The following is a conversation between Dan Weiss, President & CEO of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer WNYM in New York City.
Denver: If you take the number of fans who attended a Yankee game last year, add to that the attendance at the Mets, and throw in the Knicks and the Rangers, just for good measure, it still wouldn’t equal the 7.35 million people who visited The Metropolitan Museum of Art. And as New York City’s most visited tourist attraction prepares for its sesquicentennial anniversary next year, we thought it would be a great time to catch up and find out what’s going on at The Met. And who better to do that with than Dan Weiss, the president and CEO of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Good evening, Dan, and welcome to The Business of Giving.
Dan: Well, Hello! It’s great to be here, thank you!
Denver: Share with us some of the history of The Met, and give listeners a sense of the breadth and the scope of this, the largest art museum in the United States.
Dan: Well, The Metropolitan is, in many ways, a truly remarkable and distinctive institution. It is the largest art museum in the United States and arguably the largest art museum in the world. We have the largest building. At 2.4 million square feet, we are just a little bit larger than the Louvre. And the range of our collections extend from the prehistoric world up through the present day. We have the art of living artists here, and we have the Art of Ancient Egypt and Greece, and every civilization around the world throughout history is our goal.
The most remarkable thing about The Met, I think is, as we approach our 150th anniversary next year, the Met was created effectively as a social experiment by the citizens of New York who wanted to create a cultural center in the City of New York that resembled the great cultural institutions in the world, like the Louvre in Paris– which was their direct inspiration– but also the British Museum and the Hermitage, and other great museums. The difference is, and this is so interesting, that the founders of The Met had no art; they just had ambition. So, their idea was to create this museum that would rival the great institutions in the world with no art, and over the course of 149 years, The Metropolitan has built what it is today– one gift at a time, from the citizens around New York and around the world; and that, in some ways, is absolutely remarkable!
Denver: Yes, and many of these other institutions that you’re alluding to, they had royal art or imperial art which gave them the nucleus to build that museum.
Dan: Right, exactly. They started with a 1,000-year head start based on royal and imperial collections just as you said. The Louvre started with the collections of the royal families of France going back to the Middle Ages. And then they had Napoleon who spent much of his time going around the world collecting art, mostly illegally, bringing it back to France, and we didn’t have any of that to build The Met.
…we have always tried on the one hand to live our tradition, and on the other, to live in the world around us, and this we continue to do. The only difference is in the world today, we’re moving very quickly. So, we want to make sure we hold on to who we are, at the same time we’re keeping up
Denver: It’s funny sometimes how the DNA of an organization is baked in at its very founding, and when you look at the way you operate… and donors and the gifts you receive, it really started at the inception. Is there a changing expectation among audiences of what an encyclopedic museum like The Met should be?
Dan: Well, in some ways I think it is. One of the great challenges we face at The Met is on the one hand, to continue to respect our historical mission, which is to collect, preserve, study, and present the art of all civilizations around the world over all time. On the other hand, we live in the world, so we have to address the kinds of issues that people are addressing themselves.
We have to think about the ways technology can inform our mission. What do we do with social media, for example? Is that something The Metropolitan should take seriously? And over the course of our history, we have always tried on the one hand to live our tradition, and on the other, to live in the world around us, and this we continue to do. The only difference is in the world today, we’re moving very quickly. So, we want to make sure we hold on to who we are, at the same time we’re keeping up.
Denver: One of the realities of the world that you encountered when you arrived were the finances, and one of the things you did to address that was to introduce a new admission policy, charging people from outside of New York State $25, with the exceptions of some students and, Boy! Did this cause some kind of ruckus at the time! What has the impact of that new policy been on your bottom line? And now a year out, how has it been received?
Dan: When I arrived at the museum about four years ago, we discovered, much to my consternation, that our finances weren’t as strong as they should be, and that we were on a path of increased deficits if we didn’t turn things around. The Metropolitan depends on a variety of resources in order to balance its budget each year, and to be the magnificent institution everyone loves. We have all kinds of ways to raise money. We have philanthropic programs as people all know – annual giving and support from our donors is very important. We have retail sales, we have restaurants, we have membership, and we have an admissions policy program. And when I arrived, we discovered that all of those programs, all of the ones I just mentioned, were either losing money or flat; they weren’t growing at all.
