‘He Isn’t a Compromise. He’s a Star’: Met CEO Daniel Weiss on Why Max Hollein Will Usher in a New Era for the Museum

For the past year, Daniel H. Weiss’s official title at the Metropolitan Museum of Art has been president and CEO. But one might say that his functional role has really been RAF: as in, Responsible Adult, Finally.

Originally brought on in 2015 as the successor to the redoubtable Met president Emily Kernan Rafferty, Weiss was first charged with helping then-director Thomas Campbell chart the museum’s choppy financial and administrative waters. Then, when the board decided last year that Campbell—a tapestry expert who suffered a staff mutiny after trying to push through a new $600 million Modern and contemporary wing amid cuts to traditional sectors—was overmatched by the job, Weiss became charged with righting the institution’s finances and finding a new director.

Now, in the months since Campbell’s departure, Weiss has launched an across-the-board revamp of the museum’s revenue streams—including a vastly controversial elimination of pay-what-you-wish admission for out-of-town visitors—and hired a man he sees as a dream director: Max Hollein, an Austrian-accented five-tool player who has made high-caliber contemporary and classic art programming generate revenue for institutions in both Europe and America.

Of course, while Weiss is Hollein’s champion, some say he might be one of the challenges for the incoming director as well. Because instead of relinquishing his CEO title to Hollein to grant him the sweeping authority enjoyed by Met directors since the reign of Philippe de Montebello—and most major museum directors—he will remain on as an equal partner in an unusual museological duumvirate.

It’s vital that this unorthodox arrangement work, because the Met finds itself at a critical juncture in its recent history, when it needs to shake off the debris of its tumultuous last few years and chart a sustainable course through a challenging new era. Pundits who have weighed in on the key challenges the Met is facing now have pointed to its need to safeguard its financial future and the riddle of how to engage with new art. But there is a third test that is equally (if not more) pressing: the need to evolve along with a swiftly shifting society at large.

To find out about Weiss’s vision for the Met’s path forward, artnet news editor-in-chief sat down with the CEO—an MBA-toting art historian who previously served as the president of Haverford College (and Lafayette College before that)—to discuss how he envisions this new bicameral era with Hollein to function. Part two of the interview, to be published shortly, will focus on Weiss’s take on the many (other) challenges facing the Met.

The biggest museological news of the year has been the appointment of Max Hollein as new director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Can you tell me about the decision-making process that led to his selection? How did he match what you were looking for?

In some ways, we think of each director as beginning a new chapter, or generation, in the life of the museum. This was that kind of decision for us—a paradigm decision. And Max addresses and responds to our concerns in very significant ways.

First of all, he’s a very experienced leader of great achievement at a variety of different cultural institutions in various locations in the world. So, that told us: this is an adaptable, capable, experienced leader—and it’s clear that he is those things. Max’s own particular intellectual interests lend themselves especially to the Met. Because he is a big thinker, and he’s an ambitious thinker. He’s self-confident but open-minded. He has a certain humility that great leaders have, which is one of the things I saw him as a candidate—that, on the one hand, there’s a recognition that there is much that he can learn, but he inhabits the role and identity of a leader very comfortably.

And this is a job that will turn your head. It’s a very heady position, and one wants a leader who’s capable of living within that tension. I think Max has that. More specifically, he brings an understanding of the Modern and contemporary art worlds that will allow him to work with our curatorial team, the public, and our supporters in ways that will help us navigate to the right strategic niche for us to occupy in the Modern art question. So I’m very confident we made a strong appointment for all those reasons.

A day at the Met. Photo by Brett Beyer, courtesy of the Met.

Its clear that Hollein has a deep, lived-in familiarity with Modern and contemporary art owing both to his museum experience and his upbringing, when his father’s status gave him intimate access to the greatest artists of the era. How much of his mandate is going to involve increasing the museum’s engagement with this kind of recent art?

Only as a part of a large portfolio of responsibilities. What makes the job such an exciting one—and also, in some ways, a daunting one—is that there’s a long list of very important things he has to be doing. Developing the right strategy and vision for Modern and contemporary, along with [chairman of Modern and contemporary art] Sheena Wagstaff and her team, is just one of 35 things that are really important. So, one of the measures of the success of a leader a large, complex organization is the ability to hold all those different responsibilities in balance and get on with your day. I think he knows how to do that. He will not be the head curator of our Modern program. But having a strong vision at the right altitude of who we are and and how Modern art fits into that is his responsibility.

