Thursday, September 11, 2008

Thomas Hussein Campbell?

Culture Grrl's Lee Rosenbaum has a post on her impressions of new Met director Thomas Campbell, garnered from the press conference announcing his appointment. Lee's piece is set up with a heavily loaded headline and selective photo and condescending caption, all of which is fair game for a blog, which, attention spans being what they are, permits a limited amount of space in which to convey an opinion before reader's flee, but then fails to deliver a convincing condemnation of its subject in my opinion.
Campbell's Soup: Met's Director-Elect Serves Thin Broth at Press Conference

Let's get this over with quickly, if not painlessly:

If you're going to hold a press conference, you've got to be willing to say something substantive to the assembled writers.
Based on that set-up, I expected Campbell's answers to the writer's questions to reveal a lack of confidence or unpreparedness, which is indeed how Rosenbaum tries to sell them, but I think she might have missed the more probable reason Campbell's responses were short on details about his personal vision for the museum...he was sitting right next to the outgoing legend, and anything that he stated that might be interpreted as a criticism would be pounced upon by the press and thrown up as dare this relative unknown suggest he knows better than Philippe? Indeed, I sense a hint of unrequited lust for just such an opportunity throughout Lee's post.

I will grant that reporters need a story...that's what they're paid to get, that's what news outlets sell, that's why writers bother to show up at press conferences...and so I'm not disagreeing with Lee's premise, just her interpretation of what she heard.

Here's the first question Lee asked that we're asked to understand revealed a lack of substance:
Rosenbaum: Philippe [in his opening remarks] just spoke about the importance of "renewal" and James Houghton spoke about the importance of your "vision for the future." Can you tell us what your ideas are for renewal and for the future?

Campbell: This a great institution doing many things right and I don't believe in change for the sake of change. But of course I have been here for some time, I understand how things work here, and I do have ideas. But I think the next three and a half months are going to be a period for me of intense listening. This is the time for me to measure my ideas against all the realities on the ground and it would be premature to speak too directly about new developments. I think that's the kind of question to ask me in January of next year.
The key phrase here that reveals just how politically savvy Campbell seems to be (the story Lee missed, IMO) is "a period for me of intense listening." Presidential candidates of late have used this well (Hillary Clinton seemed to have raised it to an art form in her first Senate race). It has the combined benefits of not making you look presumptuous or overly anxious, suggesting you understand that others' opinions are valuable, and letting you roll out your vision on your time table, rather according to the press' story deadlines. "This is the time for me to measure my ideas against all the realities on the ground and it would be premature to speak too directly about new developments," also echoes the way candidates discuss pulling out from Iraq, Obama in particular qualifies each answer to how he'll redeploy the troops with the caveat that the reality on the ground will dictate his decisions. And he's confident enough about his plans that he's offering the press a timetable on which to judge him.

Personally, I'm both impressed and a bit intimidated that Campbell seems so calculating and confident.

His answer to Lee's next question reminded me of the Illinois Senator as well.
Rosenbaum: To what extent can you explain to us your background in administration, managerial [matters] and fundraising? Can you give us a level of confidence that you have that side of the job covered?

Campbell: I've never been a director. Look, I think that the museum that Philippe will be leaving is a supremely well run, well established institution. We're fiscally sound. We're incredibly dynamic in terms of our programs. We have 17 curatorial departments, five conservation departments, and almost as many various administrative departments, and by and large they're all extremely well managed.
The direct, no bullsh*t acknowledgment of his experience (or lack thereof), his command of the facts, his respect for the intelligence of the person he's talking to, even his use of the work "Look" (echoing the confidence of a law professor getting to the meat of an issue), all of these things made me hear this answer in my mind in Obama's voice even before I connected the dots about what it meant. I doubt that Campbell sounds like Barack in real life, but in print there's definitely a similarity.

So Campbell didn't spoon feed the press conference attendees any sensation or scandal. That hardly means there's no story there.

UPDATE: Lee responds and cites some other reports to back her opinion that
"substance was lacking throughout the press conference."

Labels: art writing, metropolitan museum


Blogger Christopher said...

I thought the same thing after reading Lee's story this morning. Nice wrap up Ed.

9/11/2008 09:41:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If someone will indulge me, I would like to ask a question. In the last 8 years there has been an art boom no? The last time there was an art boom was in the 1980s no? Does this occur because Republicans create tax cuts for the wealthy, which then frees up capital for art?

