Last summer, Daniel H. Weiss was named president and chief executive of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the largest art museum in the United States. In addition to its iconic building on Fifth Avenue, the Met now includes the Cloisters, which is located in northern Manhattan’s Fort Tryon Park and specializes in medieval Europe, and the Breuer, the former Whitney Museum, currently a showcase for modern and contemporary art. An art historian who has an MBA as well as a PhD, Weiss was dean of arts and sciences at Johns Hopkins University and then president of Lafayette and Haverford colleges before joining the Met about three years ago as president and chief operating officer. I first spoke to him as he was finishing his move into his new office, its walls hung with paintings by Childe Hassam, Edward Hopper, Andreas Achenbach, and Alfred Sisley. We talked again during the holiday season, when the Met was drawing large crowds for Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer, the 10th-most-visited exhibition in the museum’s history.
Do you remember your first experience with an art museum?
As far as I can remember, my earliest experience with any art museum was the Met. I came here as a high school student, for a class that I was taking on the humanities. Everywhere you turned, there was something new to see. I think we focused on Impressionism, because that’s what we were studying in class. The immediacy of the object in front of you after you’ve studied it is, in some ways, more powerful and more meaningful than confronting the object without context.
What sparked your interest in medieval art?
When I was a student at George Washington University, a young woman I was interested in dating was taking a class in art history, and I thought I would take the class with her. This was a survey of art history, but the professor happened to be a medievalist. He was brilliant and passionate and had a certain way of engaging all of us in what interested him. The images we were studying were drawn from the Old and New Testaments, and they were repeated endlessly—in illuminated manuscripts, on painted fresco walls, on stained-glass windows. What I found interesting about this material was that if you figured out how to ask the right questions, how to look at these images closely and carefully, you would learn that the specific objects mattered. Many of the issues that medieval society was addressing are not any different from the issues people have always been addressing: the capacity of governments to exert influence and to shape social positioning, the ways in which images can inspire devotion or shift belief systems. So a lot of what we were looking at—these religious images—were really political and social images.
About a year ago, I read a headline in The New York Times asking, “Is the Met Museum ‘a Great Institution in Decline?’ ” More recently, also in the Times, various art lovers offered prescriptions for “fixing the Met.” How would you describe the current state of the museum?
This past year has seen a great deal of drama—we’ve had a director resign, and we’ve had public acknowledgment of financial challenges. We also had seven million visitors, an all-time record. We are the second most well-attended art museum in the world. Our endowment is now at $3.1 billion, the largest we’ve ever had. We are finishing a fundraising year that is one of the strongest in our history. Our program—our exhibitions, the critical response to our work and our scholarship—has never been better. We are working through operational and financial issues, sorting out some strategic questions, but the institution is not in decline at all.
One of those strategic questions, I would think, has to do with the role of modern and contemporary art in the Met’s program.
Being an institution of modern or contemporary art is not our primary goal. But there’s no question that the Met should be actively engaged in the world of art going on around us. What we’re seeking is the right balance to allow us to collect, study, and present works of art that were produced a century ago, or 30 or 40 years ago, or even more recently. The recent promised gift of Leonard Lauder’s extraordinary cubist collection—seminal works by Picasso and Braque—provides an excellent example of our commitment to building our collections in modernist art. This is surely one of [former Met director] Tom Campbell’s greatest achievements here. More recently, our exhibitions at the Breuer have presented the work of such contemporary artists as Kerry James Marshall, Lygia Pape, and Diane Arbus.
How does an institution such as the Met negotiate the balancing act between tradition and innovation?
Being innovative is essential, but that doesn’t mean chasing the next bright shiny idea that takes us off the trajectory of our mission. Our commitment to having a digital presence is a very good example of innovation. We are an institution devoted fundamentally to the primacy of the object itself. You come to the museum to see a work of art, not a picture of a work of art. But we recognize that technological advances and digital platforms provide extraordinary opportunities to enhance our ability to achieve that mission. We have 32 million visits to our website every year. Many of the people who visit our website aren’t in a position to visit the museum, but their interactions with our collections and scholarship are deeply meaningful.
