The Metropolitan Museum of Art (original photo via Wikimedia Commons)

The Metropolitan Museum of Art (original photo by Fcb981/Wikimedia Commons)

When, in February, Metropolitan Museum director Thomas P. Campbell announced that he would resign, many reasons were given for his sudden departure. Discontent among the museum’s board over his capacities as a manager, the spiraling costs of a disproportionately large digital department that then suffered severe layoffs (and related resentment from staff in other departments), a deficit that sits somewhere between $10 and $40 million, and the indefinite shelving of a $600-million expansion project were all cited as contributing factors for his ouster at the time.

Last month, a Vanity Fair article hinted at another possible factor — “Campbell’s friskiness with certain women on the staff” — but offered few details. Yesterday, the New York Times‘s Robin Pogrebin filled in some of those details, reporting on a close relationship between Campbell and a female member of museum’s digital department, and the departure of several staff members in protest.

Campbell and the former manager of online publications “had an inappropriate relationship,” Matthew R. Morgan, the general manager of the museum’s website from 2006 to 2012, told Pogrebin. “It was the reason I left.” The museum’s first chief officer of digital media, Erin Coburn, also left in 2012, but not before lodging a formal complaint about how Campbell’s relationship with her colleague (who has not been named, but was laid off in October 2016) affected her ability to do her job. Pogrebin reports that a formal investigation launched by Met executives concluded that no action was needed; Coburn received an extra payment of $183,000 on top of her salary of $166,000 during her final year at the museum.

Perhaps more damaging to the museum than the dissent in the digital department, however, was how widespread knowledge of this relationship undermined confidence in Campbell’s ability to be an effective leader. As Pogrebin underlines, the case crystalizes to what extent the governance of the Metropolitan Museum — with its annual budget of $332 million and its 2,200 staff members — has been centralized in a few executives and a dozen trustees who sit on the board’s executive and finance committees.

“If you’re not on the executive committee, you don’t know anything,” an anonymous trustee told Pogrebin. “You’re expected to work and give, but not to question what goes on.”

Though this will almost certainly not be the last we hear about it, the Times report paints an alarming picture of the behind-the-scenes dysfunction at the biggest art museum in the US.

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Benjamin Sutton

Benjamin Sutton is an art critic, journalist, and curator who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn. His articles on public art, artist documentaries, the tedium of art fairs, James Franco's obsession with Cindy...