As the Met Prepares an Action-Packed Fall Season, Museum Director Max Hollein Talks Deaccessioning, NFTs, and Chuck Close

The Art Detective is a weekly column by Katya Kazakina for Midnight Publishing Group News Pro that lifts the curtain on what’s really going on in the art market.


The 12-foot-tall statue of Athena Parthenos has been a silent witness at the entrance of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for the past five years. It greeted millions of visitors in the Great Hall, waited for them to return during months of mandatory lockdowns, and welcomed them back when the museum reopened a year ago.

This week, the marble goddess of wisdom from 170 B.C. was dismantled in order to be sent back home to the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, Germany. In her place, two ancient Maya stone monuments, known as stelae, were erected. Lent by the Republic of Guatemala, they are life-size replicas of the ancient indigenous American rulers K’inich Yo’nal Ahk II and Queen Ix Wak Jalam Chan (Lady Six Sky). 

A newly installed Maya stone monument at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. © Metropolitan Museum of Art 2019, photography Wilson Santiago.

A newly installed Maya stone monument at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. © Metropolitan Museum of Art 2021, photography Wilson Santiago.

At a press conference on September 2, Max Hollein, the Met’s director, shared the spotlight with Guatemala’s minister of culture and sports. Hollein, 52, an Austrian art historian who has been at the helm of America’s largest museum since 2018, spoke of the privilege to share “these treasures with the thousands of visitors who walk through the museum’s door every day.” He invited New Yorkers “who come from the region to connect with the rich histories” and evoked “the greatness achieved by ancient Indigenous artists.”

The Met’s leadership says that the 8th-century limestone monuments—one 6.5 feet tall, the other, 9 feet tall—represent a broader transformation that’s been happening at the museum in recent years. There have been challenges, too, from a spate of high-profile curatorial departures to a $150 million revenue shortfall that the museum plans to address in part through controversial deaccessioning. (That process is progressing, we reveal, with the help of a high-profile market figure). 

Earlier this week, I caught up with Hollein to take stock of the past 18 months and what is in store for the nation’s most closely watched art institution. 

Felipe Aguilar, Guatemala's Minister of Culture and Sports, at left, and Max Hollein. © Metropolitan Museum of Art 2019, photography Wilson Santiago.

Felipe Aguilar, Guatemala’s Minister of Culture and Sports, at left, and Max Hollein. © Metropolitan Museum of Art 2021, photography Wilson Santiago.

Athena is gone and Lady Six Sky has entered the Great Hall. What was the impetus to replace the Greek goddess with an ancient Maya queen? 

Athena was a loan from Berlin, and it needed to go back at some point, so we felt now was the time to make that change. It was important for us to show in the Great Hall not only the Greek and Roman manifestation as a birthplace of culture, but also Mesoamerica.

The two stelae are, in a sense, great signals and ambassadors for what is happening at the Met in the next couple of years. There’s a major show that we are preparing on Mayan culture, but maybe more importantly, the transformation and complete renewal of the Rockefeller wing, which holds very important collections of objects from Mesoamerica.

With the ongoing reckoning over race and inequality, what’s the role of an encyclopedic museum such as the Met?

This is a major topic for us. The Met, like any other museum of a similar size or scope, has history embedded in the institution. We saw in the last 18 months, through Black Lives Matter, a new reckoning with history in America, in a way that probably America, in that context, has not experienced before. And we have to be part of that by scrutinizing our own history, our own institutional biases. If you come to the museum right now, we have re-installed the mezzanine floor that we use for the contemporary collection. You will see recent acquisitions from the last probably three years; there’s a significant diversity of artists, with a significant number of Black artists represented. It’s been a priority for the institution. 

Beyond programming, there’s the question of how we make sure that the institution as a whole can become more diverse and welcoming. That means whom we hire, what kind of positions we develop. In the curatorial area, we hired our first curator for Indigenous art. We established a position of chief diversity officer. 

People walk through galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

People walk through galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The Met has now been open for a year at reduced capacity. How has the pandemic affected your programming? 

