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The Art of Back-Scratching

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It's been almost eleven months since the Metropolitan Museum named Thomas Campbell, a British tapestries expert, its new director. Since then, he's given only a few interviews, none of them particularly revealing of either his personality (shy but graceful) or his plans for the museum (spend less, update the web site). But his -- or more likely, the Met's press office -- choice of outlets for those interviews says quite a bit more. The museum is only interested in publicity it can control.

Campbell's first tentative conversations were with the New York Times, which has functioned as the Met's in-house newsletter ever since its former chairman Arthur Ochs Sulzberger took the same title at the museum, and British newspapers. More recently, he's spoken to two glossy magazines -- both arms of Conde Nast, the famously Anglophile publishing house -- Vogue and The New Yorker; at the latter, his interlocutor was even a British-born writer. Considering that the Met was born from the desire of 19th Century New Yorkers to demonstrate that Americans were the equals of Europeans in things cultural, these choices send a curious message. A more practical explanation may be found in Conde Nast's longtime financial support of the museum, funneled through its Costume Institute, the fashion and fundraising venture behind the museum's image-enhancing Party of the Year.

Although the Institute first merged with the museum as evidence of its desire to live up to its promise to the public that it would support education and local industrial arts, it has since been remade as the Met's glitziest (if least substantial) crowd-pleaser. Though its annual fundraising party is said to be downsizing next year (possibly in response to criticism that it tarnishes, rather than polishes, the museum's luster, but more likely as a result of the shrinking fortunes of the luxury brands that float the boats of fashion magazines), the museum's continuing dependence on that source of funding is evident in its choice of stages for its new director's ongoing dance of the seven veils -- magazines guaranteed to respond with what journalists call slow wet kisses. After Campbell wipes all the lickspittle lipstick off his cheek, perhaps he'll get around to giving the American public a peek at his thoughts on the future of our greatest art museum.

Michael Gross is the author of Rogues' Gallery: The Secret History of the Moguls and the Money That Made the Metropolitan Museum