Given our entertainment-saturated, short-attention-span culture, should the Met accommodate itself to cultural currents or, in a sense, see itself as countercultural?
We want people to come here and have the opportunity for quiet reflection, to look at works of art unmediated. The most important thing we can do is provide an intellectually serious context in which people from all over the world can appreciate the art of civilizations from over 5,000 years. But scholarship has advanced. Modes of presentation have advanced from the time when, say, the Met’s galleries were organized broadly around sculpture and painting. Our scholarship and exhibitions today reflect the concerns of the world around us, and they seek to engage today’s audience. For example, our recent exhibition, Talking Pictures: Camera-Phone Conversations Between Artists, explores how contemporary artists use digital devices to communicate with colleagues. This is surely a creative way of connecting younger audiences to the power of art.
When I wander your galleries, I have to maneuver around selfie-takers, particularly alongside any work attached to a celebrity artist like van Gogh. What effect does that have on you?
The Met has to live in the world around us, and technology is a very big part of that world. Something like 93 percent of the people who walk through our doors have a mobile device in their possession. The preoccupation people have with selfies does not necessarily say great things about engagement. But having people in the museum is better than not having them in the museum. I wish they could look more at objects and less at mobile devices. But at least they’re here, and my hope is that whatever experience they have with our objects will be meaningful to them.
In the winter of 2017, the Museum of Modern Art responded to the travel ban of citizens from Muslim-majority countries in dramatic fashion: it sprinkled art from Iran, Iraq, and Sudan into its permanent collection. Are there special pressures on the Met to respond to hostile attitudes toward globalization?
We are a global, encyclopedic institution with an almost singular mandate to study, preserve, and exhibit the art of cultures throughout the history of human civilization. This is a very special responsibility, perhaps now more than ever. The Met, by exhibiting and engaging the world in the appreciation of other cultures, can deepen understanding and heighten empathy. And ultimately, empathy is a key element in fostering peace and mutual respect. In contrast, say, to MoMA, our view isn’t fixed on specific, episodic issues related to globalization. We want to represent something that transcends political agendas and is an essential part of who we are and what we represent.
I’m wondering if a Met exhibition from 2016, Jerusalem 1000–1400, focusing as it did on centuries of conflict and convergence, might relate to that point.
I do think an exhibition like Jerusalem highlights our values. But I would say that any moment you walk into the Met, there are always going to be exhibitions that hit on the globalization theme. Last summer, we closed Age of Empires, which was a celebration of some of the great art of the Qin and Han dynasties in China. There were works of art presented that had never left China before.
An online petition recently accused the Met of “romanticizing voyeurism and the objectification of children” with its display of Thérèse Dreaming, the painting by Balthus that depicts a girl in a suggestive pose. Does the Met have an obligation to reimagine such a display, given the cultural moment we’re in?
We believe that the Balthus painting should stand on its own. The work, by an important painter, has been hanging in our museum for 20 years. If people are uncomfortable with the painting, they are certainly free to avoid looking at it. Or perhaps they can issue a statement in opposition. All such responses are consistent with what a free society allows. The path of censorship is not one the museum endorses.
Your exhibition featuring David Hockney—who does a lot of experimentation with color, space, perspective, and realism in tension with abstraction—reveals an innovator who happens to be in dialogue with a long tradition. Do you find that the most interesting artists are feeding off art history, or standing apart from it?
All art at some level is in conversation with the past. There are many ways in which an artist can engage with the art-historical past, from deep emulation to open rejection. But there is usually a context. Indeed, some of the most innovative artists worked from a deep interest in the past—Picasso, Rothko, Hockney.
Do you ever wander the galleries off-hours? I’m thinking Night at the Museum—even if the artwork isn’t necessarily talking to you.
I do go into the galleries frequently when the museum is not open. It’s one of the most magical times to be here; it’s such a privilege to be able to spend time with these great works of art alone, in a quiet, reverential way.
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