Charlotte Burns: Hello and welcome to In Other Words, where we cover everything you ever wanted to know about the art world but didn’t know who to ask. I’m your host, Charlotte Burns, and we’re recording today at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with Max Hollein, the tenth director of the institution.
Max Hollein: It’s important to see that contemporary art here at the Met is and will be a core emphasis. But it will also happen in different ways than you would see it in other institutions.
Previously, Max was the director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco from 2016 to 2018, a role he assumed after 15 years directing three museums in Frankfurt, in Germany, the Städel Museum, the Schirn Kunsthalle and the Liebieghaus sculpture collection.
An art history major who went on to get a Master’s in business administration, Max began his career here in New York, working at the Guggenheim under then-director Tom Krens. He’s also written extensively for various publications, including three fantastic contributions to our very own newsletter, In Other Words, which you can check out online at artagencypartners.com where you can also subscribe.
But now, onto the show.
Max, thank you very much for making the time to talk with me today—
Max Hollein: My pleasure.
Charlotte Burns: —a year into your role as the director of the Met. You’ve taken the reins of one of the world’s leading encyclopedic museums at a time in which the founding principle of those institutions—this Enlightenment idea of bringing the world’s cultures to one place and telling one single, straightforward, Eurocentric narrative about them—is increasingly being challenged, and urged in a direction that is more messy, international, fragmented and intertwined. Where does the Met take this forward?
Max Hollein: For sure, this is one of the, if not the major issue of an encyclopedic institution of today and moving forward. As you suggested, the idea of the encyclopedic museum was founded in the Age of the Enlightenment, so it’s 200, 250 years old and it certainly served us well. It made sure that we are able to provide a certain understanding of the development of the cultures of the world.
But indeed, encyclopedic museums tended, and still tend, to tell that story of development in a more or less linear narrative. We know, of course, that that linear narrative is not true—that actually, the development of cultures has been much more intertwined, interconnected, and didn’t happen in the sequence that some museums actually suggest: like starting in Old Mesopotamia and then going to Egypt, and to Greece, to Rome, and then to Europe.
It’s actually much more complicated and we have to acknowledge that there is not one story: that there are actually multiple intersecting stories, and multiple viewpoints. How you can look at that narrative?
So to challenge that, or to address that, you have to start with the situation that you’re given right now within an institution. Meaning that probably, the Metropolitan Museum would look very different these days, if you would build it up from scratch again.
Charlotte Burns: Right.
Max Hollein: So, on the one hand, you respect the whole history of the institution and how that basically formed certain areas, certain departments. That’s all, obviously, also a very valid form. On the other hand, you take attempts to complicate the narrative, making it in that way not so much messy, as you suggest, but actually more porous—more for you as a visitor to get engaged within, not only experiencing new revelations in certain areas, but also experiencing new revelations about these areas actually do connect.
Moving forward, that means for the Met that we certainly will continue to have our very specific departments, our very specific ways of displaying certain areas of cultural development. But we will also have more areas where we’ll actually show how these areas are—
Max Hollein: Overlap and connect. So that will manifest itself in special collection displays. It will manifest itself more than we have done already before in our exhibition program. But it will also be a certain area of emphasis within our respective departments, inasmuch as you sho—like we do already fairly well in our Islamic galleries—how certain developments are actually very much connected to other developments in other areas.
Charlotte Burns: This takes us in two directions. One is the works coming into the collection—which is to do with funding—and the other is works that could leave the collection, which links to this conversation around cultural heritage. There has been a shift in that debate in the last couple of years. It’s a long running debate about museums, and their obligation or not to return cultural heritage to countries from which objects were taken.
The French president Emmanuel Macron sparked a new debate in 2017 when he said, “I’m from a generation of French people for whom the crimes of European colonialism are undeniable and make up parts of our history. I cannot accept that a large part of cultural heritage from several African countries is in France. So, in the next five years, I want the conditions to be created for the temporary or permanent restitution of African patrimony to Africa.”
Following that, the Élysée Palace spelled out the new policy, saying: “African heritage can no longer be the prisoner of European museums.”
That sparked a shift in thinking across European leadership, but it was divided. For example, Taco Dibbits, the director of the Rijksmuseum, was opening conversations about the restitution of colonial era objects to Indonesia and Sri Lanka, saying it was “a disgrace that the Netherlands is now only turning its attention to this. We should have done it earlier and there is no excuse”.
