The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2020

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SEPT 2020 Issue
Art Museum Directors

MAX HOLLEIN with Phong H. Bui

“The idea that there is this one narrative is completely obsolete. And it’s actually our challenge, our ambition to complexify this storytelling.”

Portrait of Max Hollein, pencil on paper by Phong H. Bui.
Portrait of Max Hollein, pencil on paper by Phong H. Bui.

I’ve followed Max Hollein ever since I read his concise and perceptive text, among others by contributors including Maria De Corral, Robert Fleck, Ingrid Pfeiffer, and Kevin Power, published in the exhibition catalog of Julian Schnabel Paintings 1978–2003 (a traveling retrospective curated by Max, beginning at Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, January 29–April 25, 2004, then to Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, June 3–September 13, 2004, and Mostra d’Oltremare, Naples, November 21, 2004–January 16, 2005). And like most of us New Yorkers, Max’s arrival to the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a new Director in March 2018 was indeed the news of the town. However, when Max and his remarkable partner Nina came to a fall party at my home in Greenpoint last year, I was taken by how quickly Max recognized as soon as he walked in the front door the two drawings by my good friend, the late visionary architect Raimund Abraham (1933–2010). It turned out Raimund had been a close friend of Max’s father, another visionary architect, the late Hans Hollein (1934–2014) during Max’s upbringing in Vienna. We spoke with great fondness of our mutual friend; then I took immediate notice of how naturally at ease Max was in talking to endless friends from artists, writers, and curators to art historians, poets, among others. Even though there's an adage that we often hear, “Leaders are not born, they’re made,” Max—among many of our most admirable museum directors that are facing during this most profound time of human significance and profundity—embodies a Chinese proverb, “When the winds of change blow, some build walls and others build windmills.”

The following is an edited version of our New Social Environment Lunchtime Conversation #72 (Thursday, June 25), and an additional Zoom conversation (Tuesday, August 11) to bring a broader perspective of Max’s journey prior to this unique time during the pandemic, for which compassion, empathy, and courage, among other fine human attributes must be brought forth front and center for the sake of our survival with dignity.

Yoko Ono, <em>DREAM TOGETHER</em>, 2020, installation view, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. © Yoko Ono. Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo: Anna-Marie Kellen.
Yoko Ono, DREAM TOGETHER, 2020, installation view, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. © Yoko Ono. Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo: Anna-Marie Kellen.

Phong H. Bui (Rail): Max, you and I met several times in our mutual sociability in passing, but never really quite had a lengthy conversation as we’re about to welcome one now. Especially during this profound, significant time when both the pandemic and the ongoing protests against systemic racism that’s been oppressed for so long—at least since the late ’60s when the three movements of Civil Rights, women’s rights, and the anti-war in Vietnam uprisings brought us together on the street protesting. But when the war in Vietnam ended in ’75, which demoralized the psyche of that generation, many of the best ’60s radical and leftist intellectuals moved to the academy, and the next several generations remained there, losing the discourse of any national politics. It’s like a balloon. If you squeeze the air in one place the air will go to the other place, and can only sustain that for so long, hence the skin will break. And it did break. It’s out in the open with the fullest visibility, but we also know what we must do in that it is ideology which simply divides us, while dreams and anguish bring us together. So welcome to our “NSE” series Max.

Max Hollein: I’m glad to be here. Thanks for inviting me. It’s great to see many of you, and to have an hour together to discuss what’s going on in the world, in New York, and, of course, also at the Met.

Rail: I should also mention that Max and I are Instagram friends. I followed his account only a week or 10 days ago. He in fact posted himself walking through the empty galleries in the Met, which was so haunting and moving. My first question to you is, how are you coping, adjusting, Max? The daily walk from your home to the museum must allow you some time for self-reflection, thinking about what’s happening to us all, and more specifically in your case with the Met.

