Fashionable Safety, Sacklers and NFTs: the Metropolitan Museum of Art CEO on the Return of the Met Gala

12 minute read

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When at the Met, I always make a point of visiting the Arms and Armor galleries, even if it’s for just a quick hello to the particularly fierce Japanese helmet bedecked with dragon wings.

For Daniel Weiss, the president and chief executive of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the nation’s largest art museum, it’s the Roman court, complete with gurgling fountain amid the Greek and Roman galleries.

“It’s the most beautifully designed and sublimely lit display space for Greek and Roman art in the world,” says Weiss emphatically. “It’s my favorite area, and I find that I’m moved every time I go there.”

Like many other businesses and institutions, the Met struggled during the pandemic. Before COVID-19, it was visited by about 7 million people a year. Then it shut down for an unprecedented five months, leading to cuts in the staff and budget to make up for lost revenues.

On Monday, Sept. 13, the Met is making an important step in a return to whatever normal looks like these days. The museum is hosting the Met Gala, its signature red-carpet event, which is also an important fundraiser for the Met’s Costume Institute. The gala, sometimes referred to as the Oscars of the fashion world, was canceled once during the pandemic and then postponed from its usual first Monday in May date. This year’s gala will open up a two-part exhibition, with the first part titled “America: A Lexicon of Fashion.”

Weiss, who has written six books, was previously a management consultant with Booz Allen Hamilton, an art historian specializing in medieval art, and president of Haverford College. He joined the Met in 2015. He recently joined TIME for a conversation from his office, which overlooks the Met’s rooftop, on how the museum plans to keep ballgoers safe during the Delta outbreak, the next steps in its relationship with the Sackler family and his terse views on the emerging NFT market.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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Do you worry about the Met Gala becoming a superspreader event for the world’s most glamorous people and, not incidentally, your most important donors and trustees?

I worry about all kinds of things all the time, because worrying allows you to be alert to risk. And if you’re not worrying you’re likely to miss cues and signals.

I am not worried in this event because the level of care and planning that has gone into this has been exemplary, and if people follow the rules, there will be no transmission of the virus. And if they don’t follow the rules, no matter who they are, they’ll be escorted out. This event sets the gold standard for what you should do in order to keep people safe.

Can you list what you are doing?

It will be about 400 people—normally the event is 30% to 40% larger than that—so we can spread people out a little bit more. Everyone attending the event will be vaccinated, and there will be demonstrable proof of vaccination.

It is not an honor system. Everyone who attends the event will be tested within 24 hours. You need both a vaccination and a negative test, and you need to wear a mask most of the time when you come in order to attend. And that’s true for everybody, for guests, for staff, for everybody.

Do you worry that the Met Gala has become a very fashionable tail wagging the dog, that previous themes like Camp, Punk, Rock and Superheroes arent up to the level of rigor and scholarship of other departments and exhibitions?

There is always going to be tension in this institution to find balance between what is popular and what is important. And we do both. Each thing we do has to be important and have scholarly interest, or we don’t do it at all.

What we do in the Costume Institute, and we’re very proud of, is we sustain a program that is scholarly, that maybe people will find fault with one program or another, just like they would anywhere else. But it is not about pandering to the public or feeding the fashion houses. It’s really about inculcating fashion as a work of art and concept related to civilization that’s not all that different from Arms and Armor. Arms and Armor were the Costume Institute of the Middle Ages, and we collect that too. So it’s holding it in balance. Right now, it’s the most popular thing. Twenty-five years ago, it was Impressionism. Fifty years ago, it was the Renaissance. One hundred years ago, it was Greek and Roman, and 50 years from now, I don’t know what it will be. Our job is to live in the moment and take the long view, holding those in balance and keeping our values aligned. And I think we do that with the Costume Institute.

Changing topics: Why not take down the Sackler name from galleries in the museum? [In 2019, the Met said that it would suspend receiving gifts from any Sacklers linked to Purdue Pharma, the maker of the highly addictive painkiller OxyContin. There are nine galleries named for the Sacklers, including the prominent Sackler Wing, home to the Temple of Dendur.]

It’s a subject under review. What we’re trying to do is to create a process around which fairness will out, within the context of our mission. And that means it is not for us to make a judgment about the responsibility or the culpability of the Sacklers with information that is incomplete. That’s not our business. We’re not a court of law.

On the other hand, we also are not obligated to hold the same standard because we’re not in the business of making judgments about liability or criminal or civil guilt. There was a milestone last week because the bankruptcy process finally came to completion. And now, between the record of the bankruptcy hearing, and there’s a great deal of new evidence and material that is available to us, including this new book by Patrick Keefe: whatever one thinks of his writing and his own views, it’s a brilliant book. It is filled with objective information that we can use to make our own judgment. There’s a lot of information that allows us to make a more thoughtful judgment than we could have made six months ago, and that’s what we’re doing now.

