A blustery dusk falls over New York’s Fifth Avenue as the Metropolitan Museum of Art closes for the night. Visitors file down the imposing stone steps, pausing to watch the balletic spray from the fountains on the grandly refurbished plaza. Inside, the only people roaming the near-empty halls are the museum’s director and CEO, Thomas Campbell, and Sheena Wagstaff , his handpicked chair of the four-year-old modern and contemporary art department. The pair is on the loose in the Leonard A. Lauder galleries, where Wagstaff , who arrived from London’s Tate Modern in 2012, has rehung the warren of low-ceilinged rooms with the semi-permanent exhibition “Reimagining Modernism: 1900–1950.”
As the duo surveys the galleries, Picasso’s portrait of his friend Gertrude Stein overlooks the proceedings sternly. Across are a canvas by self-taught African-American artist Horace Pippin and a carved ebony head by Alexander Calder that resembles an African mask. “I tested this on Calder’s grandson, Sandy,” says Wagstaff , 59, a wiry woman who wears her hair in a headband and looks a bit like a younger Joan Didion. “He didn’t know it—because he didn’t know what was in our collection. He’d never seen it before.” Walking ahead, Campbell, 53, steps up to an Amedeo Modigliani nude similar to one Christie’s auctioned last year for a record $170.4 million and says with a smile, “I think ours is better, no?” It shares a gallery with an Alice Neel canvas hung above a chair by Alvar Aalto and a stool by Gerrit Rietveld.
Though the effect is like an eye-popping jumble sale, the audacious mix of iconic and obscure pieces begins to answer a looming question: How can one of the world’s largest museums, which is traditionally perceived as disdaining current art in favor of Renaissance masterworks, Egyptian mummies or Louis XVI furniture, create a relevant contemporary and modern program that’s
Sheena Wagstaff , chair of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s modern and contemporary art department, with the museum’s director and CEO, Thomas Campbell. The untitled painting, by Chicago-based artist Kerry James Marshall, is new to the museum’s collection.
distinct from the other giants of New York’s cultural landscape—and why does it need to? To some, it smacks of hubristic empire building by an institution that already has a huge footprint. In New York City alone, there is the Museum of Modern Art, which has some 200,000 works that even Campbell deems “an incomparable collection of the Western canon”; the Whitney, which focuses on art with an American viewpoint; the Guggenheim, which has made forays into international waters; and the New Museum and MoMA’s PS1, which both cover emerging artists. Then there’s the re-energized Brooklyn Museum, not to mention museum-size mega-galleries and deep- pocketed collectors with their own ambitions.
Given the current art market, expanding the Met’s uneven collection of art from the past 100 years or so, which currently numbers around 12,000 works, will not be easy. “Look, obviously they’re very late to the 20th century. The only way they can get good American 20th-century art, or even European, is to get people to donate it,” says Leonard A. Lauder, who gave the museum his estimated $1 billion collection of cubist paintings, a major coup for the Met. “If you want to buy a good Jasper Johns, it will cost you more than buying an entire collection of Dutch paintings.”
At the same time, a velvet revolution is playing out in the 146-year-old institution, where internal politics have drawn comparisons to the Kremlin’s. “The Met used to talk about itself as 17 museums under one roof, and I have very actively been seeking to break down that notion,” says Campbell, who was appointed in 2008. “We are a single museum with a single collection.” Last year, he and the board augmented the museum’s archaic mission statement for the first time since it was written in 1870, adding the line: “The Metropolitan Museum of Art collects, studies, conserves, and presents significant works of art across all times and cultures in order to connect people to creativity, knowledge, and ideas.” The renewed interest in modern and contemporary art is intended to embrace that ethos, something Campbell was queried about extensively during his interview process. “Since the museum opened, we’ve always collected the art of our time,” says current board chairman Daniel Brodsky, who served on the search committee for the director. Or, as Lauder puts it, “How can you be an encyclopedic museum and end in 1900?”
As a home for this expansion, the Met is working on a complete renovation of the famously awkward Lila Acheson Wallace Wing; the London-based architect David Chipperfield has been coming to New York for frequent visits with Wagstaff ’s team, the board and the city’s parks department. Certainly, airier, more flexible spaces will better accommodate the huge scale of some contemporary art. (When asked if there will be enough room for, say, Richard Serra sculptures, Campbell jestingly replies, “Serra drawings.”) Before Campbell’s ascension, the museum had entered discussions to take an eight-year lease on the Marcel Breuer–designed building on Madison Avenue, home to the Whitney Museum of American Art for nearly 50 years until it moved to its new, much larger downtown space. This month, the wrapping of shiny silver dots that has covered the windows will come down when the building reopens as the Met Breuer, unveiling a new program to an audience curious to see how the Met will play its hand.