When we were able to reopen, it was important for us to create an environment where our visitors feel safe, where our staff feels safe, but also to provide a very welcoming and decisive experience, especially for the New Yorkers, because at that time that was really our audience.  

We made the decision not to say, “Well, if only half of the people can visit us, if we don’t have any tourists, we want to only have a reduced program.”

If you think about the Jacob Lawrence show, “Making the Met,” the Costume Institute, the facade commission… just recently we had Alice Neel. We want to make sure that we aren’t doing exhibitions just because things look beautiful, but because they are bringing you into a more complex understanding of the world. Our shows are becoming more charged, more loaded, filled with different opinions, broader discourse. Like the Medici show [“The Medici: Portraits and Politics, 1512–1570”], [which presents] a correlation between art and art-making in propaganda.

What about the shows that are coming up?

The Costume Institute’s show, “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion,” is a survey of American fashion based on the quote by Jesse Jackson from the Democratic Convention that America is not the blanket one piece, but a patchwork of many different colors and textures.

“Surrealism Beyond Borders” is an enormously important exhibition this fall. It will show that Surrealism is actually the one “ism” that went totally global as a style and lasted until now. 

And then we will have an exhibition on Walt Disney and his relationship with the decorative arts. We’ll see how much the American audience encountered French decorative arts through the lens of Disney. 

We are also going to present our initiative to create a period room of our time. It will focus on the theme of Afrofuturism. If you look at our period rooms, our most current one is Frank Lloyd Wright, from the early 20th century. So it’s going to be an interesting transformation of our period room program. 

NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 27: People wearing face masks visit The Metropolitan Museum of Art as it reopens to members after the pandemic closure, on August 27, 2020 in New York City, NY. (Photo by Liao Pan/China News Service via Getty Images)

PeopleVisitors in line for the Alice Neel show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on August 27, 2020. (Photo by Liao Pan/China News Service via Getty Images)

I remember the long, long line of people waiting to get into the Alice Neel show earlier this year. You had limited attendance to maintain social distancing. It was such an eye-opening exhibition, perfectly pitched and a discovery of an incredible, creative life.  How was the attendance?

It was our biggest show in terms of the attendance in the past year. I think it was 179,000 people. There was a big rush at the end. It really resonated with the times and with New York audiences. It showed you not only one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, but also the artist as an activist. 

Did you have an inkling it would be a blockbuster? And how has the concept of a blockbuster show changed during the pandemic?  

I don’t like the term “blockbuster show.” I think that what we are doing is very ambitious shows that ideally reach the widest possible audience. I don’t think you would have labeled [Alice Neel] a blockbuster show, even though it was our most popular show of the year. 

We do close to 50 shows a year—some bigger, some smaller. Each of them is an outcome not only of our scholarly work, but also of our perspective on what’s relevant right now, what is important to understand. Our projections of how many people can visit make no difference in regard to whether this is an urgent or important show. 

Banner for "Alice Neel: People Come First" outside the Metropolitan Museum. Photo by Ben Davis.

Banner for “Alice Neel: People Come First” outside the Metropolitan Museum. Photo by Ben Davis.

Several prominent curators left the museum this year. Keith Christiansen, chairman of the Department of European Paintings, just retired. Then there’s Helen Evans, a longtime curator of dazzling Byzantine shows, and most recently, “Armenia!” and Doug Eklund, who organized the groundbreaking “Pictures Generation” show in 2009. Is this a generational shift, or house cleaning?

We have about 140 curators, and, more often than not, a lot of them stay at the museum for a long time, which is great. Of course, it’s important for an institution to move people within the institution—up and forward. And basically, that’s what’s happening. 

Keith, as you know, did the great Medici show and then retired. He had a long, long career and was planning to retire. And then Doug made a conscious decision that he wants to move on. But I don’t see any of that being connected with any kind of transformation or change. It’s an evolutionary process.  

