Art's Big Brain

By Gopnik, Blake | Newsweek, November 14, 2011 | Go to article overview

Art's Big Brain


Gopnik, Blake, Newsweek


Byline: Blake Gopnik

Three years into running the great met museum, Thomas Campbell proves he's not dumbing it down.

Thomas Campbell, the director of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, might count as the ultimate egghead. When he first came to the Met as a curator, in the '90s, to work on old-master hangings, the museum's other scholars must have felt almost hip beside the Brit they called "Tapestry Tom." It has now been three years since Campbell's surprise elevation to director; though he has donned pinstripes, he still seems more suited to professorial tweed.

Sitting in his chambers in what is possibly the world's greatest museum, Campbell speaks one bullet point at a time, in CEO mode, about every aspect of his job, now that he's had time to settle in. He comes alive, however, when he shifts into scholarly gear, recounting the eureka moment when, as a swashbuckling young academic, he discovered tapestry was the new way to go. And then suddenly he's back in the present he's facing at the Met.

"I like to think that I'm trying to ride the crest of a wave," says Campbell. "But of course the continuation of the metaphor is that one falls off at some point, which I'd prefer not to do ... It's pretty intense, but it's very exciting."

Campbell grew up in Cambridge and studied at Oxford and the Courtauld Institute in London. His father was a businessman, in plastics, he says, "and that probably played a part in my becoming a scholar and art historian." He was 46 years old when he took over at the Met in 2008 from the patrician Philippe de Montebello, who'd been in charge for three decades. "Philippe was world-famous--probably one of the great museum directors of all time--a very strong personality," says Campbell, mild-mannered and slight, about 5 foot 7. "If I'd set out to try to emulate him, it would have been preposterous. I just get on with it."

Back when Campbell started, the obvious worry was that "getting on with it" would tend toward the scholastic. Instead, these few years later, he finds himself fighting just the opposite concern. "It makes a great story to say, 'Tom Campbell's dumbing the institution down.' But I don't think that's the case at all." That story was told last spring by the critic Jed Perl. He argued that the new director's emphasis on a Web-friendly "outreach" to visitors presents museums as "well-oiled corporate machines that downgrade the value of curators, not to mention the value of art."

A first glance at Campbell's most recent project--his first major mark on the museum--doesn't conjure that image. He is celebrating the Nov. 1 launch of a new suite of galleries devoted to Islamic culture, and it is tasteful and substantial. "We've got the best collection of Islamic art in the Western world," he says on a tour of the galleries. …

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