So the question was if we want to restore strong finances to The Met, how do we do that? We took a look at our admissions policy, and we discovered that in the 10 years prior to that moment, the admissions policy, the average amount people paid in this great pay-as-you-wish program, had declined by 67%, and this means that the average person, for whatever reason, even as attendance rose at the museum… and arguably The Met was never more beloved… people were paying less and less. So that contract, as it were, with the public: Pay Whatever you Want to Come! had been failing.
So, we made the decision that we needed to change the policy in order to remain financially viable as it were, and the goal was to get enough money from revenue from admissions to help offset all of the other activities in the museum; and this is what we accomplished. It was controversial at the time… we knew that it would be, but frankly, it was less controversial than we expected because we did, I think, a very good job of telling our story. Everyone who wanted to know why we’re doing this, what is the reason, what are the plans, we spoke to them. I did lots of interviews with the media; we provided data to people, and the more people knew, the more they understood what was behind the decision. They either supported it actively or at least understood it. And we’ve now had the program in place for a little over a year, and we have accomplished all of the goals we set– which is to increase revenue in this area in ways that helps the museum, without in any way diminishing access to the museum. And I’m pleased to report our visitor numbers continue to grow, not only in total, but also in all of the groups that we follow, including underrepresented groups of various kinds. Those visiting numbers continue to grow. So, this policy has had no negative effect on anything that was most important to us.
Denver: And an interesting aspect of that too is that the New York State residents, who pay as they wish, that amount has gone up as well.
Dan: Yes, it has. You’re exactly right, and we were delighted to see that, and I think it’s because I have long held the view that if you give people information, and they understand where you’re coming from, they are going to do the right thing. And as we told our story about the reasons that our revenues were declining, there was greater awareness of what pay-as-you-wish really means, so those people who had the opportunity to pay-as-you-wish decided to pay more, and that was very helpful.
Denver: Let’s talk a little bit about that financial picture you inherited when you arrived. I mean you had a debt that was approaching $40 million; your operating losses were in the vicinity of $10 million, and you made a commitment– and the board– to have a balanced budget by 2020, and that appears to be on track. Now I know this is not rocket science, but there is something to it. What were the steps, and what were the actions you took to right the ship?
Dan: Well we had gotten into the situation we were in in 2015 because over the course of several years, we had made various incremental decisions, all of them on the face of it that seemed like good ideas– “Let’s build this initiative or that initiative or whatever,” and by the time we really took a look at our books and our situation, we decided the first step is to be completely transparent with our community, with our staff, and with the public. That actually we have a significant deficit, and if we don’t address it, the institution will effectively be diminished if we don’t find a way to restore balance to our finances. The first step was transparency. We told the story, we opened up our books. And then as the president, my job was to really take a look at all of the components of what makes a budget healthy.
We have four-five major revenue generating activities in the museum, all of them at the time were underperforming– retail, restaurants, memberships, admissions– and all of them required a complete restructuring in order to see what was wrong with them and what could we do to make them healthy. We did that. We took all of those organization entities apart; we rebuilt them. All of them have been performing much better.
On the other side of the budget are all the costs that we generate, the staff we hire, the way we do our work, our back office functions. We went through the museum and took all of those apart as well. And after all of that work was done, a major overhaul as it were, we saw that the museum started to perform much better. We then knew that we could lay out a plan. In our plan, we took the long view. This is important, The Metropolitan is what we call a perpetual institution, which means we have to balance our budgets and manage our institution with the idea that we will be here forever. This is different from a private corporation that has the goal, say, of maximizing shareholder value. And therefore, every decision we make today has to stand up over time. So we built a long-term model so that we could understand the implications of the decisions we make today over the course of the next several years, out over a decade; we did that.