Meanwhile, in London, Tristram Hunt, the director of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, wrote an opinion editorial in the Guardian saying that, “For a museum like the V&A to decolonize is to decontextualize,” and that there wasn’t such a thing as good and bad about empire, but it was more nuanced.
What, where do you stand on all of it? How does the Met deal with that, and this pressure to think about objects? Especially because there’s a lot of museum building going on, particularly in Africa.
Max Hollein: So, I think first one has to look at the particular history and background of institutions. And for sure, the Metropolitan Museum differs significantly if you compare it to museums in Great Britain, in the Netherlands, in Belgium and in France. The Metropolitan Museum was founded 150 years ago by basically New York citizens saying, “Well, we want to have a great institution here in New York.”
I think it’s also important that the idea of an encyclopedic institution clearly encapsulates the urgency and the importance of being able to show all different cultures in multiple ways as we’ve just discussed in one place. Because I think that’s not only a revelatory, but an important moment of showing cultural connectivity and being able to really understand that the course of the cultural development in the world.
Charlotte Burns: Right.
Max Hollein: So, in that sense I think that the Met clearly understood itself always as an institution, as a museum, not only about the world but really also for the world. And not an institution that comes from a certain particular angle. If you would look at the Prado, for example, you clearly have a history that stems out of the collecting of aristocratic rulers of that time in that area.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah.
Max Hollein: I think that there’s a very different situation here. On the other hand, you want to make sure that you are, as an institution, a great custodian of cultural heritage and that you’re able to share that with as many people as possible.
So, the question that’s coming next is: what is the most interesting, efficient, but also broad ranging way to share that with an audience? I think in a city like New York, and with our attendance, there is already a fair amount of sharing going on here onsite—
Charlotte Burns: Physically?
Max Hollein: Physically. But on the other hand, the Met has defined itself also as an institution that’s very internationally active, present, and I would say, sharing. Our activities range from running excavation sites in different areas of the world, doing fellowship programs in India and other areas, so there’s a strong connectivity that we see in that context.
Charlotte Burns: Right.
Max Hollein: You can, of course, also expand this whole question in regard to: whose heritage is it? We have a very strong and important African American community here in New York, or in the US. If you’re talking now in particular about our holdings of African art, that’s also part of their heritage as well. For us, the most important thing is to really make sure that we are showing, displaying and contextualizing this work in the best possible way, hence our continuous investment both financially, but also intellectually, in the collection display.
We are just about to reinstall our African, Oceanic and Americas collection. It’s going to be a $70m capital project. We just did the same in regard to our Islamic Galleries, we’re doing the same in regard to Ancient and Eastern Galleries, so there’s a lot of energy—
Charlotte Burns: Rethinking—
Max Hollein:—and investment going into that. Having said all of that, it is clear for the Met—especially for the Met—anything that came to the Met, for whatever reason, in an unlawful context, that we should restitute that work. We are doing so.
Charlotte Burns: Which you just did recently.
Max Hollein: Which we’ve just done recently, with the golden coffin that we’ve returned to Egypt and in a couple of other cases.
But to argue that works can really only fulfill their destiny by returning them to the place where they originated, I think that goes completely against the whole idea, of… well, the encyclopedic museum, but also the idea of art having traveled or that has been traveling around the world and influencing and being in dialogue with so many different people.
Charlotte Burns: You just mentioned the idea of returning objects that have been looted, and you referred to the 1st century coffin that was returned to the Egyptian government. You said then: “Our museum must be a leader amongst our peers in the respect for cultural property, and then, the rigor and transparency of the policy and practices that we follow.”
You were reported to be in conversations with the Indian government about a number of antiquities that had been acquired over the past three decades that were possibly the product of looting by Subhash Kapoor, the Manhattan art dealer who has been accused of smuggling artifacts.
This is part of a push by India to recover some of those tens of thousands of idols and ancient relics that are now known to have been plundered.
What’s the latest on those conversations, on those specific objects?
Max Hollein: Well, we are researching—we are further researching—the provenance of some of these objects, and obviously, through the investigations into the Kapoor case, new information has surfaced and might surface which allows us to better understand where some of these objects—
Charlotte Burns: Came from.
