Daniel Weiss wasn't looking for a new job. He certainly wasn't expecting this one. He had made art history and higher education his métier since returning to Johns Hopkins University to earn his doctorate in the late 1980s. But when the Metropolitan Museum of Art wants to talk, you listen. "I have been in higher education now for 26 years," Weiss says. "I love this life and this world. It's a great privilege to be doing this work, but I have always had this interest in museums. And then out of the blue I got a call asking if I would be interested in being president of the Met. I had no idea it was coming, and I'll never forget the call. For me it's like somebody who loves baseball being asked, Do you want to be manager of the Yankees?"
Weiss, A&S '82 (MA), '92 (PhD), lets out a little smile, as if the prospect of joining the Met still tickles him. It's mid-April, about a month since the Met announced Weiss' appointment as the successor to President Emily K. Rafferty, who retired. He's sitting in his office at Haverford College outside Philadelphia, where he's been president since 2013. And while, yes, he's spent the past quarter-century in the academic world—Weiss joined the Johns Hopkins faculty in 1993 and served as dean of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences from 2002 to 2005 before becoming president first of Lafayette College and then of Haverford—he initially saw himself working in museums.
An early job at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., impressed on him that administrative competence is important for arts institutions to thrive. He decided to pursue an MBA at Yale's School of Management in the 1980s, where he organized an independent study of museum leadership during his second year that took him around the country. He figured his art history background and business training would allow him to pursue a museum career. "That was exactly why I went to Yale to get an MBA," he says, "with the idea that I would somehow combine these interests."
As president, which he started in July, Weiss reports to Met Director and CEO Thomas P. Campbell, and oversees the museum's day-to-day operations and its 1,500 employees in various administrative areas: facilities and construction, development and membership, finance and investments, information technology, legal affairs, visitor services, human resources, marketing and external relations, the Met shops, and government relations. He joins the institution during an ambitious and busy era. In spring 2014, the museum began a mammoth ongoing digital initiative, which includes putting high-resolution images of its collections online for open-access scholarly use. (The museum's digital department recently released a smartphone app that helps navigate its impressive online presence.) The museum is soon to begin a multiyear renovation of its contemporary galleries at its Fifth Avenue home. And in spring 2016, the Met will expand its modern and contemporary art program when it opens the Met Breuer in the former home of the Whitney Museum of American Art at East 75th Street and Madison Avenue.
In conversation, Weiss is eloquently thoughtful and comfortably human. Johns Hopkins Magazine had the chance to sit down with him prior to his move to New York to talk about the museum, the role cultural institutions play in the cities they call home, and his long way around to a museum career. "It took me 30 years to get it sorted out," Weiss says. "But I did eventually get around to it."
I imagine the mid-1980s was an interesting time to be looking at museums—the 1980s and early 1990s seem to be when museums started realizing they needed to evolve from civic institutions into businesses. I imagine there are similarities in the trajectories of cultural institutions and universities in that respect. Is that a fair statement?
It is, although I would say there were two issues in the 1980s that were the center of those conversations. One was an interest in blockbusters as a way of generating audience, following the great success of the [Treasures of] Tutankhamun exhibit that [Director] Tom Hoving had at the Met in the late 1970s. There was this flurry of interest in blockbusters, and museums were trying to outdo each other in figuring out how to generate larger audiences. That led to a migration away from some of the traditional exhibition plans that museums had.
The other was in the same context of hypercompetitiveness. Museums were expanding but they didn't have the resources to sustain those investments in capital. So many had budget problems because they couldn't afford to air-condition the wing they just built. That spoke to me again about the need for comprehensive management planning and not just visionary execution. Those are parallel to higher education—increased levels of competitiveness around getting students and more and more physical constraints.
What made you go back and pursue academic work after business school?
I ended up getting a job as a consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton, a strategic management consulting firm in New York. Although I was not sure that this was a good fit for me long term, I knew that it was a great way to develop some skills and to learn more about a side of the world I hadn't experienced. I worked in New York for four years, doing consulting mostly in financial services but also in the insurance industry and manufacturing. I learned a great deal about how organizations function, what makes them successful, but I also learned that my love for the arts and for a career in something connected to arts and education was something I couldn't shake. So I went back to graduate school at Hopkins to get a PhD. Then I ended up staying at Hopkins for 16 years.
On YouTube, I saw a lecture you gave at Lafayette where you start off saying that at first you hated medieval art, which was one of the reasons you decided to study it. Why?