“What we can do, as in previous generations, is raise the money to build beautiful galleries where collectors will see their works of art.” For acquisitions under $150,000, he can simply sign off , as long as the head of the board’s 11-person acquisitions committee, Annette de la Renta, also approves. (“I’m not there second-guessing,” Campbell says. “If Sheena brings me an object and says, ‘I really think this is important,’ I’m very unlikely to say no.”) Anything pricier must be pitched at a quarterly acquisitions meeting, although there are ways to fast-track funds if needed. For the top-line blue-chip art that will patch the “huge gaps” (as Campbell puts it) in the collection, Wagstaff must seek donors. “We’re working on it,” she says. “There are artists on a list who we have a mission to acquire.”
That said, Wagstaff is clearly not going after the same core collection represented at MoMA, which tracks modern art from European cubism to American abstract expressionism in the ’50s and beyond. First of all, she can’t—there’s a finite number of such masterpieces. Rather than focus on that canon alone, she’s interested in exploring international artistic movements and contextual multimedia pieces while also playing up any strengths that already exist in the Met’s collection, such as early-20th-century American painting. (The art world term currently in vogue for this approach is textured.) To accomplish this, she’s hired curators in the areas of South Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and architecture and design.
The opening exhibitions at the Met Breuer are “Unfnished: Thoughts Left Visible, ” which will juxtapose more recent pieces like Bruce Nauman sculptures and never-before-seen Twombly panels with over 550 years of historical art (including works by Titian, Leonardo da Vinci and Cézanne), and a retrospective that Wagstaff is personally curating on the late, relatively obscure Indian minimalist Nasreen Mohamedi. “I think Sheena is particularly interested in figures who are not super well-represented in New York City,” says curator Ian Alteveer, who is working on the first-ever retrospective of African-American painter Kerry James Marshall, exhibiting in the fall at the Breuer alongside a Diane Arbus photography show. Wagstaff has sought to acquire overlooked art that meshes with the historical and global themes already emphasized in Met holdings: a glass collec- tion by the Italian architect Carlos Scarpa, video works by South African artist William Kentridge and British artist Phil Collins, wall pieces by American artist Donald Moffett and outsider art by a group of Southern African-American artists gathered by the Souls Grown Deep Foundation.
Such tactics may take the department past the teething pains of public scrutiny and establish it as an attractive destination for future audiences as well as donors. “If they were doing a program that was all just young artists I would say, ‘Why?’ ” says Whitney director Adam Weinberg. “It really has to come from who they are. As one of the greatest encyclopedic museums in the world, how do you do something that the other institutions can’t? Because none of us have collections like that.”
“For the Met to finally put their hat in the ring and commit to the contemporary arts in earnest is huge,” says David Zwirner, Kerry James Marshall’s gallerist, who describes the museum’s previous incarnation as “a parallel universe.” “It’s fair to say in the 20-something years since I opened my gallery, the relationship that the Met has had to contemporary art has been, at best, tepid. For them to change course dramatically is an important decision.”
Although Wagstaff and Campbell are both British, they can make for a bit of an odd couple. (All the English accents around seem to be a sore point for some insiders, with even members of the board joking, “Where did all the Brits come from?”) Campbell took the traditional Oxford University and Courtauld Institute of Art route to becoming a tapestry curator at the
museum for 14 years, though his youthful attitude can make him seem like an English schoolboy who has taken over the director’s grand corner office. Wagstaff , meanwhile, grew up in tumultuous territories like Cyprus and Malta (her father was a former POW–turned–NATO liaison) before attending the then-radical arts program at the University of East Anglia. Her second- floor office is decorated with a lamp she found on the street, and she favors a uniform of Annie Hall–style pants, button-downs and casually flung-on blazers.
When Campbell was appointed eight years ago, he unexpectedly beat out two front-runners: his own boss, Ian Wardropper, former head of European furniture and decorative arts, and Gary Tinterow, head of the then-combined 19th-century, modern and con- temporary departments. Since then, he’s immersed himself in the contemporary art world, popping up in Moscow, for example, for the opening of art patron Dasha Zhukova’s Garage Museum. At the same time, he’s been trying to dismantle the museum’s ossiffied bureaucracy with initiatives designed to increase transparency, such as a computerized system showing where any of the two million pieces in the collection are at any given time.
Even the selection of Chipperfield was part of an unprecedented, open process: The board’s Southwest Wing committee discussed 45 architects and visiited finalists’ buildings across the country. In the past, architecture firm Roche Dinkeloo & Associates was simply handed museum projects with little opportunity for dissent. And whereas Campbell’s predecessor, Philippe de Montebello, cannot be found on Instagram, Campbell enthusiastically posts images of his 51st birthday party, his wife, Phoebe, and their son and daughter competing in equestrian events and the aforementioned Modigliani with the caption: “Just about as sexy as it gets in an art museum before the warning signs go up.”