And then we were able to see that if we do all of these things that I’ve just described carefully, we can get to a balanced budget by 2020 and hold onto it. Once we get there, we then need to be able to stay there– at a balanced budget– while at the same time investing in all of those things that make The Met exceptional. I’m very proud of our staff; they did a great job. And next year, we will land on a balanced budget.
Dan: Thank you.
Denver: Wonderful to take that long view; so many people do in today’s world. The very highly regarded Max Hollein was appointed as art director at The Met last year, and the two of you have created a partnership to co-lead this institution. How has that been working? What are the benefits? And maybe, what are some of the challenges of this arrangement?
Dan: Sure. The Met has long had this partnership where there is a president and a director. And the responsibilities are allocated in some ways like in a university where there is a president and what’s called a provost. And at The Met, what the Director is responsible for is all of the program and collections-related activity. So, Max oversees all of the curatorial and conservation departments… and I should say we have the largest curatorial faculty of any one museum in the world. We have the largest conservation group of any cultural art museum in the world; he oversees those things.
We have a publications department that publishes 30-35 scholarly books a year. We have one of the largest art libraries in the world, and so on. All of those things are under the responsibility of the director. And I, as president, am responsible for the entire institution, but also all of the administrative functions. So I oversee fundraising and financial operations, and security, and marketing, and communications. And ideally, when it works well, the director and the president are genuine partners. They talk to each other to solve problems; they work collaboratively, and they become a team rather than an individual. And when it works well, these jobs are a little bit less lonely.
Denver: And it seems to be working well. Well, now we got the finances straightened out; you have your art director in. So let’s begin to turn to some of the renovations that have been planned. One of those was the southwest wing. Now that was put on indefinite delay back in 2017; it had an estimated cost of $800 million. What is the status of it today?
Dan: We took a look at that project, again after, just as you said, in 2017. As we were in the process of getting our finances in order, we put that project aside for two reasons: one, because we needed to focus our attention on stabilizing our operating finances so we could understand what is possible. And two, we knew that that project was too expensive, that even for the great Metropolitan, $800 million or more for one wing of the building was more ambitious and more expensive than was prudent. So we put it on hold.
Since that time, as we have gotten our finances in order; we have revisited the basic concept of that wing, and we have come up with a new approach that is significantly less expensive. It’s somewhere between $500 million and $600 million to do the whole thing by the time we’re done, and that we think is actually a better building. It’s actually larger in terms of the gallery space that we will achieve with this new, less expensive version than the earlier one. And we think it’s closer to the long-term vision we have for the role of modern and contemporary art in the museum.
So what often happens in capital projects of this size and magnitude, indeed the Whitney’s experience is the same because you have to try it a few times; you make a few attempts; you have a few iterations; you learn from those experiences, and then you get a better sense of really what you want to achieve. And this is what we’ve done over the last few years. So now we’re poised to do this project; it’s much more focused. It’s much more clear in our mind what we’re going to achieve, and we’re much more excited about it.
Denver: Let’s talk about the role of modern and contemporary art at The Met because, as you know, there are people who say, “Hey, this is a city that has the Guggenheim and the Whitney, and MoMA, is there really a need to have a new wing of The Met dedicated to modern and contemporary art?” Tell us why it’s important to the institution, and what you think you can add to the conversation.
Dan: Well, The Metropolitan is, as we said earlier, an encyclopedic museum. So our goal is to collect, study, present the art of all of civilization, and that includes the world we live in today and in the recent past. When we talk about modern and contemporary art, what we’re really talking about is the art of the 20th century and thereafter. If we didn’t collect those things, The Metropolitan would, in short order, become a kind of mausoleum, a historical museum, as opposed to a living institution. I don’t think anyone would question whether or not The Metropolitan should have John Singer Sargent or Winslow Homer or Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko. Everyone sees those figures as iconic to 20th century art. Well, we collected them when they were contemporary. The question for us is, I think more recently: How should The Metropolitan be engaged in collecting the art of the world around us today? And that is where I think we differ from the Modern, or the Guggenheim, or the Whitney. Our goal is not to be the leading edge arbiter of what is in or not in, but rather it is to collect the art of artists today and in the recent past who are making what we think will be an enduring impact on the discussion of art and the understanding and appreciation of art for centuries to come.
