"Out every evening, I'm hot on the trail," joked Metropolitan Museum curator Gary Tinterow, as he described his quest for modern and contemporary art acquisitions for the Met. He spoke last month at the American Federation of Arts (AFA), where he claimed that the Met is, and has always been, a very modern institution. The presentation put a rare -- dare we say "new"? -- public face on the Met's plans for collecting contemporary art in the 21st century.
His lecture was a thinly veiled sales pitch for an expansive vision of the Met's future. Neatly dressed in an unremarkable gray pinstripe that matched the color of his hair, Tinterow was pleasant but aloof, projecting the "amused disregard" of a tenured professor, certainly more 19th- than 20th- or 21st-century.
Tinterow was accused of a rather less amusing disregard earlier in 2006, when he sought to deaccession a major sculpture by Eduardo Chillida in contravention of the Met's own rules [see Artnet News, Jan. 17, 2006]. Worth upwards of $2.5 million, that sale was derailed. But look on the good side -- such deals can signal a search for funds to buy new things.
And Tinterow may well have to raise his own funds, since he began his talk by respectfully pointing out that his opinions don't necessarily reflect the views of Met management -- which includes museum director Philippe de Montebello, who some suspect may have a less than avid interest in things contemporary.
Back in 2004, the Met combined its 19th-century art department, long Tinterow's bailiwick, with its 20th-century art department, overseen by the then-retiring William Lieberman. The new hybrid was dubbed "Nineteenth-Century, Modern, and Contemporary Art," and includes European paintings from 1800 to the present as well as international 20th-century sculpture, drawings, prints, decorative arts and design.
This ungainly creature did not inspire immediate confidence, though contemporary exhibitions at the museum are proceeding apace, what with exhibitions of works by Gabriel Orozco, Neo Rauch and Frank Stella, among others, penciled in for 2007.
But back to the presentation at AFA. Tinterow opened his pitch with a slide show reviewing some of the Met's previous big-ticket acquisitions of 20th-century art, which have ranged from a good group of pre-1910 Picassos to his own recent acquisition of a late work by Jackson Pollock, the ca. 6 x 9 ft. Number 28 (1958), a work received this year from longtime Met benefactor Muriel Kallis Newman.
Tinterow then turned to the future, and ran down his wish list like a man possessed. The Met needs works by Marcel Duchamp and Josef Beuys, some Eva Hesse, and a good Helen Frankenthaler, which he bragged he'd like to "hang with the big boys" of Ab-Ex and Color Field painting, of which the museum has a nice selection.
Though Tinterow argued that the Met is already a contemporary museum, he admitted it still needs works by Dadaists, Surrealists, Pop Artists (other than Andy Warhol), the Minimalists, Post-World War II Europeans, and, of course, Postmodernists. Hmmm. Maybe we could save time by listing things the Met doesn't need.
When question time came, the audience seemed less than entirely persuaded by Tinterow's dreamy notion of a mod mod Met. How could the museum ever hope to catch up, asked one listener? And where would the museum display its new holdings?
Most of the museum's collections are donated in chunks, Tinterow explained -- the Met has always been good at landing entire collections of works -- and the right super-chunk could rocket it to the top of any particular category. He showed a slide of the planned interior renovation of the Rockefeller Wing, which houses his departments.
While the Met does not envision any new construction projects, Tinterow noted with a hint of exasperation, he said he would like to dig out three more floors below grade. He mentioned something about obstructionists getting in the way, "but someday. . . ." He let the thought drift off.
Another question came from the floor. Can you really compete with so many collectors out there? And what about the new trend of privately housed collections?
"Art circulates and circulates," Tinterow said knowingly, "but eventually everything ends up in museums."
"At the Met?" someone chimed in.
"Yes, at the Met," Tinterow smiled grandly.
Tinterow's got his story and he's sticking to it. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is a hip contemporary museum -- it just has to move the art in.
JULIA MORTON is a New York-based curator and writer on the visual arts. Her first book, Amalgam: Kent Williams, is due in December.