Interview: Max Hollein, the new Director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum
Photo: Eileen Travell.

Interview: Max Hollein, the new Director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum

On September 18, 2018, I had the pleasure of interviewing Max Hollein, who became the new Director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum on August 1, 2018. We first met when he was the Chief Executive and Director of the two San Francisco Fine Arts Museums. When I realized that I would be visiting New York just a few weeks after he would begin at The Met, I asked him whether I could interview him there about his move from The Fine Art Museums of San Francisco to The Met, and he graciously agreed. Max Hollein was a masterful Director in San Francisco. Although he will be missed, all of us in San Francisco look forward to his leadership at the great institution of the Metropolitan Museum.

ESM: How was your farewell with Dede Wilsey [former long-time board chair] and the board of the San Francisco Fine Arts Museums?

MH: All I can say is that I had a great time in San Francisco. The Fine Arts Museums [the de Young and the Legion of Honor] are great institutions. There was enormous momentum going on and we had tremendous successes and I felt extremely comfortable there so I had no intention to leave. In a sense it was really the offer from the Met that made me and my family leave too early. We had planned to be in San Francisco much longer. At my departure, I think that we all felt that we had accomplished a lot. There are so many opportunities there that I would have liked to be involved in, and the board and Dede as well would have liked me to be involved with them, so it was an amicable moment of parting from the staff and the board. We all felt that I was leaving the family too early.

ESM: Do you have any ideas about how the board is going about finding the next director? Have you been asked for suggestions?

MH: As a prior director, you are asked, but there is a search firm retained and I am not involved with it. But of course I am being asked by the candidates about my experience in San Francisco and whatever I can do to help people understand about the great opportunities that are there, I’ll do.

ESM: When you were at the Fine Arts Museums you were in charge of everything, but now at the Met you are working with a business leader, Dan Weiss [the Met’s President and CEO], to whom you report, do I have that right?

MH: Yes.

ESM: That’s different than it was in San Francisco. How do you feel about that?

MH: I’ve been director and CEO of institutions for many years ever since I was 31, so I’ve always looked at institutions from a holistic viewpoint and of course it’s driven by programmatic decisions, but you need a financial understanding to make it happen and manage the institution in a certain way. Coming to the Met we’ve had several conversations about that and Dan and I both have a very holistic view of the institution. We come from an equally informed background. I, as an art historian, I love programming museums, but I have a very strong management background. Dan, on the other hand, has a very strong management background but he understands very much the programmatic side. I really see this and I guess if you would ask Dan he would say the same as a partnership and a way of having two strong leaders move forward in an institution that is so complex and big as no other one in the U.S., if not the world.

ESM: So does all the curatorial staff report to you and administrative staff report to Dan?

MH: Yes, although I don’t like the word administrative. Everyone’s involved in the institution from an intellectual content and perspective. If you want to be formalistic about it, the director is mainly responsible for the curatorial agenda, scholars, science, conservation, digital and for education. On the other hand, finance, facilities, legal, retail are the areas that report directly to the CEO. Having said that, Dan and I currently sit in more meetings about legal and retail businesses than I did in San Francisco. We are making sure that we have equally informed positions and that we can bring the institution together with a joint way of thinking. That doesn’t mean that we might not have at some point an argument about something, which is very normal.

I felt that when I accepted the job that it actually is a relief that for once I’m not the first person in charge of some of the matters that divert your attention from programming. Currently, if you look, we have a major project going of the exchange of the skylights. It’s a huge project that will take three and one half years …

ESM: … and probably very expensive too.

MH: Yes, very expensive too … it’s something I’m concerned about, but first and foremost it’s Dan’s. I see it as a partnership and a way of working together. I’m not someone who thinks extremely hierarchically, so who reports to this and that and the other thing. As long as you are aligned in leadership, that’s what counts.

It’s good to have a certain structure but on the other hand, it’s like in the theater, I’m not comparing myself to him, but I don’t know who officially Michael Tilson Thomas [Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony] reports to. It’s good for Dan to have a director who reports to him, yes, but who on the other hand is driving the institution forward programmatically and from an institutional perspective.

ESM: Speaking about programs, have you had a chance to think about new exhibitions that you’d like to do?

MH: Yes, but the Met does 50-something exhibitions a year, so while I’m working on some new ideas and some projects, my main task is to show the bigger picture and programmatic primary agendas. As director of the Met it’s less about our 52 exhibitions a year, these two are my ideas. That’s not really what you do actually. The great thing about the Met is whatever you do opens up a whole new set of opportunities. And to make sure that it aligns to the overall mission of the institution, that is really something that you have to be very attentive to as a director.

ESM: About what percentage of the art is in storage versus what there is room to show in the galleries?

MH: I don’t really know the percentage, it’s usually about five to ten percent in most museums depending on how you count it. There’s always a misconception about that number. First of all, especially at the Met, it’s not just what you have up in the galleries. The Met is a major archive, a very important scholarly institution that provides a deep understanding about the cultures that we take care of, and in our case it’s almost every culture, which means not just to store them, but to research them, to publish about them and make understanding about them accessible. And so the idea that only the objects that are up on display for visits are the only ones that the museum is active with is a complete misunderstanding about what the museum does.

Some objects cannot be permanently displayed because of the light sensitivity of the material, like works on paper, for example, or the entire costume and textile collection. The idea of rotation, of using objects for special exhibitions is ingrained in the whole logic of collection keeping as well. So again, the idea that the 95% that isn’t shown is dormant, is wrong.

ESM: Have you had a chance to walk around the museum when no one else is here and pick out your favorite pieces? That’s my fantasy, by the way.

MH: Not that I want to be correct as a director and say I like everything, but I think that if you love the arts and are deeply involved in the arts, and have studied the arts for a long time, there are so many things that you like and that speak to you and where you have either an emotional reaction and an intellectual bond, this happens to me in various areas. You are drawn to the areas that you don’t know.

So from the shows that I’ve curated or my education, I have an affinity for modern contemporary art. I never intended to become a scholar there, but I felt I could use my perspective and sometimes my analytical skills to help that area further flourish.

When I came to the San Francisco Fine Arts Museums, I had never worked with a museum that had a costume and textile collection, so it was one of the areas that I got very involved in and hence the Fine Arts Museums is opening the Contemporary Muslim Fashions show [at the de Young Museum]. I’m very excited about it and think that it’s a very important show, a revelatory show and a very challenging exhibition for the Museums to do. It has all the ingredients of any important show. I think that exhibitions are all about that.

ESM: I know that we’re almost out of time. Last question, there is talk about expanding the Met’s space for more modern art. Are you in favor of that?

MH: I am absolutely in favor and completely see and support the necessity that contemporary art is part of an encyclopedic museum. I think that the Met has shown this in the last 150 years ever since its creation, so to further foster the opportunity of not only telling a story of the development of culture that spans over 5,000 years until now, but actually to be able to show modern and contemporary art in a very interesting and stimulating context, which I think this museum can provide. So the context will be different than the more modern focused institutions in the city. That is an important part of the Met’s mission and is a clear priority for us to enhance our possibilities of doing so, and that goes along with creating the proper special arrangement for it.

ESM: Thank you

MH: Good to see you.

By Emily S. Mendel

©Emily S. Mendel 2018 All Rights Reserved

San Francisco ,
Emily S. Mendel, a writer and photographer, has been a regular contributor to since 2006, where she reviews theater, art, film, television and destinations. Ending her 30-year law practice has given Ms. Mendel the time to indulge in her love of travel and the arts, and to serve as the theater reviewer for