Hollein: We’re all coping with the same situation right now. I think we are also reflecting on how can we best not only deal with the current situation, but actually enter the current moment with positive energy, and use it to move forward as an institution, understanding, though, that these are very challenging times on various levels. They are also times for reflection, not only learning, but addressing several critical issues that we haven’t fully addressed for a long time. It’s a moment of reckoning. First of all, after we closed our museum on Friday, March 13, I continued to work at my office almost every day. We have a small group of core staff working here, making sure the building is safe and secure, especially with custodial staff who are working on our facilities, and I just felt so grateful to everyone for their commitment, coming to work during this very challenging time. For me, it’s easy, of course, because I walk to work. But others can’t. So, I think that there is another nuance to this condition. From the beginning, walking through those empty galleries, I thought, “the pandemic won’t last more than a month or two,” but obviously that timeframe has changed both in how we look into the future, but also in regard to the timeline of establishing a set of priorities as an institution, when realizing that some of these priorities are in conflict with each other. Our task is almost like finding a solution to an equation that has several variables, where some of the variables might not even be properly placed in the same equation. To give you an example of that: Our goal from the very beginning was to make sure the safety of our staff and of our audience comes first. That’s the reason why the Met was the first major cultural institution in New York to close its doors immediately. We knew that, by having the museum closed, it would also provide time for us to think through immediately what needs to be done in order of our priorities. Even now while we are preparing for reopening, we still have to balance the question of ensuring the safety—as much as possible—for our staff and for our visitors. We are planning to reopen on August 29, knowing there are other critical issues in regards to public transportation, maintaining physical distance between our staff and visitors, what number we’re expecting for daily visits, and so on. These are challenges and nuances that we have to adjust to accordingly. We always want to reach out to the broadest possible audience, but when we open, we will probably have to restrict access. Our audience in the next couple of months might be super local, which I think can be an advantage and might result in a new level of engagement. It means being closely connected to an audience that we are in continuous touch with, that has a special, long-standing connection and history with the Met. New Yorkers of course, local artists, and art lovers from the neighborhoods and the communities that surround us, rather than tourists. Another challenge for us is to weather the storm of this economic situation that we are facing as a result of being closed, and of having a very reduced audience until the end of the year. We’ve calculated that the losses are between 100 and 150 million dollars, and that comes out of loss of total revenue, ticket sales, book and gift sales, fundraising events, etc., but also without the big celebration of our 150th year anniversary benefit galas. We need to compensate in some other ways. We also project that in the next couple of years, our attendance and hence, in certain ways, also our revenue, will be way less than before, because it’s going to take a while until international tourism picks up in New York City to the same level as before. So, what was a 7.4 million total visitorship will be probably reduced to 5 or even 4 million for quite some time. We need to adjust to that and so many other realities, which means how we can really tighten our belt in all different areas. At the same time, we also want to make sure that we have an environment that is as protective and supportive of our staff as possible while we battle this financial issue.

And we are now in the midst of a profound moment of urgent cultural rehabilitation and reckoning. And we’re at a learning phase in regard to issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility. The plans we had put in place, we now realize that they were certainly not enough, sometimes even flawed, and probably not even as well informed as they should be. We’re working from that imperfection right now, realizing where we have failed, where we need to do more, where we need to be way more proactive and self-critical to move forward with greater, measurable goals. On the one hand, we want to act quickly. On the other hand, we want to make sure that we communicate and are in touch with our staff, as much as possible, individually. There are nearly 2,000 of us, and another 400, 500 volunteers. And knowing that everybody’s sheltered at home at a time of great insecurity, uncertainty, fear maybe even anger, frustration, sense of guilt—all across the emotional spectrum—we also know that this is a time to convene and come together. And yes, we are doing that virtually, like our conversation here. But an all-staff meeting, where you just project yourself as an image, and you have 2,000 people watching you, is not the same as having a full room and feeling the pulse of the institution. And we don’t have a staff cafeteria now; we don’t have the Museum’s hallways where you just have a chat, so it’s very hard to communicate on an informal basis. These are the thoughts that are going through my head when coming to work, in addition, of course to my other thoughts on programming, what we can move forward with, and what needs to be postponed.