We take long bets on contemporary art that we think is going to endure, and we try then to integrate it into the historical arc of our own museum, because what we do better than anyone is we embed all of the art that we have into a historical story, into a narrative that actually is about human civilization, and not just what was happening in Chelsea in the 1950s. Both of those are important things to do. What we do is take the long view, and therefore contemporary art is important to us.
Denver: So we can see the full thread.
Dan: That’s our goal, the full thread. We don’t always get it right, but that’s the goal that we set.
Denver: Next year, you will begin renovation of the Michael C. Rockefeller wing of the museum, and that’s slated to be completed in 2023. Share with us the plans for that.
Dan: Well, the Michael C. Rockefeller wing houses the collection of the ancient Americas, African, and Oceanic art, which is by the way, almost three quarters of our planet, so it’s a very big and important part of our collection. But more than 50 years ago, we had almost nothing until Nelson Rockefeller made this extraordinary gift to us in the 1970s. This wing honors his son, Michael, who was also a collector and deeply passionate about this art, who disappeared on an art collecting expedition in the 1960s. This is the memorial to Michael Rockefeller.
Since that time, we have done incremental updates to the wing, but it’s ready for a complete renovation because in fact, the world of scholarship and collections and understanding of this material has evolved dramatically. And at The Metropolitan, we want to keep pace with that. So it is time now for this wing to be given a complete review and an update so that we can tell these stories in new and more relevant ways. We’re very excited about that.
At the same time, there are always opportunities to renovate facilities in the museum that have become rundown and, for example, this part of the museum looks out on the south side of Central Park, and we have a great big glass curtained wall, which is absolutely magnificent and completely decrepit, so it needs to be replaced. We will do both of those things with this project.
Denver: One last thing on this, you were also thinking about reconfiguring the Great Hall to use it more effectively. What are your thoughts on that?
Dan: Yes. As we have had incremental growth, significant growth in the number of visitors to the museum each year, as you said earlier, this year we will have more than 7.5 million people visit the museum as we did last year. The Great Hall becomes a pretty stressed place, and it is a magnificent room, one of the great rooms in all of New York. But when you have 30,000 people standing in that room at the same time, it’s not such a great room. So, what we are doing is we are trying to improve the ways in which we can engage and welcome visitors to the museum. We are going to change the way tickets are offered and sold in the space, so that it’s more coherent, and it’s a little bit better in dealing with crowds. There will be better signage; there’ll be clearer views as you come into the Great Hall; it will be easier to see the various directions you can go; there’ll be better signage. So, the project is not a massive one; it’s relatively minor, but we think it will have a major effect on the quality of the visit for everyone who comes into the museum.
Denver: As we talk about the building, Dan, and I think a question that is probably on a lot of people’s minds after that recent horrifying fire at Notre Dame is: What systems and precautions are there at The Met in case, God forbid, a fire should break out there?
Dan: Well, for all of the things The Metropolitan Museum does, the most important thing we do is protect the safety and health of the people in the building and the art that is in our care. Our job.. our number one job… is to make sure that the art that we are taking care of will last forever. Fire is one of the most important problems that we have to be aware of. We do all kinds of things to make sure that there is a fire safety standard at The Met that is at the highest possible level. We work with the city fire department and the authorities in New York to make sure that we’re always up to date with various codes of compliance. We have fire safety people in the building 24 hours a day, every day of the week.
Two minutes after the fire broke out at Notre Dame in Paris, I received an email from our security team telling us that they’re monitoring our situation, everything that we can do to make sure that this building is safe, is safe. And they were doing that just to make sure I was comfortable to know that whatever caused the fire in Paris, we are ready to make sure that this building will be safe in perpetuity. Everyone worries about the sort of thing all the time. What happened in Paris is a tragedy at so many levels, but it has also I think raised the visibility and importance of cultural heritage in ways that maybe wasn’t so visible two days ago. The world is going to rise up and help rebuild this building because it is so important to the well-being and the cultural history of the world, and that in some ways is a good thing.