I have to ask: In the course of your search process, did you ever have any inclination to pull a Dick Cheney and say, “I’m the best candidate for this position” and take on the director role yourself? Because as an art historian who has spent time mastering the intricacies of this vastly complicated institution, it must have been tempting to try to open this new chapter of the museum’s history yourself.

Well, I’ll share with you the honest answer, which is that it didn’t for a single moment appeal to me to be the director of the institution in the way that the role is defined. I feel very rewarded and challenged in the role that I play, which is as president, and I have an impact across the institution in ways that feel right to me. The role of the director is a different job, and I don’t have experience in developing programs. I’m an art historian and I had a university appointment, but I have not been a curator at a museum.

So, what I was looking for is a really strong director to be my partner. And, given Max’s background, which is on the programmatic side and the directorial side of museums, but also with administrative and management experience, and mine, with the administrative and management experience but also with a lot of content knowledge—I know what art history is—it’s a terrific opportunity for a strong partnership.

I’m really proud of the fact that we had the opportunity in this process to effectively hire anyone in the world. Being the director of the Met is of the great jobs and we made a superb appointment with a really strong person. There’s no way that one can construe Max Hollein as a compromise. He isn’t a compromise. He’s a star. And that’s what we need.

Did you encounter discomfort from any of the candidates in terms of the power-sharing structure at the top of the institution?

There were questions that were raised by people who wanted to understand more. Most of the people that we talked to are sitting directors—and that means they are already CEOs or they have ultimate authority in their institution. So several of them wanted to know how this would work if they were indeed going to be a partner while I held the title of CEO—including Max. He had that question, and we went off by ourselves and we had a long conversation, and he had as much insight and vision as to how this would work as I did.

In a similar way, I had been a CEO for 15 years at colleges and universities before I came here, but I came with the agreement that I would work for Tom Campbell, who was CEO, because I would be his partner. That’s the view I have—and I think everyone we took seriously totally got that. There wasn’t anyone who wasn’t willing to be a candidate for this position because they couldn’t have the letters on the card.

The Great Hall of the Met. Photo courtesy of the Met.

Over the course of a year, the Met has shifted from being led by a single curator-cum-art historian—who came into the job without significant prior administrative experience—to now being run by two business-minded art historians with MBAs. It reminds me of Andy Warhol’s line that “good business is the best art.” Why was it necessary for the Met to make such a dramatic shift towards the marketplace?

To answer that question effectively, I think one needs a little bit of narrative. I was recruited to this position by Tom Campbell because he recognized that he needed someone who had deep business experience but also a very strong affinity for the mission of the institution. I wasn’t looking for this job. But I know how to do the administrative work, and I believe that leadership is an important thing for cultural institutions to thrive. So, I came to do that work. But when I think of myself, my own professional identity is as an art historian. That’s the most meaningful part of who I am.

Fast forward to this search, when we brought Max here. We were not looking for an MBA who likes art. We were looking for someone who could be a director at the very highest level in the ways that we were discussing. It so happens that Max’s individual formation includes an MBA, and Max would say—if he were in this room—that successful leadership of large, complex cultural organizations requires understanding and skill across that spectrum of activities. And I share that view, which is why I just said it for him. It just so happens that he has an MBA and I have an MBA—but that was not was not a prerequisite at all.

But I think it’s foolhardy for anyone to think that an institution like the Metropolitan Museum of Art can be run by people who don’t have deep experience of how large, complex organizations function. This is as hard a job as they get in the world of cultural institutions, universities, nonprofits. This one is really challenging, and that experience and that knowledge is a prerequisite to being successful.

Thomas Campbell entered the job on September 9th, 2008, and less than a week later Damien Hirst’s Sotheby’s auction inaugurated a new era of contemporary art domination—on the same day that the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy set the global economic crisis in motion. Those twin forces—contemporary art’s ascent and spreading financial turmoil—seem to have laid the seeds for his troubles at the museum, since he had to lay off staff while at the same time pushing further and faster into contemporary art than the curatorial departments were prepared for. How would you describe the situation that Hollein will be inheriting when he joins the museum?

Well, when it comes to the challenges that Max will be confronting, we could list them. It’s Modern and contemporary, and what’s the right plan for the southwest wing of the building. We will be renovating that building and replacing that structure, because we must. That’s something that’s in front of us that’s already a priority. Then, what’s the ultimate resolution for our relationship to the Breuer, and what should we be doing there? There are lists of things like that.

