New kid on the block

“Hirst? At the Met?!” piped up a fashionable twenty-something Brit gawping at Damien Hirst’s shark in formaldehyde at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, back in 2007. His incredulity reflected the widespread perception that the venerable institution is not an essential contemporary art destination. But this may well change under Sheena Wagstaff, who steps into a newly created position as chairman of the modern and contemporary art department this week.

British-born Wagstaff comes to the museum from Tate Modern in London, where she has served as chief curator since 2001. She succeeds Gary Tinterow, who left his position as chairman of the 19th-century, modern and contemporary art department to lead the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Her appointment earlier this year was not without controversy, however, when the Met’s director Thomas Campbell announced that the 19th-century collection would revert to the European Paintings section and Wagstaff would oversee a specialised department. To museum professionals and market analysts, the move meant one thing: the Met is gearing up to be a game-changer in the contemporary art field.

Moving part of the Met’s contemporary collection to its new outpost on Madison Avenue, the Whitney Museum of American Art’s famous Marcel Breuer building, will be Wagstaff’s biggest challenge. But she is not daunted by the move. “I am really looking forward to taking over the [venue]. I love that building and know that many artists love it too. Its spaces and architectural significance offer such potential for a really interesting programme,” she says.

“The Turbine Hall [at Tate Modern] offers a space in relation to the museum that has been enthusiastically interpreted by artists. At both the Met and the Breuer, I would think we’d identify with artists a similar kind of critical space,” Wagstaff adds.

The Turbine Hall commissions for artists such as Olafur Eliasson and Anish Kapoor, spearheaded by Wagstaff, turned the vast chamber of the remodelled power station into a museum of spectacle. Wagstaff takes the reins in New York just before the Tate opens its Oil Tanks development – huge industrial chambers showing art in “live form”, performance and audio works. Wagstaff helped launch the performing arts and film programmes at Tate Modern, so it’s safe to speculate that this genre will remain on her agenda.

Going global was a hallmark of Wagstaff’s time at Tate, where she was particularly involved with the Middle East and north African acquisitions committee. She enthuses about the model she pioneered there of small-scale exhibitions based on exchanges with organisations in locations such as Amman, Kabul and Istanbul.

The historical and cultural trajectory of the Met’s holdings appeals to her. “This, for me, was a key component of the job,” she says. “One of the major challenges facing modern and contemporary art museums in the west is the issue of collecting beyond Nato alliance borders, embracing art with a global scope.”

In a recent interview with the BBC, Campbell put clear water between his museum and other premier-league venues in New York by saying that the Met’s collection, which spans more than 5,000 years, is an unmatched backdrop for practitioners. “We can show modern and contemporary art in the context of the historical traditions which artists are either embracing or rejecting, so you get a very different perspective to seeing it at the MoMA, Whitney, Guggenheim or New Museum,” he said.

How the Met’s departmental shake-up will affect these other galleries is a point of debate within the US art world, especially since the Manhattan museum scene is in flux – for instance, the Whitney is relocating to a new 200,000 sq ft building in the Meatpacking District in 2015.

Wagstaff has stressed that she would not seek to rival or duplicate the collections of MoMA, the Whitney and the Guggenheim. According to its financial statements, MoMA spent $51m on acquisitions in 2011. Veteran curator Robert Storr, dean of the Yale School of Art, says:“There is no way that any museum in the world can ever catch up with MoMA in terms of its encyclopedic holdings of classic modern and contemporary art, although some rival it in particular areas, like the Pop Art collections in the Museum Ludwig in Cologne.

“Wagstaff’s arrival at the Met demonstrates a will on the part of the museum to do big and, one assumes, innovative things on a regular basis.”

In its bid to draw in a younger demographic and boost audience figures, the Met is not the first big museum to turn to 21st-century art (its Alexander McQueen show last year attracted around 660,000 visitors). The launch of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum in early 2008 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, backed by the billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad, and the opening of a new contemporary wing at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston last year mark a shift in such museums’ curatorial focus. And in the last 15 years, the Louvre and British Museum have also strengthened their contemporary art programmes. But museum-goers rarely associate these historical institutions with the breakthrough art of today. So why bother?

In the opinion of writer and collector Adam Lindemann, “The Met wants to compete in contemporary art because they are thinking of the future. They must be anticipating that both money and interest will come from contemporary collectors and they want to position themselves to compete for it. They will also have to improve and update their collection in order to beef up their situation.”

Campbell does not shy away from the cash issue, saying in the BBC interview: “There is a lot of money in late modern and contemporary art ... as an encyclopedic institution, it’s appropriate that we should exhibit and collect the art of our day. If that engages us with well-heeled collectors, there’s nothing wrong with that.”

So will he increase the budget to fill in the holes in the collection? The museum declined to comment. Acquisitions, funding streams, programming, even the hang of the modern and contemporary collection, will be under more scrutiny than ever before. All eyes are now on Wagstaff.

US museums and their money

In 2011, for the first time, the Met’s visitor numbers topped the 6m mark, up from 5.2m in 2010. It stands in second place behind the world-leading Louvre, with a staggering 8.8m, and just ahead of the British Museum with 5.8m. Other US institutions, such as the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC (at 4.3m), also showed healthy visitor figures. Despite this, some US museums are still struggling to climb back from the financial hit of 2008-09, when the value of endowments on which they depend sank dramatically. The recovery has been slow and uneven, but energetic fundraising has done much to bridge the gaps.

Value of endowments* ($bn)
High pointLow pointLatest figure
Institution2007-082008-10end 2011
Getty Trust6.304.505.10
Metropolitan Museum of Art2.902.302.70
MFA Houston1.000.761.00
Art Institute of Chicago0.890.640.84
Cleveland Museum of Art0.830.510.68
MoMA, New York0.720.570.75
NGA, Washington0.720.580.61
MFA, Boston0.550.410.55
Philadelphia Museum of Art0.380.270.36
Seattle Art Museum0.110.080.11
* Endowment size reflects the performance of investments, plus fundraising
Source: The Arts Newspaper
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