Do you think in six months, its likely that the Sackler name will be off the Sackler Wing?

I think within a lot sooner time than that, it’s likely that the board and the administration will have the right conversation about what to do.

What would be your recommendation based on what you know today?

I’m not really at liberty to share that. I’d rather have that conversation confidentially with the board.

I’m a great believer, one of my leadership principles, is shared governance. And that means that we have the right forum in the right room to have candid conversations about what’s best for the institution. What I have done is I have immersed myself substantively in this case. I’ve spent an enormous amount of time being informed so that my recommendations to the board will be based on a deep understanding of what I can understand about this case. And I have strong views.

Some might argue this is precisely not the time for shared governance, particularly with a board that might have other conflicts or issues.

You make an excellent point, and I would argue exactly the opposite, that shared governance is the opportunity to make the best decision you can in uncertain circumstances with limited information.

I don’t actually have the authority to take the Sackler name down. That authority resides with the board, so there is no way for me ex cathedra to remove their name. And if I don’t bring a really thoughtful substantive case to the board, then they’re not going to know how to make that decision. It has to be made by the administration, who does the work and who has the expertise, and the board, who have fiduciary responsibility and oversight obligations. For shared governance to work right, everybody brings their best selves, and you have a real conversation that allows the right decision for the institution to be made.

If it was within your purview, and you could make a decision today, what would you decide about the Sackler name?

I’d rather not comment on that for the same reason.

On the broader point, should institutions be responsible for how their board members made their fortunes?

Each board has to decide for itself how it constitutes its membership. In my own view, boards should be diverse in their representation. That means they should bring different kinds of expertise, because their job is not only, it isn’t even primarily, to fund the institution: it’s to provide oversight of the institution, to hire and fire the leadership, to provide fiduciary responsibility to make sure we’re doing what we’re supposed to do and preserving the resources, make sure that we’re setting the proper strategy and protecting the reputation of the institution. If a board is doing that, it’s doing its job well. It can’t do that job well if it’s just filled with one kind of trustee.

I think any museum that might bring somebody on the board who might have objectionable investment practices or run a business that some people might find objectionable is fine. And they need to support that trustee. And by the way, there’s room in the world for lots of different kinds of professions, and if we subjected everybody to a litmus test of a certain category of who’s correct, we might not provide the best governance and oversight for a pluralistic society, which is what our business is. That means we’re always going to piss people off, and that’s fine.

How much of your collection is on site here?

We have about a million and a half works of art. Overall, most of it is either on view or in storage in this building.

What does your insurance policy look like? As a practical matter, how do you insure priceless pieces of art?

It’s very difficult to do that. You can always put an arbitrary monetary value on something. That violin is worth something. [Weiss gestures to a violin attributed to Giovanni Battista Gabrielli, made in 1753, hanging on his office wall.] The Mona Lisa is worth something else. The problem is, in aggregate, if you were looking at how the marketplace currently values the kinds of things that are in our collection and then bring your calculator through the galleries, you would be in the trillions, and there is no insurance company or any constellation of them that can do that. So we have a combination of insurance programs for different things.

But we recognize that the Louvre, the Met, the Hermitage, the British Museum, the National Gallery—they’re not fully insured. So we have other strategies, like we keep the building safe.

How do you explain the human impulse to share with others a favorite view or a favorite painting?

I think anything in life that gives us joy, whether it’s a work of art or a movie or food or a friend, we’re inclined to want to share it with the people we care about. In the same way, when you go to a good restaurant, you want to bring people there. But the other, deeper reason is that having a deep and meaningful engagement with art, whether it’s poetry, literature, fine arts, no matter what, there’s real joy in sharing what we know, which is really the great vast joy of teaching.

I used to be a professor, and to be able to share with students what I care about and why it moves me and why it’s important to me, there’s a certain kind of almost a sacred conversation that takes place when you’re doing that. So if you fall in love with the work of art and you can share why that is to somebody, that is very deep and very profound, which is more than just, you ought to try this restaurant.

What is your view of NFTs? Is the Met acquiring them?

Thus far, it looks to me more like a commercial enterprise than an artistic one. I’m not really sure what the innovative artistic idea is. It’s too soon to say what NFTs mean to the art world, and our job is not to speculate. Our job is, in some ways, to canonize. When it comes into the Met, it means something. We’re not ready, on the NFT side, to make that decision.

Do you expect spectacular masks from the fashion world on Monday, and do you have your own special mask picked out for the gala?

I’m sure that masks will be a vehicle for creativity. No, I’ll let you in on a little secret. When I go to that event, not one person is going to be looking very closely at me. I could be nude and it’s not likely anybody’s gonna care. So I don’t worry a lot about what I’m going to wear.


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