Talking Billions and Bubble-Gum Cards With Metropolitan Museum of Art Director Thomas Campbell

Thomas Campbell, photographed by Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos/New York Magazine Photo: Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos

I spend way too much of my time in my office and endless business meetings,” says Thomas Campbell, the preternaturally unassuming director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “so I try to get out a couple of times a day, if I can, and just get down there to the galleries, walk randomly in any direction.” Five years into his job, the British-born 51-year-old still comes off as less the maharaja of the Met than someone who, to his self-deprecating delight, has been given Charlie and the Chocolate Factory–like privileges to sneak around backstage. He has a special key, he tells me on the morning we are scheduled to walk not so randomly about, which is “supposed to open every door in the building,” he says. “Of course, I always discover the door it doesn’t work on is the one that I really need to get through.”

Campbell’s appointment in 2008 was something of a surprise. Other, better-­publicized Met curators and outside museum ­directors, including the head of the British Museum and Glenn Lowry, the now-embattled overseer of the Museum of Modern Art, had been touted for the job, and he was anointed out of relative obscurity after more than a decade as a tapestries curator. To this day, despite that blockbuster Alexander McQueen exhibit, his travels in the TED-talk-and-Davos circuit, the grand reopening of the redone Islamic and European Paintings galleries, the tearing up of those Fifth Avenue fountains, and the coming high-profile annexation of the Whitney Museum’s Madison Avenue building, he’s not particularly recognizable, even in that way that a New York executive-suite power-nerd can become a boldface name. Under the great dome of the great hall of the great gray museum, Campbell is a slight, polite man in a gray suit, his hair blending gray and he himself blending in, more interested in things than in trying to make you think he’s interesting.

This is unusual for a Met maestro. His predecessors, the LBJ-like populist Thomas Hoving (1967–77, who wrote an entertainingly self-serving memoir titled Making the ­Mummies Dance and almost doubled the size of the museum) and the elitist Philippe de Montebello (1977–2008, who made the Met rich), seemed to confuse their egos with the museum itself. It’s hard to imagine either of them talking about how the museum has to “make our case with metrics,” as Campbell did at Davos recently. Whatever he’s doing, it’s working: The Met went seven days a week to handle the crowds (up to 6.2 million from 4.7 million in five years), renamed its Costume Institute after Anna Wintour (among other reasons, because she helped raise over $125 million for it), and now is bursting its boundaries both curatorially and physically to install a vastly expanded modern-and-contemporary-art program in the old Whitney (the new one opens on the High Line next year). It’s the most ­aggressive expansion plan in 40 years, and one that makes it a rival to MoMA without provoking the derisive outcry produced by that museum’s Folk Art Museum–obliterating remodeling plans. Not that Campbell feels unsympathetic toward Lowry. “I mean, they were planning for 2 million visitors a year and were getting over three, which is why you get that terrible congestion,” he says as we walk across the balcony overlooking the great entry hall. “No, they have to expand.”

The Met wants to grow too, even a Met run by a Renaissance specialist nicknamed “Tapestry Tom.” But tapestries were, in their day, vastly expensive and exquisite taste trophies for the very rich, not unlike a Jeff Koons Balloon Dog or a Francis Bacon triptych today. And as much as anything, the tale of the taste trophy is the story the Met tells through its holdings: from the pharaohs to the robber barons, the Hapsburgs to the hedge-funders, the very precious things that define a transcendent purpose for the wealthy. The problem for the museum is that it’s been neglecting the contemporary for the classical for some time, which is where the Whitney annex comes in: Museum patrons used to flatter themselves as guardians of timeless masterpieces, but now they get most excited about the new stuff, like everybody else in the art world. Contemporary is, Campbell notes understatedly, “very hot right now.” But “with contemporary art fetching the prices it does in the auctions, we can never compete for that. It’s not even in the game. We have some dedicated funds, but it’s never enough. But what we can do is what we’ve always done—85 percent of our collections, approximately, comes from a gift. So we have to work with collectors. MoMA doesn’t need everything.”

We start our tour the way most visitors do, walking up the monumental stairway inscribed with the names of benefactors. “It’s the engine that keeps this place going,” Campbell says. “It’s the American system.” We check in on a skylit painting-restoration area, stroll through the spectacular Islamic galleries, pass by a pocket exhibition of early-20th-century bubble-gum football cards. “There’s a bit of a misperception that what is on display is just the tip of the iceberg and there’s a box of treasures in storage. In fact, the reality is that most of the great works are on display.”

He annotates as we go. In the European Paintings galleries, he says, “what’s been amazing about this reinstallation is in fact, for the first time in decades, or perhaps ever, it feels like the collection has room to breathe. You always forget that we have five Vermeers.” He counts: “One, two, three, four, five.” There is another gallery he wants to redo (the current color he dismisses as “dog vomit”). We giggle at angry-faced statues and look closely at a temporary installation of contemporary Chinese works on paper, some of which depict semi-apocalyptic industrial landscapes as traditional ink drawings.

Campbell’s joy in all this very old (and some new) stuff is where the epic and opulent depict the everyday, how there is a dog defecating off to the side of a grand old tapestry otherwise fit for Game of Thrones. One of his favorite paintings is The Harvesters, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, from 1565. It shows a wheat field being reaped, with some peasants picnicking in the foreground; far off in the distance, you can see ships heading out to sea. In some way, it’s the entire world. His favorite movies offer similarly sweeping visions: Brazil, Blade Runner, the sort you could see a modern-day Bruegel getting hired to do production design for. (Campbell even had The Harvesters rehung in a better position: “Now we’ve got a space where I can really enjoy it,” he says. Nice to be in charge of the world’s masterpieces.)

“The objects connect you across time and space with people who, in some respects, were really different from us, but in other aspects were really similar to us. You know? They went to the loo, they ate, they fell in love, and they had dashed hopes and dreams. They did things that they were really proud of, and I think that’s why this is, as well as a place to understand other people, also a place of insight into oneself.”

We stop for coffee at the members’-only lounge, where the curators also apparently hang out: Sheena Wagstaff, hired from the Tate Modern to run the new operation in the old Whitney, is holding a meeting, planning the coming occupation. “We take that over in September 2015, and we’ll start programming it for spring 2016. We’ll have it for at least eight years. If it’s a success, we’ll extend it.”

The annex will allow the Met to gut its current modern wing, down to the parking garage, and even add to the roof garden. All in all, the plan is practically Hoving-like in its ambition, even if Campbell’s more of a wallflower, watching those mummies dance, a bit anonymous, with a cup of black coffee in his hand. When we get up to leave, the cashier looks confused, not recognizing Campbell, who explains patiently, and not for the first time, “I’m the director.”

*This article appeared in the March 24, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.

109 Minutes With Met Director Thomas Campbell