Rail: You are indeed thinking both in short-term and long-term simultaneously, how to mediate all of these situations all at once. Meanwhile having watched yours and the president of the board Daniel Weiss’s message, which was solemn self-reflection rather than salutation on what was supposed to be celebrating the museum’s 150-year anniversary last April 13th. I was rather impressed how you were able to mobilize your staff from the textile conservation lab to produce masks for healthcare workers from the very get-go, also the creation of the “Met Stories,” which seemed to evoke a real emotional timbre of the times, instead of rushing through things and covering things up. You allow these different emotional responses to be made visible. Can you share with us how those decisions got made?

Hollein: This is our 150th anniversary year, which we imagined would work out very differently. So yes, on the day of our anniversary, April 13th, we sent a message of self-reflection and understanding of the time we are in. There were over 20,000 dead by the virus then, and it was just not a moment to celebrate, but a moment to really show solidarity and try to find as many ways as possible to support anyone who was dealing with the crisis right now. I would also say that the Met is a very emotional place. Like any other museum, or any other cultural institution, or like the Brooklyn Rail, people feel completely emotionally attached to not only what they’re doing, but to why they're doing it and the community that they’re embedded in. I would also say that our visitors have a very emotional attachment to our museum, as you very kindly said at the beginning “the beloved Met.” And I think this feeling of a beloved institution, certainly with flaws and everything, but it still is a home away from home, and something that we gravitate towards, where we feel it’s part of us, especially when we are there experiencing works of art in a specific gallery or special exhibition. I think that’s very important. So, for us, this just means, not so much that the director or the president says, “now we need to help first responders or healthcare workers,” but it’s really about our staff thinking, “How can we best help? How can we be productive and active in any moment in time?” At that time, it was our textile conservators who proposed, “Well, we want to take the resources and materials from our multiple conservation labs and make masks then give them away to local hospitals.” We also noticed, of course, that schools cannot visit us anymore, and also that the school curriculums were challenged, because they had to pivot to digital means. And certainly not every school, especially not public schools in some cases, were fully equipped for the same access. So, we quickly developed digital school programs that we made available for schools through our art and cultural education experts. We tried to decide on longer-term plans, to be an active member of the community, defining outreach in many different possible ways. As an institution, we have a very important voice and responsibility in the cultural discussion, so it is with great care and thought that we use that voice.

Installation view: <em>Crossroads</em>, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Installation view: Crossroads, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Rail: I appreciate the “Met Stories,” especially the new video series and a year-long social media initiative that shares compelling stories from various walks of life, be it artists, teachers, public figures, or museum staff, whose solaces were sparked or discovered during their visits to the museum. Take for example, one being about retired Marine Lieutenant Colonel, Michael Zacchea, who was wounded in the Second Battle of Fallujah, and having studied the classics in college, he was able to identify Greek tragedies, and this instance he recalled Ajax the Great, who returns home from the war, only to kill 600 oxen because he thought they were Trojans. He can relate to Ajax’s story, [his] neurological response, as his own post-traumatic stress, as anything can be identified as a threat in combat to his defensive and offensive instincts, and this amplification is how he can keep himself alive. So, it took spending time looking at the Met’s Greek and Roman sculpture galleries, relating to the broken sculptures as his own broken body, and it was slowly allowing him to heal spiritually. It was very moving, and I think the same I felt with one of the staff workers, in—what kind of department did she work in?

Hollein: Digital department.

Rail: Right. Jenita Pettway, an African American woman who identified Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, through the classic Glenn Ligon’s bold black text, which is not always legible due to the irregular bleeds from the stenciling process.