Max Hollein: Really came from. We also are purposefully very transparent in regard to the provenance of these objects. But I have to say, in some cases we don’t know much more and we’re trying to find out more, to understand: have they been looted? Where are they coming from? Is there an issue with them? So, I think that’s where we are currently in our conversation.
Charlotte Burns: So, for you on this whole idea of cultural repatriation, the line is more about whether there was something illegal rather than, for example, if there was just pressure from a foreign government to return objects; if that were more a kind of moral pressure.
Max Hollein: Well, having been a museum director in Germany for a long time there is a clear moral pressure that you follow, first and foremost.
A lot of the restitutions, for example, that are happening in Germany these days are not based on legal grounds. Actually, German law would allow you to be the rightful owner of a particular work, an object, after 30 years. They are done on moral grounds.
Charlotte Burns: Right.
Max Hollein: So yes, you follow a moral compass in regard to some of these question for restitution. But you also need to make sure that that moral compass is somewhat defined, on the one hand, by a legal framework and on the other hand, by a level of information and a level of understanding, of background, that you then exercise.
Charlotte Burns: For you also, it’s about thinking even more about the ways in which objects are presented within the context of the museum too. It’s not just necessarily about returning, it’s also about repositioning within the museum, to some extent.
Max Hollein: Yes. We clearly want nothing to do with works that have been looted or came illegally into our collection. On the other hand, I see the conversation currently, in some areas, going into a direction that basically almost makes the argument that an object or any artwork ideally should be returned to its original—
Charlotte Burns: Country of origin.
Max Hollein: Place of origin. I think that’s a very simplistic argument, that doesn’t—
Charlotte Burns: It essentially ceases museums.
Max Hollein: Well, it not only ceases museums, but I think it would be detrimental to the cultural dialogue of the world. I mean, how great is it that we have fantastic American Pop art in German museums?
Charlotte Burns: This is something you wrote about for In Other Words, actually, this idea of exporting. You wrote for one of our annual American issues—and I’d never ever thought of this—you wrote about the fact that American culture hasn’t really been exported into Europe. Instead, European culture was imported into America. And so, Europeans don’t necessarily understand American culture through the cultural history of those American objects, because that wasn’t the way that the trade went.
Max Hollein: That’s right. To speak in terms that are being currently used in politics: there has been a huge trade imbalance between European art of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries going to the US versus American art of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries not coming to Europe. So, the American institutions are full, and greatly so, with important British art of the 17th century and the 18th centuries, and French art of the 18th and 19th centuries.
So, you have a fair amount of not only understanding of the art, but also of the time in American institutions and cities. So you learn. You can learn about the French Revolution, and many other things, in American institutions through the art. Whereas in European institutions, before the art of Abstract Expressionism and Pop, there is almost nothing.
You have one or another Hopper paintings, and maybe a Georgia O’Keeffe painting somewhere, but there is virtually no representation of American 19th century landscape painting, for example. So for a European, they are not being educated in that context in the European institutions about certain really important events or a broadly arranged cultural understanding. So, the whole ideology, for example, of Manifest Destiny—if that’s good or bad, it’s another question—but that’s basically nothing that you would—
Charlotte Burns: You wouldn’t learn about that in Europe, no.
Max Hollein: Hear about or learn about that, right?
Charlotte Burns: No.
Max Hollein: And you wouldn’t understand it. I think it’s also the whole idea of American ideology—especially in the 19th century—of being the blessed country, God’s elected country. All of that is not being translated, so to say. Because that—
Charlotte Burns: That played out in the culture, and we never saw those paintings.
Max Hollein: Right, that culture’s not being represented in Europe. And I think that’s a mistake, or that’s a problem. So, I see a great, great benefit for culture and artworks being dispersed and being in the world, and being part of a much broader cultural understanding and showing a level of not only connectivity, but a level of understanding of other cultures. I think that was really what brought the world together. I think that one shouldn’t underestimate the role that museums play in that.
Charlotte Burns: In information?
Max Hollein: Yes. And all the great developments that were triggered. I think the world would be a different place, a much less comfortable place, and actually, a worse place if there were no museums that had been so active, in many different cultures, to showcase other cultures.
Charlotte Burns: Right.