If every country that produced the art took back all the art that was produced, we would have no encyclopedic museums; we would have much less empathy and global understanding of anything because people would have less access to learning.
Denver: This is an interesting time to be leading a museum like The Met. Every aspect of the universal museum is coming into question, such as reevaluating the Colonial period here in America. This can be quite challenging and probably pretty invigorating at the same time. What are your discussions like about these issues?
Dan: There are a small handful of major issues that we are facing today, and at any chapter in the history of the museum, there are issues one confronts. The stories we face today, the questions we face today are: How do we organize collections? As you say, should we be displaying works of art that were gathered in ways that might not be a best practice in the world today? And where do we get these things? Why do we have them? What the President of France recently said about the Benin bronzes in Paris, for example, that are in the Quai Branly Museum, that they should be given back to Africa, to the nations that created them. These questions are before us, and we talk about them all the time.
There are many issues associated with the resolution of those issues. What is the weight of history? What is the law both here and elsewhere? Whose public should be served here? How do we make sure that the global community has access to the great treasures of all the history and culture that have been created? If every country that produced the art took back all the art that was produced, we would have no encyclopedic museums; we would have much less empathy and global understanding of anything because people would have less access to learning. So we have to find the balance between the goals of institutions like the Louvre and The Metropolitan on the one hand, and the rights of those cultures and those countries that produce this art on the other. That’s a long, complicated process that requires discussion and collaboration and trust, and this is the path we’re trying to build. There are those kinds of issues, as I say, at all times, and right now, that’s one of the most important. There are others, but that’s one of the most important.
Denver: Yes, it sure is. Let’s talk a little bit more about diversity, and as you know, there was a little consternation in certain circles when Max was named as Art Director at The Met because many people believe that those narratives are told from the white male Eurocentric perspective, and here we are going with two white men leading this institution. How did you respond to those concerns? And what about the whole issue of diversity in the museum world?
Dan: First of all, the goal of diversity in museums I think is absolutely right. This past year, we completed a plan for diversity, equity, access, and inclusion that focuses on: How can we actually move the institution powerfully forward in ways that allows us, in our staffing, to represent the world around us, and our programs to be responsive to the interest and needs of the world around us in ways that we haven’t always been? I think we made a lot of progress there.
In searching for a director, the first question one must ask is: What steps did you take to ensure that you had the most diverse applicant pool you possibly could have? And then, did you have in place a good process to evaluate the different ways these candidates could help inform the future of the museum… because not every candidate is the same? I think we were very aggressive in trying to make sure that we were combing the world for the best possible candidates across the board.
The Met is an extraordinarily complicated place to lead, so we wanted to find candidates who had the experience and the depth of knowledge and basis to be able to bring real value to that work. We looked at a diverse array of candidates; we took them all seriously. We were very pleased to see the quality and the strength of the pool, and ultimately we chose Max Hollein because we felt he would be able to do the job most effectively for us at this time. And we had to defend that decision to ourselves and to the world, and we think that Max’s performance will speak for itself, including the ways he and I will lead this institution to become a more diverse place. My suggestion would be: Let’s see how that goes, and why don’t you invite me back in two years? And we’ll see how we’ve done, and ideally the place will look different as a result.
Denver: That seems to me to be a very fair statement.
Dan: Thank you.
Denver: Let’s turn to those 7.5 million people, and you have thought a lot about the visitor experience and are looking at it in a holistic way, and have been very intentional on trying to improve that experience. Describe for us some of the ways that it has become better.
Dan: The visitor experience has become better? Well, we’ve been very thoughtful about first of all, understanding that for many people, the majority of our visitors each day have never been to The Met before. So if you come to the front of The Metropolitan Museum, you’ve never been there before, first of all until about four years ago, there wasn’t even a sign outside.
Denver: I know, that’s incredible.
Dan: You wouldn’t know where you were. I remember in my first year sitting at the information desk in the Great Hall just working and learning about that organization, and someone came in from the street and said, “Excuse me, sir, but could you tell me: Where am I?“ And a perfectly fair question!