Hollein: Yes, on one hand, the “Met Stories” are really important for us to do, because they show how so many people of varied backgrounds relate to art. Not only prominent people, but any individuals who have very interesting connections to the Met. Each of the “Met Stories” shows different personal and emotional connections to different art experiences. We all can see what art can do, and how art can connect with people, and how it opens up horizons in various ways.

On the other hand, it’s also very important for me—and we’ve been tackling this even more since I joined the museum in August 2018—that we make sure our visitors understand that works of art are products of a broader complex context with subtle and not-so-subtle social, political, historical references. It’s not just an aesthetic phenomenon., Our show on the emperor Maximillian (The Last Knight: The Art, Armor, and Ambition of Maximillian I, October 7, 2019 – January 5, 2020), for example—an important show on arms and armor—was as important as all the arts and objects Maximillian was commissioning and celebrated their aesthetic and artistic excellence. But it also highlighted that more often than not the pure purpose of these works was propaganda. The visitor saw how the Emperor’s ambition went beyond the imperial court, affecting paintings, sculpture, tapestry, manuscripts, even toys, with various interpretations and so on. Art is an important documentation of all human experiences through good and bad times, as we see in our current life and experiences.

Rail: Amen. In one interview, Max, you say that encyclopedic museums like the Met and others were founded on the idea of bringing world cultures together in one place and creating one narrative, at least at one point. The idea arose out of the Age of Enlightenment, not that dissimilar to Diderot’s encyclopedia or the systematic dictionary of sciences, arts, and crafts that advocated for secularization of learning so to speak. In today’s context, the term “globalization,” or you mentioned “diversity” early on, can be read as an extension of that same idea.

Installation view: <em>Wangechi Mutu: The NewOnes, will free Us</em>, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Facade Commission. Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Installation view: Wangechi Mutu: The NewOnes, will free Us, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Facade Commission. Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Hollein: Absolutely. Encyclopedic museums, like the Met, are probably the prime examples that were founded on the idea of Enlightenment, yes, to bring different parts of the world into one place. And museums have tended to tell one somewhat linear story of cultural development of the world, starting in old Mesopotamia, going to Egypt, then to Greece, then to Rome. It was a very Western, Eurocentric view. And the reality, of course, is that there is not this one story. There are multiple, interconnected stories. And each with different vantage points and perspectives. So, the idea that there is this one narrative is completely obsolete. And it’s actually our challenge, our ambition to complexify this storytelling, destiny to show that this kind of multi-perspective attitude is really important. For me, one of the most important masterpieces of cinema is Akira Kurosawa’s movie Rashomon (1950), where you have one event that took place, and four people tell different stories of what happened, completely differently from the same event. It really depends on your vantage point and where you are coming from. And I think that this multiplicity of stories in a museum is really significant these days: it’s not only about bringing the world to one place, but actually looking at art from these various vantage points that we would present.

