Met director Thomas Campbell visits Charleston, talks about the future

Metropolitan Museum of Art Director Thomas P. Campbell with the Gibbes Museum of Art Executive Director Angela Mack.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City is among the biggest and most important institution of its kind, with an annual budget of $250 million and more than 2 million works in its permanent collection.

Thomas P. Campbell runs the place. He was appointed director in 2008, upon the retirement of the legendary Philippe de Montebello. Thirteen years earlier, he joined the staff as a curator of tapestries, his field of expertise.

“I came to the Met in 1995 because at the time I saw it as a museum with funding for ambitious projects, administrative support of ambitious scholarly exhibitions, space and a sophisticated audience,” Campbell said.

He recently visited the Gibbes Museum for the opening of the traveling show “Photography and the American Civil War.”

The Met’s reputation was the result of de Montebello’s stewardship, which made curatorial activities and scholarship the museum’s main priority, he said.

“That remains for me a central tenet of what the museum is and always should be.”

But that doesn’t mean the Met can’t change, and Campbell means to oversee the launch of an important new phase of its evolution, one that includes fostering more partnerships and collaboration with museums such as the Gibbes.

In an exclusive interview, Campbell spoke of his museum’s evolving priorities, digital initiatives and the development of a new 25-year master plan soon to launch.

He said his team is grappling with “what it means to be an encyclopedic museum in the 21st century” with an international, tech-savvy audience.

Partly it means extending the museum’s reach through collaborative work with other institutions and by leveraging the power of technology.

Already, the Met has launched a well-received web series, available at the museum’s website and on YouTube, called “82nd and Fifth,” in which curators discuss individual works of art according to its material content (stone, woven thread) or thematic content (family, transcendence, love). The videos are short, illuminating, accessible and beautifully produced.

They are a product of the newly established digital media department, which is tasked with getting all of the museum’s collections online, Campbell said.

Since he assumed the directorship on Jan. 1, 2009, Campbell has worked to reinforce certain of the Met’s strengths while simultaneously “bringing fresh eyes” to the visitor experience and educational mission.

He has insisted on sustaining the museum’s high level of research while asking his staff to do more, and be more innovative, with the permanent collection.

The purpose is to shed any pretense that the institution is elitist, he said.

“We have to be sure we are fully engaging with our American audience,” Campbell said.

The Civil War show, curated by Jeffrey Rosenheim, was aided by the Met’s significant photography holdings and its general mission to advance the study of American art and culture.

“It is a great example of the way the Met can incubate and support great projects,” Campbell said.

The show was projected to attract about 15,000 visitors during its run in New York City, he said. Instead, 300,000 turned out to see it.

Campbell attributed the critical acclaim and general popularity of the exhibit in part to the compelling images themselves.

“These are everyday people who are caught up in this nation-changing event,” he said. “It’s the first event in American history that is fully recorded and so immediate and so accessible.”

The traveling exhibit, now at the Gibbes, runs through Jan. 5. It will then go to the New Orleans Museum of Art, the final leg of the tour before returning to New York.

The special relationship between the Met and the Gibbes is many years in the making. Gibbes Director Angela Mack and the Met’s Associate Director of Collections and Administration Carrie Barrett are colleagues and friends who first worked together in the 1990s.

When Rosenheim wanted to identify locations outside New York City to host the exhibit, it quickly became clear that Charleston would be a great fit, Mack said. What better place to host a show about the role of photography during the Civil War?

Campbell said the Met is at the end of a Master Plan introduced in the 1970s that has seen the rehabilitation of the American and Islamic wings, the construction of the Costume Institute and many other initiatives, large and small. The museum just finished an 18-month-long feasibility study, scrutinizing everything from traffic flow to the way art is displayed, which will become the basis for a new 25-year plan, he said.

One goal is to rebuild the Modern Art wing, integrating photography, abstract expressionism and other genres more effectively, and easing clutter and crowds.

Another is to use technology and collaborative exhibitions to expand the museum’s reach.

During Campbell’s first five years as director, the Met’s audience has grown from about 4.5 million a year to 6 million.

Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at www.facebook.com/aparker writer.

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