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Some Critics Question the Choice of Thomas Campbell as New Director of San Francisco Museums

Some are questioning the choice, given previous accusations against Campbell of managerial misconduct and budget deficits.

Thomas P. Campbell (image courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, © 2018 Scott Rudd)

The politics behind who gets to lead the nation’s biggest museums has seldom seemed more close-circuited than now. On October 30, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF) announced an end to its six-month search for a new chief executive and director, effectively trading the departing Max Hollein for the man he replaced at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Thomas Campbell.

As director and chief executive in San Francisco, Campbell will oversee the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park and the Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park, with a combined budget of around $60 million and a staff of 500.

The switcheroo is the latest development in an ongoing East Coast invasion of West Coast institutions. This past summer, Klaus Biesenbach announced he would be departing his glamorous positions as curator-at-large at the Museum of Modern Art and director of MoMA PS1 to helm the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Los Angeles as its new director. California critics were understandably miffed about the aspersions this cast on the Golden State art crowd’s ability to proficiently run its own institutions.

In her coverage of the decision, LA Times staff writer Carolina Miranda noted that some MOCA critics lamented that the museum would not choose “a director who reflected the racial diversity of the city or who addressed the under-representation of women in museum leadership nationwide.” Plus, the Biesenbach announcement came after the firing of MOCA’s chief curator, Helen Molesworth, among other controversies.

Similar complaints were made in San Francisco immediately following the Campbell news. Back in June, FAMSF staff issued a letter signed by more than 100 employees to the board, asking it to seriously consider women and people of color during their search. The museums, which operate as a department of the city and county of San Francisco, did not answer specific inquiries about the search process. Spokesman Larry Kamer released a statement that said, “The Search Committee worked with its search consultant to review a substantial number of diverse candidates. In the end, the committee was unanimous in its recommendation of Tom Campbell.”

Belva Davis, a trustee and search committee member for FAMSF who is also a respected African American television journalist, told SF Chronicle that the board had not interviewed any people of color. Still, she stands by the group’s decision for the new director.

Campbell also addressed the issue in a statement: “I think that the question of diversity is one of the most significant facing the country as a whole. It was a high priority for me at the Met, and I worked with the board and with the staff to diversify the board, diversify staff, diversify the collections and diversify the programs. And I look forward to bringing that experience with me to the fine arts museums.”

During his tenure as the Met’s director, Campbell amassed a positive reputation for developing the museum’s audience and infrastructure, while also incurring negative criticism for his managerial and financial decisions. When news circulated that the Met’s board was planning to ask Campbell to resign, high-level staffers at the museum began leaking unsavory stories to the press. These included allegations of an affair with a staff member in the digital media department, which reportedly resulted in the department’s first chief media officer, Erin Coburn, resigning in frustration. Before being gutted by budget cuts, the digital department was something of a trophy for Campbell’s administration. At its peak, the department had over 70 full-time and part-time staff members and a multi-million dollar budget.

Alongside those concerns about sexual misconduct in the office, Campbell faced accusations of poor money management. Toward the end of his tenure, the Met faced a steep $40 million deficit that caused retirement buyouts, hiring freezes, and a postponement of the heralded $600 million expansion of its modern and contemporary wing. News of the deficit came on the heels of the Met’s high attendance numbers and its decision to sign an expensive eight-year lease on the Breuer building. (Now, years later, the Frick Collection is said to be taking over the last three years of the lease in 2020, and the Met has begun charging a mandatory ticket fee to non-New Yorker visitors in order to manage its deficit threat.)

One member on the FAMSF board acknowledged the Campbell controversy. “It’s clearly something we looked at,” Carl Pascarella told the New York Times, but “the allegations that were brought forward weren’t corroborated from our perspective.”

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

Since his resignation, Campbell has led a relatively quiet life. He received a Getty Rothschild Fellowship, which supports innovative scholarship in the history of art, collecting, and conservation. More recently, he got into a heated Instagram argument with the Old Masters dealer Robert B. Simon about the Salvator Mundi’s price tag, which he thought was “extraordinary.”

Campbell’s move to San Francisco should not come as a total surprise. In a September 2017 interview with Artnet News, Campbell noted his appetite for Northern California and said that he looked forward to spending time with some of the leading thinkers of Silicon Valley.

The public relations machine behind Campbell’s announcement has gone lengths to diminish fears about the former Met director’s ability to manage big finances, but there has been little effort to address the professional misconduct allegations against him.

What he ends up accomplishing in San Francisco is what we’re all waiting to see.

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