Rail: By the way, it was the cheapest movie he ever made, and it was filmed in two weeks. [Laughs] But you’re right on the inclusive complexity of the matter. I am reminded at the moment of (Milan) Kundera’s “maximum diversity in minimum space” concept, published as a long article “Die Weltliteratur (World Literature): How We Read One Another” in the New Yorker (January 1, 2007). He proposed there were two contexts in which a work of art may belong: either in history of its own nation, which he referred to as “small context” or in the supranational history of its art as “large context.” It was based on [Johann Wolfgang von] Goethe, who was the first to say “National literature no longer means much these days, we are entering the era of weltliteratur and it's up to each of us to hasten this development.” Kundera went on to say that [François] Rabelais was underappreciated by his native French yet was better understood in Russia by [Mikhail] Bakhtin; [Fyodor] Dostoevsky was less admired in Russia than he was in France by [André] Gide; [James] Joyce was far less considered in Ireland than he was loved in Austria by [Hermann] Broch. Again, it's the issue of provincialism of small nations versus provincialism of large nations. It’s a similar issue of “Democracy Versus the Melting Pot,” a landmark article published in The Nation by Horace Kallen in 1915 which according to Kallen, the notion of “melting pot” just simply meant assimilation into the Anglo-Saxon American identity. In other words, each is merely a distinctive process of assimilation that also supports each of their distinctive cultural heritage, which is great in terms of each of their rights to maintain their identities, their language, religious beliefs, etc. But in essence, the notion of “melting pot” is not melting whatsoever, maybe a bit in cosmopolitan cities like Manhattan, but not at all once we go to the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island. So the very notion of “melting pot” therefore contradicts the very premise of American democracy, for democracy in its best ideal, dating from [Alexis de] Tocqueville to [Ralph Waldo] Emerson, [Walt] Whitman, [John] Dewey to even [Richard] Rorty, and others, embraces not the elimination of differences, but the relentless conservatism of differentness, working towards and through union, not at uniformity. Perhaps, instead of “melting pot,” “diversity” can be read as “cultural pluralism” or perceived as a symphony. I’m paraphrasing Kallen’s words. America doesn't need to become homogeneous, singing in union, it should aspire to be instead a multiplicity in unity, an orchestration of all walks of life from different cultures from which each is an instrument that has its own unique sound, unlike any other, but together each contributes to the total sound of the symphony, symphonically speaking. The question that Kallen then asked, which seems so pertinent to our time now, is “Do the dominant classes in America desire such a society?”

Hollein: That question should apply also to the rest of the world, not just the Western world. This is one thing we can be certain of the essential role of the fine arts, as with music, it can evoke our spiritual and emotional life hence capable of unifying mankind. I’ve always been aware of the healing and unifying quality in the arts and the humanities growing up with an artistic and bohemian family, and also having worked with Tom [Thomas] Krens for five and a half years.

Rail: Beginning with your mother who sent you as an intern at the Guggenheim in the summer of 1992, where at the end Tom said to you if you finish your two-year graduate degree, you can return and work for him.

Hollein: That’s right. And it was during those four intense and productive years working with Tom (1995–2001), during the height of his career and vision to expand the Guggenheim to Berlin, to Las Vegas, to Bilbao, that I accumulated so much experience working so closely with him but also with various cultural institutions, endless fundraising as well as artists, curators, collectors, sponsors, the media, and so on. It was a very intense and rewarding time, actually for both, Nina, who worked with Tod Williams and Billie Tsien and for me. But at a certain moment we agreed to leave New York for Germany to get an opportunity to pursue my own vision, to lead an institution—and at that was the Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt. I just felt the challenge was essential to me. Everything was so exciting. For example, with Olivier Berggruen as the guest curator, I wanted to develop, as one of the very first shows of the new program, a very special Matisse show on his Papiers Découpés (Henri Matisse: Drawing with Scissors: Masterpieces from the Late Years, December 20, 2002 – March 2, 2003). I first approached Jack Flam and John Elderfield, but they were busy with other projects at the time but more importantly I am sure they felt it would be absolutely impossible to do a show like this one for an institution that has no collection, is based not in one of the major cultural metropolises and has a director that nobody has ever heard of; this must have been in 2001, when I was 31 and Olivier was similarly young, ambitious, and somewhat inexperienced like myself. We decided to do it ourselves. Olivier took care of the loans from the private collections, and I worked on the loans from the museums—and much to the surprise of everyone we pulled it off and it was an absolutely breathtaking show. Actually, the first exhibition I curated at the Schirn Kunsthalle was Shopping: A Century of Art and Consumer Culture (October 28 – December 1, 2002)—one of the first shows dedicated to this topic—with works by Eugène Atget, Berenice Abbott and Walker Evans to Claes Oldenburg, Warhol, Lichtenstein, Beuys, Koons, Gursky among others. We even covered the whole facade of the Kaufhof department store in Frankfurt with Barbara Kruger’s vinyl mural Untitled (Shopping) (2002), which in German said, “You want it. You buy it. You forget it.” We did a lot of major shows with contemporary artists like Haris Epaminonda, Heather Phillipson, Alicja Kwade, Julian Schnabel, Roni Horn, Aleksandra Mir, Francesco Clemente, George Condo, as well as very unique thematic exhibitions like Dream Factory Communism (2003), Artists and Prophets—A Secret History of Modern Art (2015) or on Darwin’s influence on the visual arts.