In some ways, the more important question is: How will Max Hollein outline his vision and the way he wants to do the job here at the Met? The curators, the public, the trustees, the donors, the staff—all of these people have a vested interest in the well-being of this institution, and for Max to be successful, and for me to be successful as well. We have to articulate a vision for the institution that at some level embraces all those people. And when Tom Campbell took over he had specific challenges, too. We have different challenges now, but it’s how you have a conversation with all the people who care about this place that will ultimately determine your success.

The interesting thing about Thomas Campbell is that he was elevated from the ranks of the curatorial staff and then found himself met with a fractious staff that challenged some of his decisions, making it a struggle for him. What do you think the staff will make of Max Hollein as somebody coming in from San Francisco—the first outsider to fill this post in 60 years—and why do you feel he will be more successful in terms of meshing with these many voices and positions within the staff?

With a role like director, where one comes from—inside the organization or somewhere else—doesn’t matter after year or two. What we saw in Max that was a very, very successful global career, leading three quite different institutions in Frankfurt and then leading the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco—two museums—as well as having had senior roles at the Guggenheim at the beginning of his career. He’s adaptable, his ability to work productively with people across the organization is demonstrable, his effective intelligence is very high, and he knows how to be successful.

For me, that’s the measure. When he gets to the Met he’s going to have to build relationships—he’s already begun to do this—and figure out what are the key questions in front of him. It may not be the ones that we’re talking about. The first challenge is to figure out the job, and he’s done that really effectively in Frankfurt and San Francisco. And then, how do you do that job in a way that works for him, and that works for us? That’s the real question.

It’s like the management guru Clayton Christensen’s theory of the “job to be done”—that that’s the thing to figure out first, and all else devolves from that.

I think so. In my own experience, the first challenge is always the least obvious one: what, actually, is the job I was hired to do? What really are the issues that are before me? Being president or director is a category. How do you serve as the director of the Louvre, or the British Museum, or the Met, or the Guggenheim—they’re very different jobs. You’ve got to figure that out.

Andreas Achenbach’s Sunset After a Storm on the Coast of Sicily, 1853, is in the Met’s collection. Image courtesy of the Met.

When it comes to split role you and Hollein will share at the top, one can imagine that you, as CEO, will oversee the museum’s fiscal and administrative operations while he runs the Met’s world-class collections and curatorial operation, shaping the way the encyclopedic collection is served to the public. Is that an apt way of describing the division of labor, or will it be more porous? From all indications, for instance, Hollein is as animated about the business affairs as he is about the curatorial side.

I think that the roles are more interconnected than it might seem when one just reads the job descriptions, in part because of the individuals who are in those positions. Max, as you said, has great experience and skill on the directorial side—the programmatic and curatorial side—but he also is very interested in the business side. And I have deep interest in the curatorial and programmatic side as well as the administrative side.

So, my primary sphere of responsibilities will be administrative, managerial, financial, and his primary sphere responsibilities will be programmatic, curatorial, conservation, and all of that. But the points of intersection will take place every day. So I can’t imagine that we would be making major decisions around programming or acquisitions without talking to each other, in the same way that I’m not going to be making decisions around financial priorities or administrative facilities issues without talking to Max.

That’s why the job will be so interesting, because we all have a partnership that allows us to bounce ideas off each other and inform our decision-making more fully. That is what interested him, and it’s what interests me.

Is there a template in some other organization or institution that you’ve encountered where this kind of leadership by equal partners thrived in the art museum field?

It’s not so obvious to me that there are good examples, because most art museums are a fraction of the size of the Met—they don’t require that same kind of robust structure. The Getty has a president who is an art historian and it has a director who’s an art historian. I don’t know how close [J. Paul Getty Museum director] Tim Potts and [J. Paul Getty Trust CEO] Jim Cuno work together on a day-to-day basis. But that’s the closest analogy I can think of.

There are other examples of organizations that are run by partners in the private sector as well as in the nonprofit sector. I’ve seen it done in my own career, and it depends on being very thoughtful and somewhat self-conscious about how one thinks about roles, and then having really good chemistry between the people. And I’m confident that we’ve got both of those.

One of the things that impressed me about Max was how quickly he got a handle both the opportunities and the issues that a relationship like this would raise. It was something that we got really excited about on several occasions, and I was very pleased Max said in one of his early interviews after he was announced that he didn’t see this as a burden but actually as an opportunity, and something of a relief—because these are lonely jobs. And I feel the same way. So, it’s a bit of an experiment, but I think the risk of failure is very, very low.

In San Francisco, Hollein started as director while Diane B. Wilsey handled CEO duties, but a series of events led to him taking on both roles. Do you envision a state of affairs where you would cede the CEO title to him as well?