Denver: And those steps, they’re intimidating!
Dan: The steps are intimidating! So if you’ve never been there before, you don’t really know what’s housed inside, it takes something of a leap to go up those stairs and enter that building and feel like you have a right to be there. We have worked very hard to make sure that we’re responsive to those concerns. We think about the visitors’ experience from the time they’re contemplating even coming to New York, and that’s our website. How do we tell our story? How do we make clear to people we’d love for you to be here? And when you get here, we’re going to make sure that this is a welcoming experience for you.
That means that the signage has to be clear; the people have to be nice, it has to be easy to get tickets; you have to be able to find your way; you have to feel at the beginning, and at the end, and all the way throughout that you’re at a place where you’re welcome to be. And ultimately, our greatest goal is that every visitor who comes, by the time they’re finished with their visit, they feel like, “This is my museum. I can come back whenever I want,” and that’s what we want to do.
Denver: A lot of empathy. I know how you put yourself in the shoes of the visitor, and are now really telling a story in terms… from their eyes… of: How would I go through this? Where before, I just recall, it was just siloed: everything was just there– a restaurant was there; retail was there; a kiosk was there, but you’re using iPads now too, right?
Dan: Yes, we are. We’re using all kinds of technology, and we’re trying to put ourselves more in the shoes of our visitors because, in fact, it is an overwhelming experience. Fifty years ago, The Met had the view that we’re open to whoever knows enough to take advantage of this place, but if you really don’t know what you’re doing, and you really don’t understand what this place has to offer, maybe it’s not for you. And that is no longer our view. Our view is: it’s for everybody. And, indeed, the world is coming; so let’s do the best we can to make them feel welcome.
Denver: Let’s talk a little bit about technology, and The Met has always been in the forefront of that in the museum world because of your size and your resources. But how is it changing the way audiences are experiencing The Met, both onsite and across the world?
Dan: Well, that’s exactly how we think about technology. There are really two whole spheres of activity. There is: How can we use technology to help people facilitate a good visit? Well, you can go on our website and find out how you get tickets, and where the museum is, and when we’re open, and what the exhibitions are; all of that, that’s easy stuff, we’re doing that. And then once people arrive, they can use their iPhone or an iPad to navigate the museum. There are all kinds of ways technology will enliven and then facilitate their visit when they’re in the building, and that’s essential. The other question which is in some ways a little bit more complicated is: What role should the museum play using technology to facilitate a learning experience for people who may never come to The Met? We have arguably among the most comprehensive and thoughtful content on our website of any art museum in the world.
Denver: I would concur.
Dan: Thank you. We have video content; we have information about our collections; we have all kinds of educational content. The timeline of art history is extraordinarily well-used, 11 million visits to that one site alone every year. We have school children all over the world who use this material as part of their curriculum, who may never come to The Met. We see that as a fundamental responsibility as well, and that’s not something we would have thought about actively 10, 20 years ago, but we do now.
Denver: It’s funny with technology, all those prognosticators said once it gets online and once the pictures get really vivid and good the way they are right now, there will be no need for people to go to the physical site and visit the museum. Yet your attendance just goes up and up and up!
Dan: Yes, it’s a great point. I remember those discussions when I was a professor of Art History 15 years ago. There was this great disdain for reproductions; you just don’t talk about art in front of reproductions unless you have to; it’s always the real thing. We still believe that, that there is something very powerful, almost spiritual for connecting directly with works of art. But the quality of digital images is such today that people can get a very far away towards learning about them by using digital images. And much to our delight, we have found that the more people interact with digital imagery, with technology, it increases their interest in the thing itself. The number of visits to the museum continues to grow, even as we see an explosion of social media and digital resources. That, I think, is a very happy marriage of two different worlds of knowledge and information.
Denver: For sure. Let me ask you just about one of those exhibits because I saw it on CBS Sunday morning just a few weeks ago with Anthony Mason. And you’re the first art museum to have honored the instruments of Rock and Roll; it’s called “Play It Loud.” Tell us about it.