Max Hollein: And also, to showcase them in a way that basically, you can learn about them, and you start to understand them, yeah.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah, I understand. The Met’s been quite open about the need to change in that way, to spread more information, to think about the information biases, essentially, that the collection has displayed up until now.
The Met has taken part in both of the data studies that In Other Words has produced in collaboration with artnet News looking at the representation in US museums and the international market. Last year, we looked at the representation of African American artists. This year, we just published a report on the representation of female or female-identifying artists.
We asked the museums to give us information on the number of works that had entered their permanent collections over the past ten years and the number of exhibitions, and then we took those names and checked them against our own list and ran those names through market databases, to see the market figures.
In each of the data studies, the representation has been a fifth of where it should be if you looked at the demographics of America. So that was the case, in terms of the museum representation of African American artists. It’s the case this year with the representation of female artists, if you take that there is around 51% or half of the population is women. Actually, only 2% of the global art market has been of work by female artists.
So, the numbers are quite low. One distinguishing factor about the female artist data is that there hasn’t really been progress. Actually, in terms of the acquisitions they go flat for the past ten years, peaking in 2009. Is that surprising to you?
Max Hollein: I think partly this is surprising, in regard to the data. On the other hand, one would have to understand how the whole development will play out in the long run. If I look at the institutional framework as a whole, in particular at the Met, there has been a huge development towards more diversity in regard to both our programming as well as in regard to our collection activity.
If you currently look at our programming that we have at this very moment, with the Mrinalini Mukherjee exhibition right now at the Met prior, with the Vija Celmins show coming up as our next major collaborative special exhibition, with Wangechi Mutu being on the façade of the Met. Just to take this one moment in time, you have a very strong female and African American component there.
In regard to the collection-building, it is clearly a focus of our institution as well as, I think, in general of institutions. But collection-building, obviously, works in two different speeds, right? On one hand, you have the acquisitions that the museum does. Diversifying our collections—and catching up on our collection in regard to African American and other areas, as well as representing more women artists in our collection—is a priority. And you see that in multiple ways.
The larger collection development will actually even happen only with a certain timeline, which is the moment where collectors are donating works to the museum, right?
Charlotte Burns: Right.
Max Hollein: Which is, as you know, actually the bigger area of our collection development. It has always been. The majority of our over 2m objects in this institution came through gifts and not through acquisitions. So, in a sense, what you see already happening on the market, certain collections that are being built up, they will find their final destinations in—
Charlotte Burns: In museums.
Max Hollein: In museums. So, you see it happening on two levels. And in that sense, I’m not saying the data is misleading. But I think one will see that the data is playing out on two different levels.
Charlotte Burns: I think you could see that possibly in the data from last year, from the African American artist data. Less so this year, with the female artist data—
Max Hollein: Okay.
Charlotte Burns: Because there has been no trend line towards that. You’re not even seeing the nascent beginning.
One thing that we’ve uncovered is the gap between conversations that we’re all having and we all say that we’re all having, and then the reality of what’s actually happening. I think it’s harder to stick to the latter, because these data studies, for example, are the first data studies like that that museums have done to look at this. So, progress hasn’t really been tracked in that way. It’s been a more emotional, subjective experience up until now.
When you look at the data for the female artists, there really isn’t a shift in the right direction. So, when we say it’s a priority, it’s not clear right now that unless there’s about to be some miraculous change—and it would be from a data point of view miraculous. The data is the institutions’ data, so it can’t really be misleading in that sense. It just can’t tell us the future.
Max Hollein: I would need to look at the data, exactly, to be able to kind of—
Charlotte Burns: Go through it.
Max Hollein: Interpret some of that. But you looked at the Met’s acquisition of contemporary artists, or—
Charlotte Burns: Everything, yeah.
Max Hollein: Right.
Charlotte Burns: Which, obviously, therefore is more difficult.
Max Hollein: Obviously, that’s much more difficult if you look at it just from a percentage standpoint or data standpoint. If you compare an institution that collects over the course of 5,000 years of cultural development, which certainly has a very strong male—
Charlotte Burns: Bias.
Max Hollein: Bias, versus if you’re—
Charlotte Burns: Modern and contemporary
Max Hollein: Just a contemporary institution, right? So even though it’s a priority for us… and it will be, for sure. Let’s just take the European Old Master area. I think that you will see some major acquisitions happening in regard to female Old Master painters. But actually, not only is the market so much broader in regard to men, you will never have an ability to kind of put that on equal terms.