The Met's Modern and contemporary galleries. From left to right: Amy Sherald, <i>When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be (Self-imagined atlas)</i> (2018); K.G. Subramanyan, <i>Studio Table With Figure I</i> (1965); Kerry James Marshall, <i>Untitled (Studio</i> (2014); Stanley Whitney, <i>Fly the Wild</i> (2017); Center vitrine: Ron Nagle, <i>Watermelon</i> (1983); <i>Contessa</i> (1983); <i>Untitled</i> (1991). Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Met’s Modern and contemporary galleries. From left to right: Amy Sherald, When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be (Self-imagined atlas) (2018); K.G. Subramanyan, Studio Table With Figure I (1965); Kerry James Marshall, Untitled (Studio (2014); Stanley Whitney, Fly the Wild (2017); Center vitrine: Ron Nagle, Watermelon (1983); Contessa (1983); Untitled (1991). Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Met has an active acquisition program. But it is also planning to deaccession art, taking advantage of the two-year window, through April 2022, during which the Association of Art Museum Directors has permitted members to sell art in order to raise money for collection care as opposed to only for acquisitions. Can you fill me in on the latest about your deaccessioning plans?

I have to say one thing just to avoid any misunderstanding. We are not intending to sell any works to create [acquisition] funds to acquire new [artwork]. We have significant endowment funds that are earmarked just for acquisitions. During the pandemic, when the AAMD loosened the guidelines, it’s useful for any institution to consider—in our case, not only because our collection is so vast, but because even in a year when we might have a significant operational budget deficit, we still have significant funds with which to acquire art through our endowments. So it seems appropriate to use the proceeds of our regular deaccession program to support salaries for collection care staff in this exceptional year. And that’s what we are doing. 

The Met is projecting a $150 million revenue shortfall over two years. Are you planning to sell $150 million worth of art?  

No, no! The magnitude of our deaccessioning program differs from year to year, but it’s around $10 million. The works we use for deaccessioning are duplicates, multiples, copies of the same thing [we have] in better quality. We have identified a couple of the works.  

Can you tell me which works you’ve identified?

No, we will announce that as part of the process. It’s going to be a normal process and normal object selection.

Installation view of The Medici: Portraits and Politics, 1512–1570, on view June 26–October 11, 2021 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photo by Hyla Skopitz, Courtesy of The Met

Installation view of The Medici: Portraits and Politics, 1512–1570, on view June 26–October 11, 2021 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photo by Hyla Skopitz, Courtesy of The Met

I heard that one of the people who is advising you on the deaccessioning is Tobias Meyer, a private art dealer and former star auctioneer at Sotheby’s, whose clients include billionaire collectors Ken Griffin and David Geffen.

In every acquisition and deaccessioning, we use the best expertise that we have and we can get. Tobias is not only someone who is engaged with the museum on multiple fronts, but we use his expertise in different ways. He’s on the visiting committee for European sculpture and painting and has been a donor of work, helpful in identifying the works we might want to acquire, and also advising on the works we might consider for deaccessioning.

NFTs have been such a big story this year, in terms of the technology’s impact on the market, art community, and artistic production. Will the Met be minting NFTs anytime soon or adding them to its collection?   

It’s an interesting development, but it’s not our role to be the first emergency responder to the newest trends in art and society. We’ll see where that develops, and at some point, I’m sure there will be a work that could be part of the Met’s collection. But currently there’s nothing on the horizon for us. And we are not creating any NFTs. 

The underlying blockchain technology is something that will transform a lot of areas: how we do business, how we create authentication records, and probably also provenance, databases, et cetera. So, in that sense, blockchain technology is extremely relevant and important for us.

Chuck Close, Lou Reed from his "Subway Portraits" at the 86th stop on the new 2nd Avenue subway line. Courtesy of Governor Cuomo's office.

Chuck Close, Lou Reed from his “Subway Portraits” at the 86th stop on the new 2nd Avenue subway line. Courtesy of Governor Cuomo’s office.

Let’s talk about the low-tech stuff, like wall text. Artist Chuck Close died two weeks ago. He spent the final years in the shadow of sexual harassment allegations. The Met owns many of his paintings. None are on view at the moment. Do you plan to show his work again, and will the wall text reflect the accusations? 

