Curator Sheena Wagstaff on the new Met Breuer museum

New York’s newest temple of modern and contemporary art is due to open its doors
Sheena Wagstaff, chair of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s modern and contemporary division, at the new Met Breuer museum in New York this month © Andrew Rowat

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My whole life, I’ve entered the Metropolitan Museum the same way: up the majestic stairs, through the vaulted lobby, then right towards Ancient Egypt, left towards Greece and Rome, or straight ahead, down a hallway of ancient bric-a-brac leading back to the Middle Ages. There’s something comforting about stepping off Fifth Avenue, with its hawkers, bus fumes and hot-dog smells, and into the distant past.

Starting in a half-dozen years, though, on completion of the new wing currently being designed by architect David Chipperfield, we’ll be able to plunge into the museum from a new Central Park entrance and find ourselves in the shocking present: face to face with a digital video installation, perhaps, or Jeff Koons’ latest big bauble.

Reorienting the Met falls to Sheena Wagstaff, the high-octane curator who chairs its modern and contemporary division. “For the first time you’ll be able to enter 5,000 years’ worth of human creativity from the portal of the modern — from the now — and go backwards. That’s pretty amazing,” she says.

Alice Neel’s ‘James Hunter Black Draftee’ (1965) © The Estate of Alice Neel

Before the new wing is completed, however, the venerable museum is undertaking another giant shift. The Met is creating a new outpost, dedicated to modern and contemporary art, in the former Whitney Museum on Madison Avenue, a brutalist giant designed in 1966 by Marcel Breuer. As we sit and talk in the new Met Breuer, as it will be known, opening day on March 18 is sneaking up quickly and Wagstaff’s head swivels anxiously as workers mount lights and drill holes in the walls.

She talks like someone who is always late for a meeting. Her sentences gallop off in pursuit of her thoughts, and when she realises how long it’s been since her last full stop, she pauses, looking slightly alarmed. Ask what tempted her to give up her position as chief curator at Tate Modern and move to New York, and you get a rapid-fire biography that rewinds to her student days at the University of East Anglia, detours through Pittsburgh (where she worked at the Frick), and includes a mention of her children’s “slightly weird transatlantic accents”.

She lives according to onrushing deadlines and long-term plans. When the eight-year lease on the Breuer building expires, Wagstaff intends to move her department back to the mother ship and into the new wing. In the meantime, she has exhibitions to organise, a new corps of curators to wrangle, and an architectural design to steer. All of which merges into her real task: giving a slow-moving institution an entrée into the world of investor/collectors, young artists, unconsummated trends, blowout biennials and feverish prices.

“I’ve been brought on as a kind of thought-leader. I hate that term — maybe you can substitute a better one?”

To hear Wagstaff, you’d think this realignment was no big deal: a mere tweak compared to, say, rehanging the European paintings in 2013. “That was a complete, fantastic overhaul, a very big move,” she enthuses. “This”— the Met Breuer, the new staff, the future wing — “is part of a continuum, not a seismic change. We’re going back to our original mission — buffing it up, actually.” She uses the same phrase to describe cleaning the brass and refinishing flagstones in the old Whitney.

It may seem odd for a “thought-leader” to minimise such an epic transformation but Wagstaff is wary of the limelight and mindful of the challenge. In 2013, Leonard Lauder promised the Met $1bn worth of cubist masterpieces; before this, the collection had been in decline, falling off drastically around 1900 and petering out almost completely as it approached the present. Nor does the museum have the resources to compete at auction for the cream of modern art.

The new wing is projected to cost $600m, a sum whopping enough to make the eyes water, until you consider that the same figure might buy one Picasso, one Bacon and a Warhol, leaving just enough for a second-rate Rothko. Met director Thomas Campbell’s strategy is to erect a home welcoming enough to lure new patrons and trustees. Build it and they will give.

Nasreen Mohamedi’s ‘Untitled’ (1960s) © Metropolitan Museum of Art

Wagstaff insists that the Met’s weaknesses in contemporary art are actually a source of strength. “The beauty of what we can offer is that if someone does give us an iconic, stunningly wonderful Gerhard Richter or Sigmar Polke, then there’s a pretty much ironclad guarantee that they would be up in perpetuity, and the donor’s munificence would be acknowledged in a way that is not possible in other institutions.” Or, to put it another way, a major donation of contemporary art won’t face competition for wall space.

Only the Met, she emphasises, can put new work in its proper timescale and geographical context. Instead of ripping the latest thing out of context and displaying it in a chic vacuum, she and her team have the erudition to trace themes across continents and millennia. She points to the inaugural exhibitions at the Breuer. One is Unfinished, which gathers 500 years’ worth of works whose big-name creators (Raphael, Titian, Jasper Johns) abandoned them partway through. The other is a retrospective of the Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi, whom some glib label-lover once called “the Indian Agnes Martin”.

“She’s nothing like Agnes Martin!” Wagstaff sputters. “If you don’t know the history of colonialism, independence and post-partition, if you don’t know where Nasreen comes from, you have no idea what informs the volcanic change in her work. You don’t understand that this woman was extraordinarily radical.”

Wagstaff’s invocation of expertise points to the paradoxical question that the Met faces as it tries to fill its gaps: how does an encyclopedic museum maintain its status in the age of the Wiki? While institutions like MoMA and the Whitney achieve depth by narrowing their scope, the Met is the Britannica of art institutions, boiling down all of global art into a carefully edited, purportedly authoritative compendium. Campbell’s predecessor, Philippe de Montebello, resolved the issue by lavishing scholarship on the past and treating even the 20th century with a certain disdain. Wagstaff’s approach, on the other hand, is to form a brains trust. “When I arrived, I instigated a lot of new ways of doing things, one of which was to bring all the curators together. With everyone around the table — this community of minds, working across departments — you get this thrilling sense that we’re all trying to articulate how the Met is taking account of what is happening in our time.”

Auguste Rodin’s ‘The Hand of God’ (c1907)

The word “teamwork” has been yoked to “innovation” for decades now, and Wagstaff can occasionally sound like the art-world equivalent of a tech guru. But she’s also trying to break down the Trumpian walls that have traditionally divided departments. After all, if visitors can wander among eras and hemispheres within the galleries, why shouldn’t the Met’s curatorial staff?

That ecumenical outlook will eventually take concrete form in the new wing. “It’s not about a freestanding building that happens to be locked into the Rubik’s cube of the Met. It’s important to design it so that all the proximities — with European painting, African and Oceanic sculpture and decorative arts, for example — offer different segues back and forth in time.”

The museum faces precisely the same conundrum as the city outside: how to reconcile its allegiance to history with the transformative pressures all around. She scans the newly painted gallery and says it’s simple, really. “You have to reassess everything freshly. There’s no better way to do that than to put lots and lots and lots of images on the wall and just keep looking at them.”

Wagstaff returns often to the idea of risk, and indeed she’s facing an impressive array of dangers: that collectors will veer off towards more nimble institutions; that the brash, shallow world of contemporary art will collide too forcefully with her colleagues’ decorous connoisseurship; that her department will amass a collection of soon-to-be-dated one-offs; that they will wind up chipping away at the Met’s marmoreal reputation. I tell her I imagine her as a tiny figure astride a giant rocket ship shooting into the unknown, and her face lights up. “The rocket is incredibly important, yes!” she says. “This is the moment for the Met to ask: whither modern and contemporary? How do we go forward into the future? The rocket will be expressed!”

The Met Breuer opens on March 18. metmuseum.org/visit/the-met-breuer

Photographs: Andrew Rowat; The Estate of Alice Neel courtesy David Zwirner; Metropolitan Museum of Art

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