Rail: But then with the Städel Museum and the Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung, the two additional institutions, which under your directorship, there mounted several exciting shows, including old masters like Cranach the Elder, The Master of Flémalle, and Rogier van der Weyden.

Hollein: Also, a big show of Botticelli and on Hans Baldung as well as ones on modern masters like [Ernst Ludwig] Kirchner and [Max] Beckmann. Always with a fairly unique, sometimes even controversial angle. And in the summer of 2012, we did two simultaneous shows of [Jeff] Koons, one presenting Jeff Koons. The Painter, solely focused on his large paintings, while the other, Jeff Koons. The Sculptor, at the Liebieghaus was dedicated to his iconic sculptures, installed among works from Ancient Greece, Egypt, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, to Neoclassicism…

Rail: Joachim [Pissarro], our Consulting Editor, was one of the co-curators of the show. In fact, once at his home in Battery Park, I had the privilege to observe Philippe de Montebello and [Sir] Norman Rosenthal (both were featured in in-depth conversations in the Rail) sharing their different views on Jeff Koons: Versailles (2008) show. While Philippe thought it was impious, sacrilegious to place the Balloon Dog in the middle of the Salon d’Hercule or a plexiglass-encased display of vacuum cleaners and floor polishers in front of Marie Antoinette’s official portraits, Norman said it was exciting and generous to create a dialogue between old art and new art.

Hollein: Which we should do more often if it is done in a meaningful way. It was certainly done in my 15 years at the Schirn, the Städel, and the Liebieghaus but also at a lot of other places—including of course the Met Breuer.

Rail: Which you continued to do similarly at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco for two years. Let me ask you one unrelated question: Were you getting triple the salary for running three museums in Frankfurt simultaneously? [Laughs]

Hollein: Just one. The others were pro bono. To answer what you described earlier, the urgency to take diversity seriously has been our focus already in the past few years. We understood it as an important mandate leading to our 150-year anniversary. Diversity means inclusion, equity, and accessibility. It influences the ways we install our collection and organize our shows. Again, the concept of an encyclopedic museum needs to be recalibrated to our contemporary context. Otherwise, the Eurocentric narrative will continue as usual. All cultures matter, and we understand our vision of diversity differently now than we have in the past few decades. We were committed to expanding this vision of diversity in various ways. How we collect, how we display, how we contextualize, how we prioritize. An important part of this is of course also who we hire and who can help us moving forward. Last summer we were able to welcome to the Met Denise Murrell, who curated the amazing show Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today, as an associate curator for 19th- and 20th-century art. And what was exciting for us at the same time was to further amplify not only the voice of the institution but also provide a unique and powerful platform to contemporary art and artists, as visitors can immediately see Wangechi Mutu’s four bronze sculptures (The Seated I, II, III, and IV, 2019) filling the four niches on the facade of the museum. Similarly, Kent Monkman’s two paintings (Welcoming the Newcomers and Resurgence of the People, both 2019) in the Great Hall. As with Wangechi Mutu’s sculptures, these works pose a different kind of history of art only through the medium of painting; they are a different kind of history painting about American history, in this case about the suppression of indigenous people. It’s a very bold statement in the traditional context of the Great Hall. Now visitors can consider how we can add long-neglected narratives into an institution that has existed for the last 150 years, without disregard for tradition. I keep saying that when you go to the American Wing, you will see outstanding works of American art of the last 300 years, which are a major teaching tool of American history. But the issue is that a lot of the art tells only one kind of history: the history of the white settler and manifest destiny. It doesn’t really tell the other American histories. So, we need to include other histories, and we need to also make it more transparent that even a magnificent landscape painting by [Albert] Bierstadt or [Frederic Edwin] Church actually has a very biased perspective on how America evolved. I think this current display of works by Monkman is a great example of how contemporary artists can be invited to show us the way.

