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Let the Horse Race Begin: The Search for a Successor

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, January 9, 2008
Updated: Monday, January 13, 2014

The last time the Metropolitan Museum of Art found itself looking for a director, the institution and the museum world around it were vastly different places.

It was 1977. The Met was about half its current size, with an operating budget one-fifth of the $200 million it now spends as one of the world's largest and most important museums. Only a decade earlier, it has been said, the Met's main catalog of three million works was still on handwritten cards in the basement.


But the museum is no longer the same genteel, fusty Beaux-Arts palace. It's an economic engine: the most popular tourist destination in the city, with an annual attendance of 4.6 million, not much smaller than the population of Colorado. And the qualifications demanded of Philippe de Montebello's successor will be far more extensive than those he had when he took over at 42 with a specialty in northern French painting, no Ph.D. and four years of experience as a museum director, at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.

Today, as an ever increasing number of museums compete to lure visitors, their directors are counted upon to court donors and corporations, oversee budgets and capital plans, and negotiate with City Hall and with foreign governments (often with angry ones seeking the return of masterpieces).

Those nonartistic responsibilities will undoubtedly only multiply for the Met's next director.

It makes sense that many of the candidates who are thought to be in the running for the job are known as much for their business acumen and diplomatic skills as for their scholarship. In no particular order, they are:

NEIL MACGREGOR, 61, the well-regarded director of the British Museum since 2002 and before that the director of the National Gallery in London for 15 years. In many ways Mr. MacGregor could be seen as having the ideal experience for the job. Trained as a lawyer before veering off into art and languages, he was a university lecturer in art history and an art magazine editor before taking over an ailing National Gallery in 1987 and turning it around largely with the help of corporate benefactors, all while keeping admission to the museum free. (In a 1998 interview with Time magazine, he said he considered museums "no more a luxury in modern life than literacy.")

At the museums he has overseen, exhibitions have been both critically acclaimed and popular. And he has not shied away from making the often difficult trade-offs he felt necessary to keep money flowing to his institutions: He once agreed to allow paintings by Constable and van Gogh from the National Gallery to be licensed for reproduction on cereal boxes. In recent years he has drawn praise for his diplomatic skills, forging ties with China and Iran that have led to significant loans, and focusing attention on the looting of antiquities in Iraq after the 2003 invasion.

JAMES CUNO, 56, the president and director of the Art Institute of Chicago since 2004, after leading the Harvard University Art Museums for 11 years and the Courtauld Institute of Art in London for 18 months. Mr. Cuno, with a doctorate in art history from Harvard, is regarded as a talented and aggressive builder and fund-raiser. At the Harvard museums he doubled the size of the staff and conducted the most successful capital campaign in the institution's history, raising $55 million. At the Art Institute he is overseeing the largest addition in the museum's history, a $350 million project designed by Renzo Piano that is to open next year. Mr. Cuno has long emphasized the importance of museums' relying more on their own collections and less on the admissions boon of blockbuster traveling shows.

GLENN D. LOWRY, 53, the director of the Museum of Modern Art since 1995. In the world of cultural empire building, Mr. Lowry, an Islamic art specialist with a doctorate from Harvard, engineered one of the most ambitious expansions in museum history, an $858 million renovation, completed in 2004, that nearly doubled MoMA's size. While the design and the museum's exhibitions have been knocked by some critics since the reopening, Mr. Lowry, who came from the relative obscurity of running the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, is regarded as a deft administrator and world-class fund-raiser who reshaped a huge, unwieldy institution at a crossroads in its history.

GARY TINTEROW, 54, the curator in charge of the Met's department of 19th-century, Modern and contemporary art. In terms of scholarly clout and institutional experience at the Met, there are few others inside the museum who are mentioned as frequently as Mr. Tinterow as a potential successor to Mr. de Montebello. A curator of European paintings since 1983, he is regarded as one of the most influential scholars in his field.

While he has never run a museum, he has organized many complex, acclaimed exhibitions and has had a hand in the delicate negotiations that have led to dozens of the museum's most important acquisitions over the last two decades — gifts and purchases worth tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars. He also oversaw the recent expansion of the galleries for 19th-century and 20th-century painting. The expansion of his duties in 2004 to include Modern and contemporary art not only signaled Mr. Tinterow's power within the institution but also positioned him as the man charged with the crucial task of keeping the Met relevant in the 21st century.

TIMOTHY POTTS, 49, the director of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, who recently left after almost nine years to take over the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England. Mr. Potts is an Oxford-trained specialist in the art and archaeology of the ancient Near East and Mediterranean and a former director of the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, where he initiated an ambitious expansion and renovation project. At the Kimbell he wielded one of the nation's largest budgets for art acquisition, and landed many significant works, raising the museum's profile and his own. He was known as a firm but sometimes imperious director, and is said to be close to Mr. de Montebello. In addition to extensive scholarly and administrative experience, Mr. Potts is one of the few directors to have serious business credentials: He took a detour for several years, working in investment banking before returning to the museum world.

MICHAEL GOVAN, 43, who ran the Dia Art Foundation for 12 years before leaving in 2006 to become the director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, could be viewed as the dark-horse candidate. He is considered one of the brightest and most ambitious of a younger generation of museum leaders, but he only recently began his new job, where a big expansion and many changes are under way. And his previous experience, which included the Guggenheim, was in Modern and contemporary art.
By Randy Kennedy
For The New York Times

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