectually and aesthetically exciting or original proposition. This is not good.
Kent Monkman’s two massive paintings, commissioned by the Met and in its Great Hall, seem to me to define Hollein’s time there. Monkman is Canadian, with Irish and Cree Indian heritage. Welcoming the Newcomers and Resurgence of the People are multi-figure riffs on American-history paintings such as Washington Crossing the Delaware by Leutze and owned by the Met and works depicting the first encounters of Europeans — whether Columbus, the conquistadores, or the Puritans — and indigenous peoples. They’re painted in a colorful comic-book-realist style and are 11 by 22 feet, so they have presence.
Commissioning them is Hollein’s doing. “As the Met recommits itself to attending more rigorously to underrepresented voices,” Hollein said at their unveiling, “Monkman’s commission is both a trenchant reminder and a steadfast compass going forward.”
Monkman’s gay and has an alter ego called Miss Chief Share Eagle Testicle who is the anchor figure in both paintings as a nude self-portrait of Monkman in black stilettos and a red silk scarf fluttering in the breeze. “Miss Chief” is a play on “mischief,” “Share” on “Cher,” yes, I mean of “Sonny and Cher” but in her gay-icon phase, and “Eagle Testicle” can be read as “egotistical.”
They’re inversion pictures in that they take the settled juxtaposition of powerful Europeans against helpless, doomed Native Americans and reverse them. In Monkman’s work, Natives rescue Europeans floundering in the ocean. Indigenous women cuddle their babies, showing the continuity of Native culture. Gringo and Native develop a partnership that’s not manipulative or transactional but permanent, with Miss Chief pointing the way to a harmonious future.
Monkman’s not a bad artist, but both paintings, taking up so much space and in the Great Hall, suggest flash and sparkle but also unseriousness and a grasping after oohs and ahhs that seems trite, even silly. They’re nice to have and to show — but temporarily and in comparison with pictures such as Washington Crossing the Delaware, someplace else in the museum. I’d call Monkman not an underrepresented artist but a niche or boutique artist. He’s campy. He has no resonance with Canada’s big Cree population, most of whom are racially mixed now.
Hollein describes the Monkman paintings as part of “a reckoning,” but he’s Austrian and might not understand the complexity, much less the sheer number, of relationships and storylines among many dozens of Native American tribes and Europeans, some who became Americans, some who were already Americans, and some who came and went, over 500 years. “Reckonings” are all well and good, but they can become theft from people living today who have no responsibility for the faraway past. The past is fluid, fractured, and messy. Monkman’s two paintings, while brash, don’t have much depth. I’m so sick of chichi, rich institutional voices telling me it’s time for a reckoning, one they don’t plan to share aside from gestures.
And I wouldn’t count on Miss Chief Share Eagle Testicle as my compass to anywhere except the Jimmy Choo section at Saks.
If Hollein is the go-to guy for glib, Weiss excels in gloom. He always notes that he’s an art historian, and that’s true, though he came to the Met as a two-time college president. He seems to have been very successful as president of Lafayette College, less so at Haverford, which he led for two years before going to the Met as president in 2015. He’s got an M.B.A., too.
The Met wasn’t exactly a mess then, but the chicken innards augured dark times. Tom Campbell, the director, was spending boatloads on money on technology initiatives and a new branch of the Met at what used to be the Whitney, specializing in contemporary art. Trustees, worried about mounting deficits, hired Weiss to right the ship both financially and management-wise since, under Campbell, a bit of a snake pit had developed.
Weiss deftly knifed Campbell, who, by 2017, was out as director, and Weiss became both president and chief executive officer, running the whole kit and caboodle.
Until Hollein came, Weiss ran the curatorial side. He killed the Met initiative at the Whitney’s Marcel Breuer building. The board shelved a $600 million plan to add a wing for modern and contemporary art, not necessarily at Weiss’s behest, but I’m sure he popped open a Champagne bottle when they killed what was always going to be a pricey, unnecessary carbuncle.
Weiss is at his best in sequencing essential infrastructure projects — slowly but surely, long-delayed jobs like replacing the glass in the Met’s vast European art ceilings and renovating the Rockefeller wing for African and Oceanic art.
He has also led at least three rounds of budget cuts, or what’s called right-sizing, and here’s the problem. Weiss is a small, prim, grim man who’s never gotten the job done. The Met’s the richest museum in the world. The Getty has more dough, but it’s a foundation with a vast reach beyond its museum. The Met is the bluest of blue-chip charities in the world’s most philanthropic, richest little island. Given all the cuts, a booming stock market, and the not-inconsiderable bailouts that Big Culture got from Washington, why is the place still so broke that it’s selling things from its collection?
Why is the Met doing expensive, lumbering, sleepy, rehash shows like the Alice Neel and the Medici shows? I know they’re fundraising vehicles, but they don’t, at the end of the day, make a profit and do indeed make for staff bloat. Weiss has brought to the Met the college-president mantra about raising money. If you’re not in a comprehensive campaign of some kind, you’re dead in the water. Weiss has been righting the ship financially for six years. Why isn’t he succeeding?
Weiss led the charge in instituting an unprecedented $25-per-head admission fee. For nearly 150 years, the Met was, legally, free. Visitors were strong-armed to pay $10, then $20, but in one-point type, this was the “suggested admission.” Weiss, again deftly, persuaded the board and city and state authorities to impose an admission charge targeting tourists. The museum expected a $30 million annual haul.
I wrote at the time that it’s a bad idea for a museum to link its fiscal wagon to the big crowd star. It makes audience numbers the prime criterion for planning its marquee exhibitions, and what draws crowds isn’t always what’s good. A strong, academically sound exhibition program will bring people to the museum, but they’re hard to do and, judging from what the Met’s been mounting, it can’t.
Weiss’s disaster is a paying audience disappearing because of COVID. It’s a black-swan assault on making admission income a big part of a museum’s financial plan, but it’s the Met’s current reality.
I have no problem with the Met’s tag-team management system. This particular team, though, is in a loop to nowhere.