So, in regard to this, I think that the data for an encyclopedic museum would have to be almost segmented, much more than the data that you’d get just from the contemporary field, yes.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah, and we do break it down that way as well.
You talked a little bit about the market there, in the sense of saying that the works that come into the collection—and this is true of most museums—they come from private collectors. At some stage, they’ve been through the market.
You have a reputation as a great fundraiser. When you were the director of the museums in Frankfurt, you transformed the spaces. When you took over the Schirn, for example, the attendance was so low that politicians were arguing for its closure. Ten years later, in 2010, it had been called the most exciting exhibition hall in Germany.
You also fundraised a lot. You fundraised E69m to double the Städel’s exhibition space, and you created a new wing dedicated to postwar contemporary art.
So, coming into the Met, how do you steer that ship? Someone had once said to me about the Met that you could stand at the Met and throw a shoe out the window and hit a collector who would think about giving you their work—the Met never really had to work that hard to bring in the funders.
Then, with the focus on contemporary art more, it became a little more difficult to think about how to build support for that contemporary collection because the Met had been able before to accommodate the wishes of all of its generous donors, without having to direct them in a specific way.
With the contemporary wing, there was this sort of trouble in getting that money at first because it was a different education process, or a different process of soliciting funds from the board and trustees. Where is that now? How do you think about that, can you help steer ships in that way?
Max Hollein: Right.
Charlotte Burns: Or do you just have to bring on new passengers?
Max Hollein: So, the reality of the job here at the Met… Well, let’s say, the bigger difference that I’m experiencing, compared to my previous directorships, is that at the Met you’re always being confronted—and it’s obviously, on the one hand, positive—with endless opportunities. Meaning that at any given moment, there are so many things that we could do and that would get funded.
Charlotte Burns: You’re spoilt for choice.
Max Hollein: Yes. Or other people keep pitching you. So, it’s really an institution that is, in that sense, embraced by support, by love, passion and certainly also agendas. If you are not—as the institution, you as a person, the director, but I think I speak now more generally about the institution—if you’re not clear on where you want the institution to go, what mission you want to fulfill, what are the important steps to get there, then you can get distracted at any moment in time. You could get opportunistic, always, in doing the course.
I think it’s really important, in this environment, to make sure that you clearly identify both for yourself but also for the many communities that surround you what is really important right now for the institution and where you see this happening.
I think it’s clear that we have a certain set of priorities. Let me talk about one or two a bit, because they connect with your question.
One, it has always been a priority for the Met to further enhance its collections. And that’s very unusual, actually, in regard to an institution of the size and the importance of the Met. So, if you compare us to our peers—
Charlotte Burns: People aren’t collecting at the same rates.
Max Hollein: Right. So if you compare us to the Louvre, the British Museum, the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, the Prado—probably your data, if you would run a similar analysis that you have just done, would show you that the Met is so active and it continues to be so active in further building its collection, which is fairly unusual. It’s important for us, because it shows we are an active institution and we continuously thrive to make it better.
Also, we invest a lot of funds, as well as scholarly and curatorial energy, in continuously improving our collection display and our offerings. Which basically means that we, at any given moment in time, have several larger-scale capital projects going on.
Charlotte Burns: Right.
Max Hollein: So currently, we are renovating our European paintings galleries especially. We’re doing our skylights for a total of $140m. We are just about to finish the major reinstallation of our British decorative arts galleries. We are just about to embark on a major reinstallation and architectural redesign of our African and Oceanic Wing. We are just starting to work on a rethinking of our Ancient and Eastern galleries, and we are in the midst of our project for the Modern Wing.
Charlotte Burns: And that all alone is—just looking at the numbers here—that’s around $240m before we even get to the reconsidering stages. That’s just the stuff that’s happening.
Max Hollein: It’s just the stuff that’s happening. If you would add this all up it’s over $1bn with the Modern Wing, and all these other things. Just the African and Oceanic Wing alone in other institutions would be a new building. So, you have a strong commitment for that. And on the other hand, you clearly signal where some priorities are, and how you’re—
Charlotte Burns: You’re pushing.
Max Hollein: Where you’re pushing, and where you’re pushing there and developing.