Our Chuck Close portrait of artist Lucas Samaras has been hanging for the last couple of years [until March]. You do need to make a differentiation between the artwork and the life of an artist. Where these two get completely intertwined, it’s important to acknowledge the complexities. 

I don’t want to only talk about Chuck Close, but in general the idea that you can only look at an artist’s work where the life of the artist is impeccable seems absurd. It would be a really complex way to look at it.

We love seeing Caravaggio’s work; it’s so powerful and extreme. On the other hand, of course, he was a convicted murderer and had to flee from [Rome]. So, one has to be very careful. If the artwork came into existence or is part of the allegation or misdeed, then you have a different situation. But if you have a portrait by Chuck Close of Richard Serra then it’s different. 

And changing the subject a bit, it is on the other hand also really important that the artwork itself can be disruptive and challenging, even morally challenging. I keep using the example of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film Salo because it really shook me when I first saw it. It deals with fascism on the level that no other work does. And, of course, Pasolini led a complex life. But I think it’s an absolute masterpiece that needs to be shown. 

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What Is the Future of Museums? 7 Predictions From Max Hollein, Koyo Kouoh, Anne Pasternak, and Other Top Curators and Directors

In his new book The Future of the Museum: 28 Dialogues, published in November and available worldwide in January, the writer, researcher, and arts consultant András Szántó interviews the world’s leading museum directors and curators about the trials they faced in 2020 and how they see art institutions evolving in the years to come. Here are excerpts from seven of those 28 conversations.

Anne Pasternak,
Brooklyn Museum, New York

Brooklyn Museum director Anne Pasternak. Photo by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum.

Is there a narrative of museums that you see evolving?

More people are visiting museums than ever. It’s a must-do activity, especially when people travel. While it’s easy to be annoyed with overcrowding in some museums, overall it’s great that more people are being exposed to art and history. But what excites me Community 66 is that museums are being pushed to change. Historically, museums, including the Brooklyn Museum, have upheld white patriarchal narratives, but at long last more and more institutions are starting to show and collect more women and BIPOC artists. Just as important, BIPOC people are shaping the narratives of our exhibitions and programs. As a result, the stories we tell are becoming more thoughtful, truthful, inclusive, and exciting. Our field has only taken baby steps, but I am hopeful that fundamental change is happening. It’s essential—including for the survival of our field.

Where are the break points in this narrative—the unresolved issues that still need to be tackled?

Institutions like the Brooklyn Museum were founded on the belief that the sharing of world cultures would lead to greater understanding and empathy, and thereby advance civilization. I believe in this ideal. And I believe in the historic role of the museum as a place where we come together to experience great art, learn about our past and the dignity of other cultures. But museums have also played a role in supporting narratives that have led to the pain and suffering of others. We are monuments to a fraught past. We have left out the histories and narratives of so many. We have upheld sexist, classist, racist, colonial, and many other unethical and inequitable practices. So it should not be a surprise that we are facing a major shake-up. As the Ford Foundation’s president, Darren Walker, recently told me, “museums are in a crisis because America is in a crisis.” Museums shape narratives that matter, so it’s no surprise young people are passionate about pushing for change. It’s time now to do better—a lot better. That means looking at ourselves honestly and fixing a whole lot about the way we work as we make authentic commitments toward equity, inclusion, access, and anti-racism.

Philip Tinari
UCCA Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing

Philip Tinari in 2014. ©Patrick McMullan. Courtesy of J Grassi/PatrickMcMullan.com.

China will play an important role in the next century of the museum, just as Europe and North America did in the last century—that’s just a matter of economics and global power. How will the future be different because of China’s greater role in it?