I had this provincial and limited understanding of medieval art as a kind of tedious parade of religious images executed by a culture that lacked imagination and a view of the world beyond its own parochial concerns. But I had a really inspiring college teacher, and then I had a brilliant PhD adviser at Hopkins named Herbert Kessler, and my eyes were opened more and more to how interesting this culture was. What I really loved, as a scholar and as a teacher, was the idea that you could take this material, which seemed intractable and inaccessible, and help students or the reader see that it's so much more interesting. And, indeed, the same kinds of concerns that were behind the creation of those images are the concerns we live with today. I found medieval art to be quite revelatory in how interesting it was when, at first instance, I had thought it was really boring.
I wanted to ask about that because I wanted to know if you think museums should serve that function, of being able to provide some spark of revelation. When a number of American art institutions, the Met in particular, started in the 19th century, education was part of their mission. Are museums still doing that?
I think museums have several core responsibilities. One of them is, in addition to conserving and maintaining these objects of cultural heritage, to provide opportunities for education about what's in their collections and about our own cultural history. But if we are utterly indifferent to the interests of the public, we can produce exhibitions that nobody's going to come and see. So finding that balance between producing exhibitions and permanent collections that speak to ideas and values that resonate with all of us, at the same time doing it in ways that excite the interests of people who may not have a deep understanding of this material—that's the art of doing this sort of work brilliantly.
Do you remember an early museum experience that did that in some way for you?
I can think of two early experiences with art that were very meaningful to me. My parents got divorced when I was very little, and my father lived for much of my childhood in Puerto Rico, and I used to visit him there. He became a painter—a quite good painter. It was just a hobby, but hanging on the walls of his apartment were some paintings that I really loved. I associated them with a very happy time in my life—I was in Puerto Rico, I was with my dad, and on the wall were his paintings. When I was named president of Lafayette, he gave them to me, and ever since they have hung on the walls of my office. So I have that in my life—that was the first art that I ever fell in love with, and I was 6 years old.
The other experience was in high school. I grew up on Long Island in New York and I took a course in the humanities. I'm pretty sure we went on a field trip to the Met because I had a high school experience there and I remember thinking it was the most extraordinary place in the world. It's so big and so rich, and my teacher took us through it. That was 1974, and I dare say I've been going there for 40 years routinely. Every single undergraduate class I have ever taught in three institutions—at Hopkins, at Lafayette, and here [at Haverford]—I've always taken the class to the Met. That experience, particularly a museum that rich and that large and that stimulating, can change the lives of people who are open to it. And I want them to have that experience at least once, and then they can take it with them.
As you just pointed out, people will come to New York just to go to the Met. How important is it for the Met to be a New York institution, to be a place for people from Staten Island and the Bronx to think of as "ours"?
The Met is one of the most comprehensive collections of art in the world, comparable to the Louvre and very few others in terms of its quality and depth of collections. Its scholarly and scientific resources are unparalleled in terms of its curatorial work and conservation. But it is also a civic institution that has an obligation to New York. New York City owns the building. The museum was founded in 1870 in partnership with the city to create a resource that could serve the New York area. So our strategic objectives in the next few years will include doing all that we can to make the museum more accessible to everyone who wants to come, so that it's their museum.
[Since being named president] I have heard from hundreds of people I know who told me how special the museum is to them. But there are sectors of the population that don't feel as comfortable going up those magnificent steps. The boroughs of Staten Island, Queens, and the Bronx and other parts of New York don't have as many people coming to the museum as Manhattan does. So we're looking at what can we do to help people feel like it's their museum. Because I think right at the center of the museum's identity is that it is a New York City institution as well as a national and international one.
Why is that important? Museums sometimes find it challenging to articulate why they're reaching out to the diverse members of their community to make sure there's something to offer them.
It can be, particularly for people who are not accustomed to finding inspiration or comfort in art—it's just not something they're used to. As you know, there is a long-standing relationship between art and the upper end of the socioeconomic continuum. But there's no reason why everybody can't find value and joy in art. So we continue to find ways to help people feel like it's not intimidating to come into the museum, that you're welcome there. It's a little bit like walking into a really fancy store—you always wonder if they want you there. We want you here, but we want to make sure you feel comfortable. That's true at every museum.
What about other challenges for institutions that don't have the Met's resources—does the Met have a responsibility to know what's going on in the museum world? What made me wonder about this is when [Director and CEO Thomas] Campbell responded to the destruction of objects at the Mosul Museum in Baghdad. It seems obvious that a cultural institution would comment on that destruction, but museum leadership doesn't always do that.
I think the Met has a platform because of its size, its success, its resources, to be a world leader in helping to guide the way we think about the development and place of art in our society. So I thought Tom Campbell's comments about what's happening in Mosul were on point, and he was right to make them. Our fundamental first responsibility as a museum is to protect the cultural heritage of our civilization. If we can't keep the objects safe and they're destroyed, they're lost forever. But we're not the only ones. Every museum ought to be participating strenuously in those discussions. The Met has a special privilege because of its place in the world, but I think we who do this work every day have a special obligation to contribute to that discussion.