9/11/2008 10:33:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

If we're going to credit Republican tax cuts with art booms (and while I don't think it's entirely that simple, I do see the logic in your hypothesis), then we have to also credit Republican tax cuts with the eventual collapse of the economy (and subsequent slowdown if not meltdown of the art market) that the lack of regulation they tie to tax cuts brings, no?

9/11/2008 11:12:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ed, regarding tax cuts and art booms...

It is a simplistic and misleading argument which does not fully examine economic history.

What the "tax cuts" have done is inflated the national debt to 1/2 a trillion dollars.

9/11/2008 11:23:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Campbell indeed was quite politically savvy in his comments. That kind of caution will fit into the Met's conservative approach to viewing art. The Met will be safe from radical changes or experimentation from him.

9/11/2008 11:28:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree Edward that it is not that simple, and that it is a chicken and egg issue. Do Rep. ruin and Dems. rebuild? I would say yes. I would theorize that it is true that the Rep. tax cuts create the capital for the boom, and that flood of money away from the regular economy creates the crash. I am just wondering about a bite the hand that feeds kind of situation. Anyway I am pleased about the everybody out of the pool state the market will soon find itself in. Remember the Baldassari quote? "I was fortunate enough to get into this when there was no money in it." Back to art though, when I was in grad school I was constantly berated for A: being a painter and B: being what was considered an expressionist. It is funny to see all the painters who did succeed become expressionists. Will they go boom and become the ham fisted painters of their day? Anybody with perspective on that? I think all this relates to the new Met appointment, no way is the new guy in the pool going to say anything too substantive until he finds out who the next Pres. will be. Yes that is right he has to figure out how to craft his message, and he cant do that until he knows who he needs to talk to. To quote..."But I think the next three and a half months are going to be a period for me of intense listening." Yeah, we are all listening.

9/11/2008 11:33:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

The Met will be safe from radical changes or experimentation from him.


I think New York's other art institutions can be tasked with covering the experimental part of the city's participation in visual art. I actually like the idea of one institution serving more as an archive and educational service whose mission is not complicated by also trying to serve as a barometer of the market.

9/11/2008 11:48:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Agreed. I can remember reading DeKooning saying that he and others (Pollock I think) would only go to the Met because it didnt cost money to get in. That is where they learned about art, otherwise they probably would have ended up quite differently no?

9/11/2008 11:53:00 AM  
Blogger joy said...

That Culture Grrl post is truly obnoxious! As a Met pleb I can offer this: the feeling here is one of celebration and relief: Tom is not some slick CEO outsider, he's a scholar, a curator and a nice guy; he gets the "substance" vote. And like a true Celt he lacks that iconic Euro-centric posturing we have come to associate with the Met helm.


9/11/2008 12:05:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

I think it's fine that the Met deserves a room for "experimental" projects. It doesn't have to be bothered by the market. They just need to make sure the projects are indeed experimental enough. It's in fact a great opportunity that they have these means that they don't have to sell what is up in that room. I wish the curators could understand that opportunity very well. The curatorial project by Kara Walker was one successful sample of what can be done.


Cedric Caspesyan

9/11/2008 12:13:00 PM  
Anonymous said...

Maybe if Rosenbaum had cited some other evidence of Campbell's non-answers--for example, anyone else's questions, not just her pre-loaded zingers--then maybe she'd live up to her headline. But alas.

As is typical, her post is mostly about the thrill of being in her insightful presence.

9/11/2008 10:36:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A friend of mine used to be an employee at the Met's Ratti Textile Center under Campbell's supervision. She told me that Thomas Campbell treated all low-ranking employees of the center as if they didn't exist. The turn around rate at the center was extremely high: the entire staff would change completedly about every two years or so (with the exception of the center's manager who kept being promoted despite her horrible managerial skills or the lack thereof). I know that my friend and her colleagues felt mistreated and underappreciated working at the Antonio Ratti Center. I wonder what Campbell's appointment would do for the Met at large since he was so seemingly hands-off as a lesser administrator of one of the museum departments.

9/12/2008 07:09:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

anonymous whose comment began

YOU, like that delusional imbecile

your comment has been deleted.

I welcome all comments of passion and fire, so long as they're about issues and not personalities. If you wish to either 1) sign your (verifibly real) name to your comment or 2) rephrase to discuss just the issues, I'll welcome yours as well.

9/12/2008 01:40:00 PM  

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