Dan: It’s a great exhibition. The idea really was to think about the great movement of Rock and Roll as one of the most important musical movements of our lifetimes, and that the objects that were created to bring life to that movement are works of art; they’re beautifully designed, and in fact, they have been modified by their musicians in ways that makes them interesting artifacts as well.
We have had for a century a department of musical instruments, so we have Stradivarius violins, and all kinds of things. There’s no reason why a Fender guitar played by one of the great Rock and Roll musicians shouldn’t be part of that discussion. This exhibition brings all of that together, and it is connected in really exciting ways to an artistic movement people don’t know that much about, into a social movement that most people know a lot about. And the show has done extraordinarily well. I’ve had the opportunity to meet some of the great rock guitarists of the 1960s and ‘70s, and that’s been pretty exciting as well.
Denver: Yes, it is, say, that’s one of the perks of the job, for sure.
Dan: Yes, it is. Hanging out with Jimmy Page has got to be a highlight for me.
Denver: Yes, where is the camera? Let me ask you about change. All institutions need to change, but particularly institutions which are 150 years old. They need to change to be able to stay relevant, but it can really be difficult to effectuate change in an organization that is so large and complex. How do you go about bringing change to an institution like The Met?
Dan: I think one of the most important qualities that leadership has to have for an institution like The Met is to know what pace of change is healthy and appropriate. The Met is a venerable institution that is beloved by people all over the world for what it is, what it represents, and therefore, what it was. At the same time, we live in the world today. So how do we think about making sure we’re continuing to evolve in ways that serves the needs of people today and keeps pace with the environment around us? I think the best way for us to do that is to listen very carefully to our staff who are on the ground, who are engaging with the public and with their own fields all the time… and to listen carefully to our friends, our supporters, the public… and that’s what we do.
As president, my job is to try to find the right balance between history and tradition on the one hand, and an exciting vision for the future on the other. If you don’t bring people along with you, our staff, the city of New York, our donors, our supporters, the artists, all of those communities– if you don’t bring them with you, you really actually cannot lead effectively. The work we’re doing, Max and I, is really harnessing that energy and that vision and that excitement about what The Met is today and what it can be in the world in the future, and then getting everyone committed to moving us forward; and we’re doing that. We’re actually moving fairly quickly.
Denver: Let me stick with the staff. Describe the organizational culture at The Met. What makes it such a special place to work? And is there anything that you specifically do to try to shape and influence that culture?
Dan: Well, first of all, The Met is… the culture and the staff, is remarkable. We have about 2,300 people, and one of the distinctions of this place is that of those 2,300, all of them are there because they love working in an art museum, whether they’re art historians or conservators or security staff or electricians. They appreciate what it means to be in one of the most beloved institutions in the world, and that’s why they’re there. Most of them could make more money working in other environments that are not at The Metropolitan. That energy, combined with that talent… they’re also there because they’re the best at what they do in any field. So there’s an enormous amount of creative energy and talent everywhere around us, and that creates a very exciting can-do environment.
Almost anything is possible at The Met because we have dedicated people who are as good at what they do as anyone in the world. And for me, that’s incredibly inspiring. What we’re able to pull off and accomplish in special exhibitions and conservation work and scholarship and in our work with our facilities, all of that is remarkable. I think on the one hand then, it’s making sure we respect all of that, and people understand how lucky they are to have such colleagues wherever they work. On the other hand, it’s also important for leadership to remember: it’s a workplace. They need to come to work every day; they need to be able to make a good wage; they need to have a working environment that is supportive of them. They need to be able to feel like they’re part of a community that values and appreciates what they do, and I think about those kinds of issues all the time.
Denver: Let me ask you a little bit about some of the influences in your life, your dad, your mentors, your consulting career. You’ve been the president of two colleges, Lafayette and Haverford. How has all that shaped and informed the way you’re leading The Met?
