The director of the largest art museum in the United States says during turbulent political times museums should stay faithful to their missions of unifying the country.
Thomas P. Campbell, director and CEO of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is the featured guest tonight at the Contemporary Art Museum’s annual distinguished speaker event. In recent weeks, he has spoken against attacks on federal funding for the arts, writing "The Folly of Abolishing the NEA" for the New York Times.
For the last several years, Campbell has tried to transform The MET into an encyclopedic museum that
furthers scholarship and institutional participation in an increasingly digital world. But his tenure at the Met has been met with scrutiny in New York.
At the Contemporary, Campbell will reflect on his tenure as the head of one of the nation’s leading museums and how its experience may benefit local musicians and arts communities.
Campbell recently spoke with St. Louis Public Radio about the state of the arts, the effect of politics on museums, and the role of the such institutions in today’s society.
The following responses have been condensed.
The purpose of museums
The vision of the founders of many of these institutions was to create educational institutions that would help unite a divided country (the Met was founded in the wake of the Civil War) and give large immigrant populations an idea, to help them learn about themselves, but to also help them learn about other emerging populations … That mission remains as relevant as ever.
The role of the nation's largest art museum
Where ever you come from, you’ll find something from your own culture, but you’ll also find rich ways to explore other people’s cultures. Our new Islamic galleries, which opened 10 years after 9/11 — we see a very heavy traffic to those galleries, a manifestation that people want to learn about a part of the world that is so much in the news. They want to learn more about the background — about the cultural richness and the history of the different parts of the world.
The shared responsibilities of local and national museums
We provide jobs. We enhance people’s lives. We play a critical education role from childhood through adulthood. All the studies show that if kids are exposed to art and creativity early on they do much better in their other educational activities. We all benefit from being challenged and exposed to, not just the familiar, but the unfamiliar.
Balancing scholarship and appealing to the masses
It’s not ivory tower work. It’s got to be relevant to the present day. That’s, I think an ongoing dialogue between our curators, our educators and our audience. We have a big exhibition about the Han dynasty, the dynasty that in a way conquered and united the area that became modern day China, later this spring. It’s a scholarly show but at the same time I think it’s hugely valid at this moment because with China emerging as the other great superpower that’s going to dominate the future, I think it’s really important that people understand this is not a fly-by-night country. This is a country that measures itself not in decades or even centuries, but it’s been a country for 2,000 years and that impacts and influences the way that the Chinese think about themselves, and I think it’s very important for Americans to understand that.
The role of museums during political upheaval
We mustn’t be partisan. It’s important that we can be a safe place for a discussion of a wide diversity of points of view. At the same time we are fundamentally educational institutions. That’s our mission. So I think it’s appropriate that we lobby on behalf of points of view and legislation that is sympathetic and supportive of those missions.
The National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for Humanities
Each year, the NEA issues something like 2,000 grants, many of them tiny, but they give prestige to the projects that receive those grants and allows them to raise money from other sources. So it’s a prestige and a catalyst that impacts communities across the country — all 50 states, all congressional districts, urban and rural areas, rich and poor. And it would be very unfortunate if it were to be cut off or curtailed further.
I think most of us are engaged now on the question of diversity, on looking carefully at diversity from our boards to our staff and making sure that our programs are thoughtful and embracing of wide audiences and collecting too. At the Met we have a very significant American wing, but American is often defined as colonial America, and over the last 25 to 30 years, the museum has made a very big effort to think more broadly about what that means: collecting Native American, African-American, now Latin American works. So I think it’s important that we’re open to being challenged. We’re all learning and we have to be open to new points of view and evolution.
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