Installation view: <em>Kent Monkman: mistikôsiwak (Wooden Boat People)</em>, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Great Hall Commission. Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Installation view: Kent Monkman: mistikôsiwak (Wooden Boat People), the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Great Hall Commission. Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The Rayyane Tabet Alien Property installation in the Ancient Near Eastern Art Galleries on view among other parts of our collection, is another good example. And of course, our new important “Crossroads” installations bringing together objects from various different areas—we accomplished that just before we had to close due to the pandemic. We were saying to ourselves, “Let’s make sure that we break up some of the silos that separate our different curatorial departments and see, providing we each have a deep understanding of art throughout the ages, from Greek and Roman sculptures, Egyptian and African art, to Asian and European art, and so on,” but what we don’t tell is there are so many parallels, simultaneities, and sometimes even surprising or unexpected cross-currents between cultures. And so, we transformed for example one of the most prominent spaces of the museum, the so-called Medieval Sculpture Hall. Rather than limit ourselves to the boundaries of European art, we exhibited works and objects from different culture areas around the world during medieval times. The Met is a vast domain; we have nearly two million objects, two million square feet of space—so you can’t turn a switch and just say, “Here’s the next incarnation of the Met.” It’s an evolutionary process. I would argue that if we were to reconstruct and build a new Met right now, it would look very different. Yes, we have this history of the Met, the history of collecting, the history of philanthropy, the history of various priorities embedded in the physical footprint of the Met. In a certain way, that’s also part of our DNA, part of our history, and we can modulate that, amplify it, but we cannot completely disengage from it.

Rail: That is art’s greatest nobility and privilege that we all can experience at the museum. One doesn’t need to be a Buddhist to appreciate art from early Christian times, and one doesn’t need to be a Christian in order to appreciate Buddhist art or art from Buddha’s time, and so on. Would you say perpetually reinstalling works in different wings or galleries is an essential part of the revisioning process?

Jacob Lawrence, <em>In all your intercourse with the natives, treat them in the most friendly and conciliatory manner which their own conduct will admit . . . –Jefferson to Lewis & Clark, 1803</em>, 1956. Egg tempera on hardboard, 16 x 12 inches. Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Jacob Lawrence, In all your intercourse with the natives, treat them in the most friendly and conciliatory manner which their own conduct will admit . . . –Jefferson to Lewis & Clark, 1803, 1956. Egg tempera on hardboard, 16 x 12 inches. Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Hollein: Yes, for example, we are currently in the process of replanning and redesigning the Rockefeller Wing, which houses our collections of the arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. We’ve commissioned Kulapat Yantrasast of wHY Architecture to redesign 40,000 square feet of gallery space. The art of Africa, the art of Oceania, the art of the Americas had been lumped together as they all came to the Met as one gift from the Rockefeller family. We realized we need to better separate these areas and provide more space, more air between the works, celebrating them not in an ethnographic context but as important works of art equal to those from Europe, Asia, and elsewhere. And when the Museum reopens, we’ll debut three important exhibitions: Making The Met, 1870 – 2020, the centerpiece exhibition of our 150th anniversary programming that travels through this Museum’s history—its highpoint and it’s blind spots—through some of our most stunning and meaningful objects; The Roof Garden Commission, Héctor Zamora: Lattice Detour, an intervention that references one of the defining symbols of our time—the wall; and Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle, which presents panels from a series in which the artist reconsiders iconic moments in history through, creating a powerful visual reckoning with America’s complex history that feels especially timely today. We’ll also present a number of exhibitions that we had opened just before closing, which are being extended into the fall—the scope is quite remarkable: Photography’s Last Century, which celebrates the remarkable ascendancy of photography in the last century through Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee's magnificent promised gift of over sixty extraordinary photographs, was on view for just days before we closed; Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara, the first exhibition of its time to trace the cultural legacy of the legendary empires of Western Africa through spectacular loans from the region's national collections, many of which have traveled to the United States for the first time; In Pursuit of Fashion: The Sandy Schreier Collection, highlighting promised gifts from this pioneering collector; And later this fall, About Time: Fashion and Duration, which had been planned as The Costume Institute’s big spring exhibition, will now open on October 29. And there is so much more to explore—a close look at Chinese calligraphy; Kent Monkman’s monumental paintings, commissioned for the Great Hall, that explore the complexities of historic and contemporary Indigenous experiences…I could go on and on.