I obviously cannot speak for China. But what we see at UCCA is a kind of hyper-refined, accelerated version of a lot of trends that museums are reckoning with all over the world, specifically in regard to user demographics and digital convergence. China has completely redefined e-commerce. You have digital-shopping hosts who can convene tens of millions of people and get them to buy something, through livecasting. For all the restrictions and censorship, people’s digital lives here are all-consuming. This manifests in this insatiable desire to document one’s existence and declare it to those around, using whatever channel or network is in vogue at any given moment. So for example, this idea of the museum as photo backdrop arrived here early. We spend a lot of time thinking about how to turn this inexorable urge into something productive, even educational. At the very least, we need to think about how, in a place where “traditional media” are even less influential than elsewhere, this kind of transmission by individual accounts and users can create excitement and understanding around our program.

Koyo Kouoh
Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, Cape Town

Curator Koyo Kouoh, 2016. Courtesy of Raw Material and Koyo Kouoh.

Curator Koyo Kouoh, 2016. Courtesy of Raw Material and Koyo Kouoh.

Let’s talk about museums in Africa. It’s easy to focus on the challenges. But what are the opportunities?

I am interested in what African museums—nascent as they are—might tell us about the future of the museum in general. I hope—I wish—that new forms of the museum will come from the African continent. Our context requires us to think outside of the established boxes in the museum field. I strongly believe that the limited resources that we struggle with—because we just don’t have the same cultural-support environment that you have in other contexts—demand that we don’t necessarily have to apply the same distinctions that exist elsewhere. As an example, two weeks ago I had an Instagram Live conversation with a colleague, Daudi Karungi, whom I have admired for a long time. He epitomizes what our context demands from us in the future. He founded a commercial gallery, because he needed to build an environment around his practice in his hometown of Kampala, Uganda. After a few years, he launched the Kampala Biennial, to offer a platform to present and discuss art in a noncommercial way. Then he started an art journal—yet another platform, which for me is just another kind of curatorial and exhibition space. And then he started a residency program to support up-and-coming artists. He combined essential formats of the ecosystems of the art industry under one umbrella. Anywhere else, people would scream, “How could you have a biennial, an art fair, a gallery, a journal, and art education all together?” But here in Africa it is possible, and might well be what we need to do. I really believe that in the future we will have to tear down all these walls. We have to always come back to the question: “What are we doing? Why are we in this field?” I am here in the service of artists and art. Wherever that service is delivered is fine with me.

Max Hollein
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Metropolitan Museum of Art director Max Hollein. Photo by Eileen Travell, courtesy of the Met.

Let’s hop in our time machine. How do you imagine tomorrow’s museums to be different?

Bringing more and more objects to one place will become less relevant, versus how you translate the knowledge, understanding, and complexities of these objects to a wider audience. I do think the physical experience of the museum will continue to be powerful and strong. But museums will expand significantly in ways that are not just physical, but also digital and intellectual in regard to their engagement in various areas of the world.

A question I have enjoyed asking in these conversations is which habits do museums need to unlearn to stay relevant?

One tendency—we share this with academia—is that we always first want to know everything before we put something forward. Sometimes, it is more interesting for the public to know what we don’t know, rather than to know what we know.

Franklin Sirmans
Pérez Art Museum Miami

Franklin Sirmans, director of the Pérez Art Museum Miami. Photo courtesy of the Pérez Art Museum Miami.

Franklin Sirmans, director of the Pérez Art Museum Miami. Photo courtesy of the Pérez Art Museum Miami.

Let’s go to the crystal ball. What will be different in museums in the future?

Our job will be to pick up some of the energy of more socially inclined organizations. We are not trying to co-opt what they do, but we need to be their collaborators in meaningful ways. What does it look like to collaborate with the Boys & Girls Clubs, or with houses for the homeless? We have to own the space that we have been talking about for a long time—being community-centered and having a part in people’s lives that is potentially more meaningful than just entertainment. There’s too much hate in the world, and museums should level the field and provide spaces of love—not agreement, but just open hearts. How does that remit change the curatorial agenda? You gotta let go. We have to allow for real life to enter into the conversation. It is not just an international art conversation we have to learn. You see it with educational departments over the past twenty years, and the sort of agency they have been given. Now that agency needs to extend further into the public. I don’t just mean crowdsourcing. I mean real, meaningful collaboration.

Katrina Sedgwick
Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Sydney

Katrina Sedgwick, director of Australian Centre for the Moving Image. Courtesy of the ACMI.

