The Good, Bad, and Ugly of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Metropolitan Museum of Art's good, bad, and ugly issues.

Don’t Plan Your Next Trip to the Met Without Reading This First

The forced resignation of museum director Thomas Campbell. A fiscal deficit as high as $40 million. Six-figure executive bonuses amidst a churn of austerity buy-outs and layoffs. The numbers and their implications have certainly frenzied art world insiders over the past several weeks, but it also sounds a lot like 1%er problems.

So what’s really at stake for the rest of us? Nothing, if the ship rights itself. The drama will recede like it never was. Millions of us art-minded folk will simply take note of the next blockbuster exhibition at the Met and go about our day. But if these circumstances point to significant change in the largest and best attended art museum in the U.S, then a few good, bad, and somewhat ugly topics need to be addressed.

The Good

Still making moves. The museum has been around since 1870. It acquired additional digs—an entire facility in fact (the old Whitney Museum building)—in 2016. The newly opened Met Breuer houses the Met’s modern and contemporary art exhibitions. For art students, emerging painters, and established artists working today—this means a lot. Art being made right now has a whole new place to live.

Taking our pocket change. Though there is a recommended donation of $25 at the Met, you can also pay a single penny. With glee I can tell you that I have done both and the art looks exactly amazing no matter which pay-what-you-will route you take.

Young artists get a start. The museum partners with non-profits in initiatives like the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, bringing artworks and literature from local teens to the hallowed halls of the museum. Kids get the opportunity to see that their creative output has a place alongside the most historied art in the world.

Freeing the images. The Met’s Open Access program makes available 440,000 (and counting) public-domain images of their art and artifacts. For those of us who use photo references, this means download, alter, crop, reuse, and manipulate museum-quality images for free, without restriction.

The Bad

Keeping the goods locked up. The Met has close to two million works but, like most museums worldwide, is only able to display about five percent of those at any given time. In the wake of President Trump’s announced budget calling for the shuttering of the NEA and NEH, it is more than crucial that the Met step up. Letting art molder in storage for the sake of insurance, elite research, and conservation holds no truck when it is an artistic famine out here and you’ve got the makings of a feast. Lead by example:

+Organize more traveling exhibitions across America, and make in-roads with non-city centers.

+Encourage the public—not just academics and auction houses—to request access to see undisplayed works. Make that process easy and unintimidating.

+Do more open storage initiatives.

+Be bold. Logistically headaches aside, why isn’t there a mini-Met in every state? With the amount of works the Met has—including hundreds of masterpieces that rarely see the light of day—they could outfit dozens upon dozens of pop-up museums nationwide.

Stop flopping on digital initiatives. The Met had a staff of close to 70 working on digital initiatives until not too long ago. The results have been underwhelming. Curators resistant to giving up control of how an exhibition will live in a digital context and project managers who use the right buzz words but aren’t ready to risk much in actual follow-through have made any kind of significant progress in this arena a non-starter. If a riff on a new audio guide is all this venerated bastion of art can offer, then I’ve got my yawn ready.

The Met: the good, bad, and ugly
Untitled (Studio) by Kerry James Marshall, acrylic on PVC panels, 2014.

The Ugly

Where is the representational art? Kerry James Marshall, we see you. And we want more. There are so many incredible artists doing things with paint and figuration and a loaded sense of realism. The best of the best of them deserve more than active hostility or dusty excuses from the Met.

A stranglehold on the conversation. You say you want to create dynamic experiences that allow everyone standing room in the gallery, so let go of the urge to control the conversation. No one is calling for the Met to become a set for reality TV, a jazzercise studio, or a living room. But the public is no longer satisfied with the status quo. We want to see ourselves in the museum instead of thousands of artworks that tell us why, if you are white and male and Westernized and hetero, your stories get told first and most often.

The Met holds thousands of years’ worth of human artistic heritage within its walls. It is our Prado. Our Louvre. Our Uffizi. Its existence remains crucial if we are to steward art for the next generation.

The board under the aegis of board chair Daniel Brodsky has stressed the Met is getting its house in order, figuring out what leadership is needed and how to move forward. Keep these concerns in mind, will you? After all, you are the only Met we’ve got.

Courtney

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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.   

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