In regard to our commitment to Modern contemporary art, I think it’s important to acknowledge, on one hand, that the Met has been involved with contemporary art from the very beginning of its origin. It has been founded also by artists and always had a very strong not only relationship with contemporary art, but also collected contemporary art.
The Met has clearly amplified that in the last couple of years not only in regard to its collection building, but in regard to its programming. I think the Met Breuer has been an enormously successful and powerful not only exhibition institutional platform, but really also a laboratory not only for the Met but for the community out there, to show how one could develop very interesting programming that connects often the art of our current time with developments in the past, and how you could look at them in different contexts.
Charlotte Burns: And creating a different, distinct institution in a crowded landscape.
Max Hollein: That’s right. So, when you ask from a fundraising perspective—since that’s where your question started from—it’s important for us to define what is in regard to the Modern Wing the special proposition that the Met can do in regard to contemporary art. What is the unique context that we can provide? And what is not only our path and how we want to achieve it, but what will be the outcome? And how would that complement, or be even something really entirely—
Charlotte Burns: —Transformative.
Max Hollein: —Different, transformative, in a very crowded contemporary art landscape in New York with other institutions certainly covering contemporary art in a major way. And some of them, obviously, in an even more major way than the Met does. So, for us, I think that it’s important to see that contemporary art here at the Met is and will be a core emphasis. But it will also happen in different ways than you would see it in other institutions. On one hand, we will completely underline a much more globalized view on contemporary art—a much more multicentric perspective on what we collect, and—
Charlotte Burns: What you consider contemporary.
Max Hollein: From which regions, and then also, what we consider contemporary. Or if you look at the art of the 20th century, you want to make sure that we are certainly not looking at only looking at the Western canon.
Charlotte Burns: Europe and America.
Max Hollein: We are certainly not looking at only through a Western lens, actually. So, all of this will play out in a way that will manifest itself in the new Modern Wing, but in the Modern and contemporary collection that’s fairly different to a lot of other institutions; also in an attitude about contemporary art that is fairly unique in the Met Fifth Avenue building, with larger scale interventions of contemporary artists in the façade, the Great Hall, and even found in other places. If you walk through the galleries right now—through our African galleries, our Asian galleries—there is art of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s in a lot of these places. We just sometimes don’t see it as the art of our time, because it’s—
Charlotte Burns: It’s not of our place.
Max Hollein: It’s not of our place, right.
Charlotte Burns: And so, with the Modern and contemporary plans, the Met’s obviously decided to opt out of this tenancy at the Breuer early, handing it over to the Frick Museum and saving around $45m in the process. Meanwhile, the plans that were announced in 2014 to create a $600m wing designed by David Chipperfield stalled after financial concerns and a budget deficit in 2017.
Last year, it was announced that the plans were back on track. In your most recent interview with the press, you’d said that you were meeting with David and discussing things with him. Where are you now? What are the plans for that?
Max Hollein: Firstly, it’s important to see that this is of course a big and joint effort. It’s not certainly only the director, but I work closely with Dan Weiss, our president and CEO here, as well as our whole board who is committed to the development of the Modern Wing.
The priority of this institution, besides some others, has been to, of course, make sure that we are back to a balanced budget so that we are operationally sound, and—
Charlotte Burns: And you should be there in the next year.
Max Hollein: Yeah. We will be there this fiscal year, so I think we are on a very good track, and that’s really hard work that took place already in the last two or three years. We will continue to do that and we will have to continue to do that along the way, because it’s the operational reality of institutions that we have to make sure that we continue on that path.
On the other hand, it’s a clear commitment that the board expressed again that we not only want to get all of the Modern Wing or the development in regard to Modern and contemporary that we have sketched out done. We also want to make sure that it’s been done in a financially sound but also ambitious way.
We are currently in the midst of, I would say, a silent fundraising phase as well as a conceptual phase of further defining the program.
With it comes a continuous dialogue about the architecture. But the core design of Chipperfield is here, and we’re moving forward with that.
Charlotte Burns: Obviously, since the plans were announced there has been significant contemporary museum building around the world. I’m thinking of MoMA, which is opening this fall, of Tate Modern with the oil tanks. Does that change the way that you think about, for example, bringing performance into this space? That these things are things that other museums who are focusing on contemporary art are thinking about in terms of the culture of display?