Katrina Sedgwick, director of Australian Centre for the Moving Image. Courtesy of the ACMI.

Immersive experience is nothing new, culturally speaking. We have long had cathedrals and palaces. Large-scale installations have long been made by artists. Yet in recent decades, art has been primarily exhibited in the so-called white cube, in an antiseptic, cerebral, anonymous setting. Lately, there is more public fascination with immersive experience. What is bringing forward this desire?

People are thrilled to be transported in that way. But immersion can also become relentless. We have spaces with extraordinary moving-image works, but next to them we will have a room full of costumes, for example. The cabinet of curiosities has been an inspiration for our permanent exhibition. We designed a twenty-meter-long cabinet, full of objects from across the various kinds of media that we explore. I think what people love is the theatricality of immersion. We made a show, Wonderland, in 2018, based on the screen adaptations of Alice in Wonderland. Since 1903 there have been more than forty-five—film, TV, music videos, etc. We created a very theatrical, immersive exhibition that was the opposite of the white cube. You arrived in a hall of mirrors. You had to open different doors. There were things you had to climb over. A map with a little chip triggered magical animations. We were simultaneously telling a story about special effects in cinema. We had a white room that, with projection mapping, magically turned into a fully immersive Mad Hatter’s tea party, bringing the process of CGI to life. The exhibition was designed by a theater designer, and our curators worked with an advisory group that comprised all sorts of different arts backgrounds, a multidisciplinary think tank. We were inspired by the Victoria & Albert Museum’s David Bowie Is exhibition, which we presented in 2015, and by Teatro de los Sentidos (Theater of the Senses), an experimental theater company in Barcelona. We wanted to support the telling of the story with the tools of theatrical design and with digital technology.

You spend a lot of time with artists and content producers and technologists. Where do you see moving-image going?

It is important not to get hung up on the technology itself, but to focus on how you can support artists to experiment with the technology as a canvas for their ideas. The technology is going to constantly change. Depending on whom you ask, VR is over, and AR will be the dominant mixed-reality platform. I don’t know. I do know that commissioning artists in both of those spaces will lead to exciting shifts in their practice, but also exciting shifts in how the platform can be deployed. The way artists use their Immersive Experiences 272 creativity in one particular medium doesn’t lock them into that technology. As a museum, we can raise money to give artists proper funding to experiment. Nine times out of ten, they do something very interesting.


Mami Kataoka
Mori Art Museum, Tokyo

Mami Kataoka. Photo Jennifer Yin 21st Biennial of Sydney

Mami Kataoka. PhotoMami Kataoka. Photo Jennifer YinJennifer Yin

Where do you see programming and exhibitions evolving? Can museums tell stories in new ways?

Because of social distancing and limitations on the number of visitors, the live experience of the museum might become more precious, potentially with higher ticket prices. The museum might become a place where you detach yourself even more from everyday life: a place for contemplating, for meditation, to quietly think about your own existence. At the same time, the physical museum space itself may not be the only place for experience. The museum can pop up in different places, including the digital realm and somewhere beyond the museum walls. It can be a concept, an idea, which doesn’t have to be attached to a specific site. We have to rethink the categorization between museums, festivals, biennials, and the digital world.

The future is many things—technology, economics, demographics, architecture. How can a museum engage with all these fields meaningfully?

I would choose the word “doubt.” New technologies often have utopian ideas about the future. Economics and demographics tend to be numerical and holistic. But one role of the museum is to have a meaningful discussion with these fields and challenge them. Artists always offer a critical view, reflecting emotional and intuitive value and individual stories. They can reveal things that people are not looking at, things that are uncomfortable. Art shines a light on people and places that don’t get enough light. Bringing those parts of society and the world into the discourse with technology, economics, and so on would be very meaningful to achieving a better equilibrium in the future.

Excerpted with permission from The Future of the Museum: 28 Dialogues by András Szántó, published by Hatje Cantz, distributed in the US by Artbook – D.A.P. and worldwide by Thames & Hudson.

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