The Triumph of Tradition

The Metropolitan Museum of Art announced today its selection of a new director, Thomas Campbell, to succeed the irrepressible Philippe de Montebello. The "Met," arguably the world's most important museum, has had, since 1880, the same number of Directors as the Catholic Church has had Popes --only nine over a period of one hundred twenty-nine years. (Okay, Komonchak, I fudged by not counting John Paul I.)As in the psalm which promises that justice and peace shall kiss, both The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times applaud the pick, and the reasons that seem to motivate it.Here's the Journal:

this was the most important director search in decades, one watched with keen interestand apprehension. Would the search committee make its priority perpetuating Mr. de Montebello's legacy and hire someone in his mold? Or would the committee decide it was "time to move on," to "make a museum for the 21st century," to quote some fashionable bromides, and recommend someone who would take the museum in an altogether different direction, one antithetical to everything Mr. de Montebello had worked to accomplish? One hoped not, but couldn't be sure. The pressure from the culture at large was enough to give your average board member a case of the bends. 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 someeven by a few in his own professionas 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 backgroundnot, 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?"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, from assistant curator to department head. It was board chairman James R. Houghton's praise for "his great passion for art."That might seem a rather routine observationa 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 qualityor, as he put it, "blue chip." Another director at another time might have used the word "masterpieces."

And the Times:

Because almost every art critic these days comes from the contemporary-art world, contemporary art is often described as a congenital shortcoming of the Met, and it didnt help matters that Mr. de Montebello was so clearly uncomfortable dealing with whats new.Mr. Campbell will need to show that he is more open to todays art and can collaborate with living artists, for many of whom the Met has been a lifelong second home. Their works may illuminate older art in useful ways.But Mr. de Montebello was fundamentally right that for a museum encompassing nearly the whole of human civilization, contemporary art is a blip on the time scale; the Met will suffer if it wastes too much energy accommodating the new, notwithstanding that contemporary art will entice young crowds.Mr. Campbells job will be to insist that the Met should stick to what it does best, which is not the same as what a museum of ethnography or a history museum or a book about social history or a political speech or a contemporary art gallery does. Art museums have become so many things to so many people that its possible to imagine that they, and above all this one, should be all things to all people. It cant and shouldnt.Making clear why will be one of Mr. Campbells main challenges.

Another challenge will be how the new Director will deal with the competing concerns and priorities of the curators of different departments at the Met. Here too the papal analogy may hold: how manage the Curia?

Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is a longtime Commonweal contributor.

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