Thomas Campbell, Ex-Director of Metropolitan Museum, Hired to Lead San Francisco Museums

Thomas P. Campbell, the former director and chief executive of the Metropolitan Museum of Art who resigned under pressure last year, has been hired to lead the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

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Sarah Mervosh
, New York Times

Thomas P. Campbell, the former director and chief executive of the Metropolitan Museum of Art who resigned under pressure last year, has been hired to lead the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

In a peculiar twist, he takes over the job vacated by Max Hollein, who left earlier this year to take over the leadership at none other than the Met and now fills the position from which Campbell announced in February 2017 that he would leave.

The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the institution that oversees the de Young Museum and the Legion of Honor, announced the decision Tuesday, bringing an unusual swap in leadership full circle between two major art museums at opposite ends of the country, and opening up the potential for future partnerships.

“I can’t think of anything like this in recent times, but it’s kind of fun and serendipitous,” Campbell, 56, said in a phone interview Tuesday. “I’m absolutely thrilled to have this opportunity. Just as he takes over an institution where I laid a certain groundwork, similarly he has laid groundwork here.”

In a statement Tuesday, Hollein, who was named director of the Met in April, supported the hire and said he looked forward to working with the San Francisco institution. “Tom has been a great and esteemed colleague over many years, and I am delighted for the Fine Arts Museums to have chosen him as its next director,” he said.

Campbell’s hiring comes more than a year and a half after his hushed departure from the Met, where attendance had grown under his tenure but where he had also faced concerns over the museum’s financial health and his ability to lead — including a personal relationship with a female staff member that some alleged contributed to a yearslong erosion of respect for his authority.

“It’s clearly something we looked at,” Carl Pascarella, a member of the board for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, said Tuesday. But he said that “the allegations that were brought forward weren’t corroborated from our perspective.”

He added that the museum used a search firm before settling on Campbell. “We were very comfortable,” he said. “We had a very good array of candidates and were unanimous in our selection.”

Tom Eccles, executive director for the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, said that he could not recall a similar situation in which the directors of major museums had essentially switched roles.

“What it signals is a complete lack of imagination,” he said.

Though he said Campbell had faced a steep challenge to expand the Met into the modern age without destroying its cultural history — “he had the devil’s job to square the circle of the Met” — he criticized the choice of Campbell for the San Francisco position because it reinforced the insular nature of the art world.

“These major metropolitan museums are facing a challenge today between the past and the future,” he said. “They can’t imagine the future and are fearful of it. So they yearn for a kind of civic past that no longer exists, and then they provide the representatives for that.”

After his resignation from the Met, Campbell received a Getty Rothschild Fellowship, which supports innovative scholarship in the history of art, collecting and conservation.

Now, as the director and chief executive of the largest public arts institution in Northern California, he will oversee curatorial and education programs and manage a staff of more than 500 people. He was scheduled to begin the new job Thursday.

Campbell praised San Francisco as one of the great cities in the world and “ground zero for the digital realm.” He said he was interested in exploring how technology can take museums beyond their walls.

He also said he appreciated San Francisco for its emphasis on inclusiveness, diversity and social consciousness.

“I believe museums play an important role as safe places for discussion, not only of aesthetics and history but also contemporary issues,” he said. “It’s a great museum and a very interesting moment to be joining it.”

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