The Met Appoints an Outsider to Juggle Art and Technology
Posted April 10, 2018 8:50 p.m. EDT
NEW YORK — For the first time in 60 years, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has reached beyond its own doors for a new leader, choosing a Vienna-born museum director who is conversant in the old masters, modern art and Minecraft to steer the venerable institution through the digital age.
The Met announced on Tuesday that Max Hollein, 48, currently the director and chief executive of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and a veteran of Germany’s oldest art foundation, will become its 10th director this summer. He will take command of the Met at a time when museums are under increasing pressure to remain relevant, raise funds and attract new audiences.
“The Met is one of its kind,” Hollein said in an interview at the museum.
“The museum has the opportunity to be not just an art destination,” Hollein added, but “a major provider of understanding and different narratives to a global audience.”
Unlike his recent predecessors Philippe de Montebello, who served for 31 years, and Thomas P. Campbell, who served for eight, Hollein did not ascend from the Met’s curatorial ranks. He was reportedly a runner-up when Campbell was chosen in 2008.
But he was an appealing candidate this time around for a museum seeking a stabilizing force after a period of financial turmoil. He is an aggressive fundraiser with experience in contemporary art as well as a broader knowledge of art history, who has a track record of digital innovations.
Since age 31, Hollein has served as a museum director, including 15 years at several institutions in Frankfurt, Germany: the Städel Museum, which houses one of Europe’s important collections of old masters; the Schirn Kunsthalle, which exhibits modern and contemporary art; and the Liebieghaus, with a world-renowned sculpture collection.
At the Städel, Hollein developed a forceful digital strategy and oversaw a $69 million renovation and expansion that doubled the gallery space and created a new wing for art made since 1945. All three museums during his tenure saw record levels of attendance and added more than 2,800 artworks to their collections.
He only recently moved to the United States, in 2016, to head the Fine Arts Museums, consisting of the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park, which specializes in American art; and the Legion of Honor near the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge, which focuses on European art.
In his two years in San Francisco, Hollein has brought significant innovations to the Fine Arts Museums, including Digital Stories, an in-depth look into the museum’s exhibitions, enhanced by multimedia experiences. The museum translated all exhibition materials into Spanish for its exhibition “Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire”; created a Minecraft map of the pyramids there; and offered free online courses to help encourage access for all audiences — not only the young.
At a time when museums are making a concerted effort to expand the cultural conversation to include more women and people of color, Hollein said it was also important to him that the Met “open up” to incorporate a range of perspectives. He cited his current institution’s acquisition last year of 62 works by African-American artists, from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation in Atlanta. (The Met acquired 57 works from the foundation in 2014, some of which go on view in an exhibition that opens May 22).
Many in the art world had wondered whether the Met director job would draw first-rate candidates, given the museum’s recent reorganization of its leadership structure. Rather than governing from the top of the pyramid, like Campbell, who also served as chief executive before he was forced to step down last year, Hollein will report to Daniel H. Weiss, the president and chief executive of the Met.
“We are going to be genuine partners,” Weiss said. Though both will have responsibility for fundraising, Hollein will be in charge of the artistic side of the museum — exhibitions, acquisitions, programming — while Weiss will oversee business and operations.
Nevertheless, the position drew strong candidates, according to a person familiar with the selection process who declined to be identified discussing internal deliberations. Among those mentioned were Adam D. Weinberg, the director of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York; Julián Zugazagoitia, the chief executive and director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri; Emilie Gordenker, the director of the Mauritshuis, the museum in The Hague; Timothy Rub, the director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art; and Taco Dibbits, the director of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
Hollein’s art world peers seem to think highly of him. “Max is an excellent choice,” said Glenn D. Lowry, the director of the Museum of Modern Art. “He’s an esteemed colleague, he’s known to many of us, he’s been an interesting director for a while.”
Michael Govan, the director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, said Hollein “is extremely personable and he has had a tremendous amount of experience in management — both of organizations and friendships.”
Still, the selection of Hollein could lead to complaints that the Met has again chosen a white man for the top job. “This could have been a moment for the Met to take a leap into the present,” said Tom Eccles, executive director of the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College. “This is a moment when we’re really trying to unearth different histories, different viewpoints, new ways of thinking about geographies and identities.”
Candace K. Beinecke, a board member who led its search committee with Richard Chilton, said that “the museum’s commitment to diversity is evident in everything we do, and the search was no exception to that.” The Met would not disclose Hollein’s salary. As director and chief executive, Campbell’s total compensation was $1.4 million, including a salary of $942,287 and the use of a Fifth Avenue apartment (which the Met plans to sell), according to recent tax records. Campbell was forced out in the wake of the museum’s financial problems and low morale, departing amid revelations about a close personal relationship he had with a female staff member.
To right its finances, the Met cut staff and recently started charging non-New Yorkers mandatory admission of $25.
The museum also scaled back plans for its new modern and contemporary wing, initially expected to cost $600 million. Hollein will have to raise money for that reconceived project at a time when many cultural projects are vying for funds, namely the Museum of Modern Art’s $400 million expansion; the Studio Museum in Harlem’s $175 million new home; the Frick Collection’s $160 million redesign; and Geffen Hall’s renovation, initially estimated at more than $500 million.
Although European museum directors are typically assumed to require fewer fundraising skills, given government support for the arts, that is changing. Hollein said he raised half the cost of the Städel extension from private donations, an impressive feat and unusual for Germany, where large cultural projects are mostly state funded.
A 2014 article on the German website Deutsche Welle said Hollein “manages to walk the line between art and commerce,” citing for example the Städel’s partnership with the German drugstore chain DM, which sells art pieces as prints for people’s living rooms.
Some have accused Hollein of going too far; in 2012, he was forced to defend the museum against accusations that he had turned the acquisition of a Raphael painting of Pope Julius II — with questionable provenance — into “a mass public spectacle.” Hollein said at the time: “We knew that the attribution was going to be controversial. That’s why it was so important for us to not simply hang it in the museum, but to present all the facts we had gleaned over the years. I don’t see this as sensationalist, but rather as a very open and transparent process.”
Nevertheless, the Met job will present a learning curve for Hollein, who began his career at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation as the chief of staff and executive assistant to its former director, Thomas Krens, but who has never led a museum in New York. The Met can be something of a shark tank, requiring a constructive working relationship with its powerful curators.
The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco receive a healthy 1.6 million visitors, but that pales in comparison to the Met’s 7 million annual visitors across its three locations. In San Francisco, Hollein managed an operating budget of $60 million and over 500 employees; the Met has a budget of $305 million and a staff of 2,200.
Hollein grew up in an artistic household, the son of Hans Hollein, the Viennese postmodern architect. Max Hollein studied art history at the University of Vienna and business administration at the Vienna University of Economics. As a curator, he specialized in art of the 1980s and ‘90s, and organized the Austrian pavilion at the Venice Art Biennale in 2005.
While running the de Young in San Francisco, Hollein added its first contemporary art curator, and he is not risk averse. The museum’s first major show since his arrival, “Contemporary Muslim Fashion,” opening in September, will explore Muslim dress codes and their influence on fashion worldwide. (Hollein’s wife, Nina Hollein, is an Austrian clothing designer; they have three teenagers.)
“On the one hand it’s a fashion show, on the other hand it will address complex social, political questions,” Max Hollein said. “Museums these days are one of the few areas where you can have a complex cultural discussion in a non-polemical way.”