Rail: Amazing. Even without authorship as we admire cave paintings and other anonymous works of art. What about the Met Breuer?

Installation view: <em>Gerhard Richter: Painting After All</em>, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Breuer building. Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Installation view: Gerhard Richter: Painting After All, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Breuer building. Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Hollein: The Met Breuer and its programming has been really important for the Met, because it informed our commitment to contemporary art, to developing our contemporary collection, and to curating exhibitions that are consequential and timely. However, we are leaving the Breuer building this summer and handing it over to The Frick Collection, which will continue then to program it. We will focus our contemporary exhibitions at the Met Fifth Avenue building as we already began last year. I am a strong believer that, in the long run, modern and contemporary art needs to be an integral part of the overall complex of all the arts of every culture at the Met.

It’s a shame, I have to say, that due to the pandemic, the important last show that we had there, the Gerhard Richter retrospective, had to close after only nine days of being on view. It was developed, in close collaboration with the artist, by Sheena Wagstaff and Benjamin Buchloh. Needless to say, it was a powerful, poetic, and very charged experience. Regrettably, this show will live only in the memory of those that were able to see it, although we are developing ways for others to experience it digitally and virtually.

Rail: Last question: Most, if not all of us, know you grew up with an artistic/bohemian family. Both your parents wanted you to be an artist, but instead you chose a different path. Was it a difficult decision—knowing that you had said in part interviews that your father, Hans Hollein, despite being a famous architect, the family had always worried about money?

Hollein: It wasn’t a difficult decision at all. I took it for granted, growing up with so many artists, architects, and other bohemians as you said. People like Joseph Beuys, Claes Oldenburg, Buckminster Fuller and of course all the Austrians like Walter Pilcher, Arnulf Rainer, your friend Raimund Abraham, and endless others were frequent guests at our home for lunch, dinner, or parties. As a kid, maybe at 7 or 8 years old, I remember that our ground school teacher talked about Michelangelo and I said to my neighbor in class that he was already at our place too. Not to brag but I naively thought that every artist who might pass through town checks in with us. But yes, the decision to study art history and business administration was a natural one, partly because I love art and artists, but I didn’t want to follow in my father’s footsteps and become an architect.

Rail: He had his journey, and you had your own journey.

Hollein: Exactly. One important thing I’d admit is, having grown up with artists all my life, I feel very comfortable around them. I aspire to be at least somewhat creative in what I do as a museum director. I love working with artists as much as working with curators and other people on the Met’s staff. What we’re going through together during this pandemic has provided us a profound opportunity to work together, not competing with each other, and also to rethink how art and culture can nurture the inclusiveness of our fragile democracy.

Rail: Self-correcting democracy.

Hollein: Absolutely, and we must work on nurturing this fragile self-correcting democracy everyday by spotlighting works of art that embody humanity’s aspiration and spirit.


Phong Bui

Phong H. Bui is the Publisher and Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Rail.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2020

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