Max Hollein: Yeah. I would say that performance has played a very important role at the Met, throughout Met life, arts programs and others over the course of the last years and will continue to do so. I also think that the Met as a whole is a very fascinating and also charged environment for contemporary artists. I would not see the Modern Wing, per se, or let’s say a succession of 50 galleries, as the only area where—
Charlotte Burns: You’ll see art.
Max Hollein: Contemporary art will happen. Let’s say the oil tanks of Tate, in our case, are probably the Temple of Dendur. You see what I mean? I think we have very unique and charged environments, which are very inspiring for artists in a completely different context, yeah.
Charlotte Burns: And they need to build that.
Max Hollein: We don’t need to build that, in that way. When you speak with artists in New York, a lot of them will say that their favorite museum is the Met. They go to the Met for inspiration, or just being in exchange and dialogue with other works. They’re probably not mainly visiting our contemporary galleries, actually.
Charlotte Burns: Of course.
Max Hollein: They go in the very different other galleries, and we want to maintain and manifest that dialogue in multiple ways, moving forward.
Charlotte Burns: So the building, quickly, to finish on that. Do you have a timeline? Or is it still, “we’re in the middle of conversations”? Or do you expect, for example, an announcement in 2020?
Max Hollein: Well, you will certainly hear things in regard to this project, for sure, during the course of this year.
Charlotte Burns: Okay. Great.
Max Hollein: And we’ll be able to move forward and explain the project. I think it’s clear that there’s a certain reality of doing these projects and it has to do with the amount of time that you need to get permissions for construction and how long construction will take. So, it sure keep us busy for the next couple of years.
Charlotte Burns: To take us away from this idea of cultural authority, I wanted to ask you a little bit about the idea of this conversation around the morality of funding, which takes us into a little bit the idea of who a museum is for.
The Met announced in May that it will turn down donations from members of the Sackler family, who are linked to Oxycontin, after protests predominantly led here by the artist Nan Goldin about the opioid crisis. The move came after similar decisions by other museums, including the Tate and the Guggenheim, and other museums elsewhere.
We’ve seen then, at the Whitney, there has been pressure which ultimately succeeded in removing a board member after protests about his links to industrial weapons that were used on the border. This is a big debate right now and it’s very, very heated: this idea of where money comes from, and who a museum is for. Who has a voice, who gets to sway power? What is your thinking about that now?
Max Hollein: I think it’s a great moment, on the one hand, for a museum. We should and can be a platform for debates. I would say, in general in our current environment, there are very few platforms still in existence where you can have a structural, well-informed, non-polemic debate about something. So, I think we want to make sure that we are able to provide that and are that.
In that sense, I’m all for the idea of artists surfacing issues. Nan Goldin addressing issues as part of not only an artistic activity, but really also using museums—the Met, the Guggenheim and others—as a platform for that debate is actually important.
It’s also maybe even part of an institutional history, but certainly also part of the history of a cultural dialogue that’s happening. So, in that sense, it shows that museums are very relevant institutions not only for the cultural clientele but actually for our society at large and within a complex infrastructure.
Further to that, I think that it’s important from our side to address some of the questions and the challenges that are being posed. On the other hand, being very clear that we as an institution are not, per se, a political institution. We are not a partisan institution. We’re not an institution about policy, per se.
But we want to make sure that these debates are happening and can happen, and that we reflect as an institution clear and moral values. And hence, we’ve been as the Met clear in some of our messaging about a certain moment, saying that we’re not accepting money from the Saudi government in its current framework. Or we will not accept any money or solicit any money from the Sackler family members involved in Oxycontin.
In a certain way, we are also participating, in that sense, and want to make sure that we project these values to our community.
Charlotte Burns: How are those values defined? Is it through discussion? Is there a blueprint? Is it if it’s something that is illegal? If something is distasteful?
Max Hollein: The legal form, where it gives you a first definition. But I think it goes beyond that. The more our values are being defined by the way we operate as an institution and how we reflect our different communities, who all have ownership of this institution and who feel, and should feel, represented.