I think that's one thing large cultural institutions in America—museums, symphonies, theater companies, even universities—have learned: to be better advocates for themselves. They've realized they have to remind their employees, students, and audiences that part of their purpose is to remind people why they're important.
A very good example of that in Baltimore was when Bob Bergman was hired to be director of the Walters. That was in the early 1980s. He was brought in to open up an institution that was of superb quality but was not vital in the community. No one was ever in the museum; it was a kind of sleepy, stodgy, scholarly place. And Bob felt very strongly that you can be a world-class scholarly educational institution and also one that is vitally important to the community. And he opened the doors of that place. He reinstalled exhibitions. He created a whole new program with the city that advocated for its importance and centrality to the life of Baltimore. And they haven't looked back since then, and that was 35 years ago.
You alluded to the extensive collections that the Met has. I think we could ask anybody who has gone there over the years any number of times, "What is the Met famous for?" And several things would come to mind—the Vermeers, Sargent's Portrait of Madame X, the armor, Washington Crossing the Delaware. What are some of the lesser-known works that you personally like?
I am most drawn to the art of classical Greece and one of the most extraordinary objects in the museum and in the world is a little bronze statue often called the Baker Dancer, because it was given by a man named Walter Baker. It's a little bronze image of a woman completely veiled and dancing. It's utterly three-dimensional because there's no front, no back, she's swirling in space. And it gives you a sense of how dynamic great sculpture can be in the hands of a master. That is in a small gallery that is often bypassed and people don't know it's there.
I think the depth of the painting collection is so extraordinary that in almost any gallery you enter you can see great masterpieces. The room full of Turners, for example, it's sort of in a corner. And unless you're looking for Turner, you're not going to see them. I love to go there and see those. And I am a great fan of Vermeer, and there are five of them. There are 35 in the world and there are five at the Met. That's kind of remarkable.
Same with collections—I think you're right; the painting collection is the one that comes to mind when people think of the Met. What else?
Musical instruments. Violins—I once tried to learn how to play the violin and was a dismal failure. But I love the instrument, I love to hear it performed, and I love to see it. It's a beautiful object. The Met has several by Stradivari, it has Amatis, it has some of the greatest violins in the world. They're just there in the gallery.
What have been some of your intellectual interests recently? I ask because after I watched the Lafayette lecture on YouTube, I watched one you gave about writing about the Vietnam War, and I saw last fall that you did a symposium here about poetry and the Vietnam War.
I became interested in war poetry through this project that I'm doing now on a Vietnam War poet named Michael O'Donnell, who wrote a very powerful poem. He was a helicopter pilot, and right after he wrote the poem, his helicopter was shot down and he was listed as missing in action. When I came across the story, his remains had just been identified and buried. So in the year 2000 or 2001, I went down to Arlington cemetery and I saw a fresh grave of a man killed in 1970 but only buried six months before. The poem that he wrote is actually very well known—it's about not forgetting the gentle heroes we left behind, and then he himself became a gentle hero we left behind—so I'm writing a book about him that is maybe a third done. Given my administrative responsibilities, I've had a hard time moving it along, but I have gathered all the scholarly materials associated with his life. His family has allowed us to use his archives, including the letter from Richard Nixon sending regrets to the family when Michael was declared missing and the letter from Jimmy Carter sending regrets eight years later when he had been declared legally dead.
What struck you first? The poem or the story of the man who wrote it?
The poem blew me away and the story deeply intrigued me. I first came across this in a book called The American Century by Harold Evans, which was published 17 years ago. There's a picture of this young man and the poem. The poem is very moving, and underneath, it says, "This poem was written by Michael O'Donnell, a helicopter pilot. He was shot down in March 1970 and he is listed as missing in action." I wanted to know under what circumstances he wrote the poem. I found out that he wrote it as a letter to his best friend, so I found his best friend, who is a retired schoolteacher in Milwaukee, and I went there to meet him.
We became good friends and we decided to do this project together. He is now one of my closest friends, and he came to the symposium in November. This is a really powerful personal story in some ways, but at the same time, this young man's experience was emblematic of the American experience of the 1960s and people who went to war. He didn't come back, and there were 58,000 Americans who didn't come back, and millions of Vietnamese who were killed as well. So it's a story about America in the '60s through the experiences of this guy who was a brilliant songwriter and a poet. He never fired a shot in Vietnam but he died a hero. So if I didn't have to go to this new job, I could write this book. I've made some progress, but I need to make some more.
Posted in Arts+Culture