Dan: Well, I think one goal that I had in my career, and I would advise everyone else to do the same, that whatever job you’re in, there’s always enormous opportunity to learn, both from mentors who can teach you good things, valuable things about how to do your job more effectively, or what the issues within the organization might be, but also things not to do. And I have had role models in both directions. I’ve been very lucky that for most of my career, all of my career, I’ve had an opportunity to work in organizations that I really valued, and I’ve learned a lot. The Metropolitan, in some ways, pulls it altogether because it is, on the one hand, a cultural, mission-driven institution that looks like a university… that has much of the same kind of culture and sets of objectives that one finds in universities. And on the other hand, we have to live in the world today and run like a business. We have to balance our budget; we have to open our doors every day; we have to make sure that we’re selling things in our retail operation, and that our restaurants and all of the activities we engage in are competitive and valuable. I feel like I have the opportunity to draw on all of those experiences that I’ve had over my career in the private sector, in university life, as a scholar, as a businessman, as a management person, and I feel incredibly lucky to be in a place that asks all of those things of me every day.
Denver: Your dream job, it sounds like to me.
Dan: It is. It’s one of the great jobs in the world.
Denver: I remember when you were at Yale; you actually did an independent study looking at museum leadership, so this must have been in the back of your mind for a long, long time.
Dan: It was, it absolutely was. I did that independent study, and I traveled around and met with museum leaders, including the president of The Met, and he told me all about his job, and it never would have occurred to me that all these years later, I’d be in his seat.
Denver: In closing, we mentioned before, it’s 150 years next year for The Met. Is there anything special you have on tap? What is your vision and your priorities for The Met as you look out to the future?
Dan: Well the 150th anniversary gives us an opportunity first and foremost to say: Thank you. The main reason, the only reason The Met is as successful as it is, is because so many people have invested so much in its well-being over the course of its history– through gifts of art and financial support, through dedication and day-to-day work, through people giving their careers to the institution and the public supporting it in myriad ways. So we want, in a modest way, to say thank you. We’re going to have various events that will draw attention to the museum, that will celebrate especially New York that has sustained us in fundamental ways.
It’s also an opportunity for us to look to the future. Now that we have reached 150 years, and we’ve become the institution that we are, what’s next? Max and I are going to be working with our staff in outlining a vision, so that in 2020, we’ll be able to talk about what’s going to happen next. And on the one hand, it will be a continuation of the things The Met does so well– our exhibition program, our scholarship, our public events. We have, for example, in a given year, public events of all sorts big and small, about 38,000 a year. So, we are a busy place; we will be a busy place in the future.
Denver: That’s over 100 a night.
Dan: Yes. Well, it’s all day long; it’s tours; it’s lectures.
Denver: I know. Amazing!
Dan: The numbers are overwhelming, and we want to continue doing that and making sure we continue to be a place that not only serves the public interest, but also as a place that people believe in and gives them a sense of connection to the world and to history, that ultimately can only be good for all of us.
Denver: Well, Dan Weiss, the President and CEO of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. Tell us a little bit more about your website, maybe some special place you would direct listeners to, or maybe those who are making a first time excursion to The Met.
Dan: Our website is a great place to start. You can find almost everything you want to know about The Metropolitan on the website. It will tell you about how to visit, what time to come, all of those things associated with the logistics of arriving. But another thing you can do is: you can search our website to look at our collection. If there’s an artist that you’ve heard of and you’re interested in— Vincent Van Gogh, or Rembrandt, or Jackson Pollock, or any artist you can think of, take a look at what our website tells you about that artist. It’s a good place to start.
Or you might start with a culture you’ve heard something about: Ancient Greece, or Egypt, or Africa, any place in the world that might be of interest to you. Start there. Take a look at what we have; then when you come to the museum, you might start in that place and then walk in any direction. You can’t get lost for long; we have security guards everywhere who will guide you back, but just go ahead and wander the world without worrying too much about where you are, and see what treasures you’ll discover. It’s the best way to visit The Met.
Denver: I’m ready to head up there right now. Thanks, Dan. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show.
Dan: My great pleasure, thank you!
Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.
The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at www.facebook.com/businessofgiving.