Charlotte Burns: There’s a lot of discussion about whether there should be structural changes to the boards. For example, that something is coming up in our research with the female data study: this idea that the museums, collections and programs are, to some extent, influencing where the money comes from and the taste of those people. There are calls, on that level. There are calls—if you think about what’s going on at the Whitney—a lot of conversation about the ways in which museums are governed. Darren Walker, the director of the Ford Foundation, for example, published an op-ed in The New York Times suggesting that there should be seats on boards that aren’t pay-to-play, that you have voices that didn’t necessarily contribute financially but contributed in other ways. Is that something the Met’s thinking about?
Max Hollein: It’s certainly what the Met is thinking about. For us, it’s also another priority in moving forward to increase the diversity on the board.
I have to say, though, depending on how you look at it there is already a fair amount of diversity already on the Met board. It has to do also with representation from different boroughs and other aspects of that. But it’s clearly a priority, also, of us moving forward.
On the other hand—I have to say this as a museum director coming from Europe and having both worked in the American system and the European system—it’s clear that American institutions are being built on and will only continue to further thrive and develop on the whole idea of philanthropy.
So, that’s basically the basis of our—
Charlotte Burns: Culture.
Max Hollein: Culture, and also the basis of our existence—unless there’s a different proposal for the future.
So, philanthropy is crucial for the existence of this institution and for sharing this to our communities. I want to make sure, and I think we all want to make sure, that philanthropy is also properly being represented on the board.
It is really also the, not so much just the art of doing it, but actually the responsibility of the institution and then the board to make sure that the philanthropy that they have represented on the board actually shows the diversity of interests on it.
I think that it’s clear that different donors—if they’re represented on the board or not—that different donors… certainly, yes, they have maybe one or another agenda. It’s more like an emotional passion. So, if I have the support of Asian art, I think that’s fantastic because we want to move in that direction.
I just want to make sure that we have enough other people who are also supportive of other elements of this institution and other areas of the collection, other areas that we want to further expand in: educational outreach, digital dissemination of our information and many other aspects.
The important thing is that you create this almost concert—a great community of donors and philanthropists—who then together create a wonderful composition of different areas of focus, agendas, et cetera. And that’s something that I will say that the Met has done very well, or in the past, and will continue to do so.
Charlotte Burns: There’s loads more that I could ask you. But I know we’re running out of time.
So, you’re a year into the job now, Max. If I were to come back and interview you in ten years, what would you say would constitute success?
Max Hollein: It’s a difficult question, because I think that success is being defined not only in regard to this institution in multiple ways but also from different vantage points and to different angles.
I would like to answer your question this way: I think the Met has an enormous responsibility because it is not only a great museum, but it is an institution that represents so much and represents so many. It needs to be a prime example of the museum world but also a prime example of how an institution, a cultural institution works and moves forward and engages with different constituencies. Also, how it is extremely respectful of the enormous responsibility that comes with having, in many areas, the most important collections of the world outside of those countries.
So success for me is having people acknowledge that the Met is really a leader, not only in the field, but also a leading institution moving forward in regard to its relationship of being a museum—not only in the world, or about the world, but really also for the world.
Max Hollein: It’s important to understand that the Met is really an institution that, yes, you can visit, and that’s an important aspect of our work. But it is really an institution that’s also there for a broad and wide international audience that might actually not be able to visit us.
So, on the one hand, it means a lot of activities of the Met happening outside of our building and certainly outside of New York and many other areas of the world. But we’re also making great efforts to be able to disseminate our knowledge, our understanding, our narratives, our storytelling about art, about cultural development, to the broadest possible audience and doing that for free in many ways.
Digital platforms help us do that in multiple ways, and I think that the Met has been clearly a trailblazer in that from very early on. One of our core aspects moving forward will be how to really merge our strong educational and outreach mission with our ability to disseminate a lot of that through digital platforms and through partnerships with other digital platforms.
Charlotte Burns: Wasn’t your art history platform one of the biggest drivers to the Met’s websites, someone was telling me?
Max Hollein: It for sure was, and I think we will continue to expand that. And we will also find many more ways to be an educational institution, be an engaging institution in various ways and platforms.
Charlotte Burns: Brilliant. Well, Max, thank you so much. I could keep you here all day and ask you millions of questions.
Max Hollein: Thank you.
Charlotte Burns: But I appreciate that you’re a very busy man, and I appreciate your time. Thank you for being my guest today.
Max Hollein: Thank you, sure. Thank you so much.