Wagstaff, meanwhile, generally eschews high- profile events, seeming more at home in the company of artists at low-key dinner parties she attends with her husband, Mark Francis, a gregarious former museum director who now works at Gagosian Gallery in London. (They have a son and daughter.) She has also imported more-democratic policies from the Tate Modern, such as intradepartmental round-table discussions where criticism of potential exhibitions may be aired. At the Tate, she worked under director Sir Nicholas Serota, a man whose name art insiders invariably follow with “the master.” Of her role there as chief curator, he says, “You need someone who can be a pit bull one day and a poodle the next. Sheena is quite tough, so she asks tough questions. But she asks the ones that will help produce a better project.” MoMA director Glenn Lowry, whose museum collaborated with the Tate Modern on several exhibitions, comments that “Sheena is driven, she is ambitious and highly professional.” When told she is often perceived as being extremely direct, Wagstaff looks surprised and then bursts into wry laughter. “Well, I’m American, then,” she says, throwing up her hands.
Serota hired Wagstaff at what was then known as the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford when she was 19 and kicking around after graduating from boarding school in Bath, England, and running an ad-hoc antique jewelry business. “I had a little chemistry set where I would test the gold and precious stones,” Wagsta says. Without a university degree—at one point she thought she might go into medicine—she applied to be Serota’s assistant.
When she interviewed, the museum was showing Arshile Gorky’s colorful work. “I just thought, This is extraordinary. I thought, There’s obviously a language here, and I want to understand it,” she recalls. “It could not have been clearer. I had to get an art history degree because I knew then that the curatorial path was one that I really wanted to follow.” For the next two years, after work she attended night school in Oxford to achieve the necessary A-levels in art history and architecture, before applying to the University of East Anglia. Soon after graduating, she headed to New York to attend the Whitney Museum of Art’s Independent Study Program, run at the time by current Guggenheim head Richard Armstrong. He recalls that “even at that moment, she was uniquely articulate,” co-producing a show for the Whitney on the impact of comics on art in 1983. “It was an unusual idea and well-executed.”
Gallerist Angela Westwater likewise met Wagstaff in the early ’80s in New York and later helped her research Gerhard Richter. “Well, that was pretty ahead of her time,” says Westwater. “There are plenty of other people who are happy to say they jumped on the Richter boat in the past 10 years, but this was almost 30 years ago.” Since then, Wagstaff has seemed unafraid to be an outlier. When she took a post in 1993 at the Frick Art & Historical Center in Pittsburgh, where her husband had been named the inaugural director of the Warhol Museum, she set about enlivening the institution
In 1998, Serota suggested her for a position at Tate Britain. “When she came back, she brought an international perspective,” says Serota. She then moved to Tate Modern, where she oversaw major retrospectives on Latin American artist Juan Muñoz, Edward Hopper, Roy Lichtenstein and Jeff Wall, and commissions for the massive Turbine Hall with artists such as Doris Salcedo.NEW YORK CITY’S museums share a complex and intertwined history. The Whitney, which was originally established in 1931 because Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s collection had been turned down by the Met, was then nearly absorbed by it in the mid-’40s. Robert Moses, then parks commissioner, helped scuttle the plans, which fell apart by 1948. A tripartite agreement was also signed in 1947 by the Met, the Whitney and MoMA, arranging for shared pieces, including some that were forcefully passed from MoMA’s permanent collection into the Met’s, though by the mid-’50s this, too, was dissolved. Curators have jumped from one institution to the other, taking with them their Rolodexes and promised gifts. Today, some trustees and donors are shared between the museums, including billionaires Lauder and Leon Black, and husband and wife collectors Aby Rosen and Samantha Boardman.Perhaps as a result of all this internecine jockeying, Campbell says, “there are plenty of people out there who would like nothing more than to see the Met….” He pauses. “There’s schadenfreude.” Later, he said, “The world is wide for Sheena. She is
daring and politically sophisticated,”
says Salcedo, a Colombian artist who,
in a bold gesture, created a cavernous
crack in the Tate Turbine Hall in 2007
that would permanently scar the building. “For artists who are not at the center, like me, that’s very important.” In the years since, anytime Salcedo has opened an exhibition, she has received an email from Wagstaff commenting on the work.
“I am interested in the tension between fine art, the avant-garde and the art of vernacular,” says Wagstaff . Of the forthcoming Met Breuer show on Mohamedi, she says, “I think that showing any artist who is not a household name brings certain challenges with it. It’s quiet work and not immediately accessible.
“There will be plenty of people, I’m sure, who won’t understand “Unfnished,” or they won’t understand Nasreen Mohamedi, or they won’t understand Kerry James Marshall. Because it’s a new profile for us in the Breuer building, they’re more than happy to stand on the sidelines and carp. I think that the program will just have to prove itself. No doubt, we will make mistakes.”
But it’s a responsibility Wagstaff takes very seriously. “In the end, curators come and go,” she says. “What remains, of course, is the art.” •