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PRINT December 2008

Linda Yablonsky

FOR THE NEW YORK MUSEUM WORLD, 2008 began with a whole lot of room at the top. First, in January, Metropolitan Museum of Art director and CEO Philippe de Montebello announced his retirement after thirty-one years at the helm, launching what may have been the most closely guarded executive search in art-world history. The following month, Thomas Krens relinquished his often contentious grip on the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, opening the door to its museum director’s office, which Lisa Dennison had left ajar the year before when she departed for Sotheby’s. Just two days later, the Dia Art Foundation sneaked onto the stage by announcing that Jeffrey Weiss had resigned after only nine months as its director—making for an unprecedented trio of simultaneous vacancies in the upper echelons of New York’s museum world.

So call this the year of the executive branch, inside the art world and out. It is probably a coincidence that two dozen art museums across the country had to seek new directors at the time of a historic presidential campaign, but it is a striking coincidence nonetheless, as if a crisis in leadership had affected every corner of our culture at once. And with their eventual choices for the top jobs at the Met, the Guggenheim, and Dia, New York’s museum boards seem even to have anticipated the country’s move from the corporate culture exemplified by the George W. Bush administration to the pragmatic intellectualism promised by the Barack Obama campaign.

Though Dia was the last of the three museums to announce its director’s departure, it was the first to fill the post. The foundation’s former leader, Weiss, had been a well-regarded curator and historian during his fifteen-year tenure at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. His gentlemanscholar demeanor, however, made him an odd fit for the position of a multitasking ego masseur faced with negotiating and funding a real estate venture to replace Dia’s dormant exhibition spaces in Chelsea. In June, the board found its new leader in Philippe Vergne, deputy director and chief curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

“I was looking for other ways to engage with artists,” Vergne said, when asked what attracted him to the Dia job. “I think this is what I’ve been starving for, and what the art world is starving for—a different way to deal directly with artists.” Dia, he said, is in a position to do things that other institutions can’t. “We have been reasonable for too long,” he said. “Putting four hundred poles in a desert is unreasonable. It defies any understanding of conventional wisdom. That is what Dia is all about.” And that seems to be what Vergne wants to be about, too, even though he admits he will have to spend most of his time raising money and establishing a new home for Dia’s exhibitions in Manhattan. “We’re looking for a building, but the building is an envelope for a program, so we’ll find a building to match the program. It may not happen within the next year, but we’re running as fast as we can.” In the meantime, Dia will continue its programming at the Hispanic Society of America, with a project by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster next year.

After a summer lull in the rumor mill, the Met ambushed the entire art world at the start of September by selecting a little-known tapestries curator, the British-born Thomas P. Campbell, to replace de Montebello. So far he has come across as a nice guy who has no qualms about moving into de Montebello’s big shoes. Yet he doesn’t exude the confidence or charisma of his predecessor and has declined to say much about the future he envisions for the Met, at least until January 1, when de Montebello officially vacates his office. Still, with the Met’s coffers full, Campbell can turn to reorganizing the museum’s vast collections, some of which have been looking a bit shabby or haven’t been highlighted in special exhibitions for years. Campbell is particularly well suited to this task and well liked by the curators who will answer to his calls. Most of all, though, his appointment represents a renewed faith in scholarship and an eagerness to shun the business-minded, entrepreneurial attitude that has defined much museum culture in the city since the late 1990s.

Just two weeks after Campbell’s appointment, another curatorfriendly figure, Richard Armstrong, became the new head of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, with outposts in New York, Bilbao, Venice, and Berlin. Krens had filled that post for twenty years, though the board substantially diminished his power in 2005 when it appointed Dennison, a longtime curator, as director of the flagship Fifth Avenue museum, a new position at that time. When she departed, it was clear that the only way the board could find a viable replacement would be to reintegrate the directorships of the foundation and the New York museum, and Krens soon stepped down. Like Dennison, Armstrong is well known in the art world. He was a curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art for more than a decade before moving on to Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum, where he served as director for a dozen years. Armstrong resigned the job in June, simply because he wanted to move back to New York, and soon found himself in discussions with the Guggenheim’s selection committee.

Armstrong’s appointment seems to be the board’s attempt to steady the rudder of the wackiest ship in the museum army. Over the past several years, the iconic rotunda has become as much a rental space for parties, testimonials, and events such as Francesco Vezzoli’s bold-faced failure of a performance in the fall of 2007 as it has been a venue for serious exhibitions of art. Curators gamely carried on, but without any overall direction, the museum swung between full-throated spectacles such as the one Krens cocurated for Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang and more thoughtful but subdued collection shows. “The perceived hiccups of the past will not recur,” Armstrong said in a recent phone conversation. “One of the things I feel strongly about is that programs come through curators, so they have tremendous intellectual breadth, which gives me pleasure.” He sounded impressed with the exhibitions already in place for 2009, including a Frank Lloyd Wright retrospective that Armstrong promised would have some surprises in store. “For instance,” he said, “it will feature Wright’s plan for the reconstruction of Baghdad. What could be more timely?” Guggenheim watchers can also expect a few hires early in the new year. “The strategic plan calls for a couple of things front and center,” Armstrong said. “One is someone with expertise in Latin-American art. Another curator would have to be a modernist. And third, we need a curator/director presence in Bilbao.”

Whether forced by a strangulating economy or compelled by intellectual curiosity, it looks as if our museums are beginning to distance themselves from boffo box-office blockbusters and are coming to trust their curators’ own expertise and instincts. If a society is to value its store of ideas at least as much as the market for them, this seems a good way to start. In the year to come, money and marketing may actually affect public perceptions of art far less than the affable but brainy personalities now leading our museums. As Armstrong put it, “To have an ethical government will be a tremendous tonic for us, and to the degree that aesthetes can respond to it, we’ll all be better off.”

Linda Yablonsky is a New York–based critic and novelist.