We haven’t talked about what the downstream scenarios are. I came to the Met as president and chief operating officer, and then when Tom left I was asked to be chief executive officer, which I agreed to do. I am qualified and competent to lead an art museum by virtue of my background my experience, and so I agreed to do it on those terms. We have now brought on a director to be my partner. As for what happens in the future, we have not explored different structures, but the organization will continue to evolve. I’m very comfortable that, whoever holds the CEO title, Max is my partner, and that’s how we will operate on a day-to-day basis.

Much of your work over the past year has involved overhauling the Met’s finances, pulling back from a brink where some say the museum’s debt threatened to approach $40 million. The current annual operating deficit is roughly $10 million, and the the goal is to bring that to zero by 2020. Where do you see the most risk right now when it comes to the Met’s financial security?

Well, as you said, we’ve put together a very robust financial plan to get us to a balanced budget by 2020. We’re on very good path to doing that. To do it requires two things, and then I’ll come to your risk question. One is that there has to be a strong long-term understanding of finances in order to make some sense of the world we’re going through. In other words, it’s not enough to make decisions each year to create a budget—you have to take a long-term view. You’re a perpetual institution, we’re supposed to be here forever, so we need to think out over five to 10 years in our planning to make sure that we’re on the right trajectory, and we that we don’t see some major issue up ahead.

The Met as seen from Fifth Avenue. Photo courtesy of the Met.

And that was not the case before?

No. That was something that I brought when I came: a longer-term financial model. So we have a 10-year financial model that is extremely thoughtful, very sophisticated, and as we think about adding curators, or investing in facilities, or renting the Breuer, or whatever we’re doing, we look at how that plays out in various kinds of financial scenarios over time. That’s one.

The second issue is that for an institution like the Met to be healthy, there has to be a diverse source of robust funding, and we have that. We have to get revenue from our endowment. We do fundraising annually. We have an admissions program. We have restaurants. We have retail. We have various kinds of revenue-generating activities. That diversity of sources allows us to be independent—so, no one owns us. If were getting 90 percent of our funding from the government—and we get less than 10 percent from the City of New York—it would have an effect on our program, and it would have an effect on our identity. The diversity of funding gives us independence.

So, the risk areas that I worry about the most are that, on the one hand, we can sustain long-term excellence, and that we have enough diversity in our funding that we can continue to have the programming and independence that makes us what we are. That means every one of those funding sources is of concern to me. Is the city going to be able to continue to support us at the level that they have? Are we able to generate enough revenue from our own activities? Is our fundraising going to be strong? Will the public continue to support us? And so, there’s no one particular risk area, but it’s holding all of those in balance that’s really important.

I noticed that the retail operation at the Met has only recently roughly broken even, which is one division that you would certainly want to be a moneymaker. That suggests there are at least some obvious places to increase profitability at the museum.

Over the last couple of years we were losing money in retail in a significant way, and we’ve turned it around. We’ve brought in a new leadership team, and we’ve created a new strategy. We’ve addressed some of the operational challenges that we had there, and we’re on a path to having retail be a robust, strong contributor to our overall financial picture. But retail is a challenging business—it’s not the solution. It’s one piece of a larger puzzle. And our goal for retail is that it should be as high-performing as any museum-related retail operation is and held in balance with other things. We’re on a path to getting there. But we have some turnaround work to do.

I would imagine that the biggest challenge for having a 10-year financial prospectus is getting iron-clad promises from the board that they’re willing to underwrite this 10-year vision, and that their support will be unwavering over this period. Is that something that you were able to get?

Yes, it is. The financial plan that we’re describing, looking out over 10 years, includes certain assumptions about how much revenue we’re going to get from admissions, how much revenue we’re going to get from restaurants, and how much money we’re going to raise from our board.

And actually a subtext of the Met’s great success story is the generosity of the board and our major donors who have made this institution what it is. That’s important. And I say this with some frequency: When this museum was created 147 years ago, there was no art. None. Unlike the British Museum or the National Gallery in London or the Louvre—they all had royal or imperial collections to draw from. We had nothing. All of the art came from gifts from trustees and donors. So as we look out over 10 years, we have certain assumptions about how much money we will raise from them. They’ve always been there for us. And I think they will continue to be.

Between you and Max, who will have the most day-to-day or week-to-week contact with the board members?

Oh, it’s very much a shared responsibility. Max and I both hold seats on the board—that’s part of these positions—and Max and I will meet regularly, as I do now, with the chair of the board, Dan Brodsky. We meet biweekly, and Max will join those meetings now. We both will have lots of interaction with the board. The discussions we have with them will be a little bit different, but the interaction will be regular.

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