September 9, 2022 3:19 p.m. ET
In “When Connoisseurs Yield to Curators” (editorial September 3), Eric Gibson longs for the olden days when visitors were transported by European masterpieces and reports that today’s museums have been hijacked by overly awake “commissioners”.
Consider the sins alleged by Mr. Gibson. A museum executive put gender equality at the top of a list of core values for her museum (work by women makes up 11% of US museum collections). A foundation executive wrote of “trustees who benefit from a distorted economic system” (half of museum boards have only white trustees). As for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Mr. Gibson takes issue with our previous director’s articulation of our mission as a place to “understand humanity” with our current director advocating examination of uncomfortable truths about our history. These are not mutually exclusive.
Mr. Gibson imagines that these movements interrupt the experiences of the visitor. I am grateful to him for mentioning the Met’s 150th anniversary exhibition in 2020, in which we featured works by Renoir, Manet and Cassat. A modest wall tag explained that the collector who donated these pieces benefited from the sugar industry and slavery. Our curators refused to construct the exhibit Mr. Gibson might have preferred: one of the Met’s greatest hits without historical context. I agree that museums must live up to the Enlightenment ideal of being places “to understand the world”. That’s why we shared how the Met built the collection.
The challenge facing museums is not that of “curators”, but a national crisis of loneliness and atomization. It is also fear. This spring, the Met kicked off Date Night, inviting visitors to turn off their streaming services, get off the couch, and enjoy the museum. This marked a change; instead of marketing exhibits, we marketed the museum experience. As a result, we are doubling party attendance and benefiting from a younger and more diverse audience.
An array of content, from classic European paintings to kimonos, industrial photography and Afro-futurist art, lights up the faces of these visitors. The lesson is not new: to connect visitors to the treasures within our walls, museums must constantly iterate, lest we truly become curators of an earlier era.
Head of Communications
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Mr. Gibson perfectly depicts a worrying trend. As Covid arrived and museums closed, I witnessed the diversity training required of employees. It was really indoctrination. Any idea of recognition of merit has passed behind the need to recognize a person’s origins, gender and color.
Even more troubling has been the abandonment of fine art and historical antiquities to present them with educated curatorial analysis. Efforts have turned to unknown artists (who fit the desired types) at the expense of traditional Renaissance, Impressionist and Modernist exhibits.
Patrons and donors could react, as I did, by redirecting their support to museums that are still pursuing their art history mission.
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Appeared in the print edition of September 10, 2022.