In March, Daniel Weiss succeeded Emily Rafferty and become the President of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. On a rainy Friday afternoon, Mr. Weiss invited Art Zealous to sit with him in his beautiful office overlooking Fifth Ave to discuss his plans for The Met and more.
Art Zealous: What’s your morning routine like?
Daniel Weiss: I get to the museum generally around eight o’clock or so, depending upon my schedule. Typically, my days are a combination of meetings with people who run the museum and operate the museum and focusing on strategic initiatives. As you know we are in the midst of a very ambitious process to open a new museum, the Met Breuer, in March. I also have the opportunity to participate throughout the museum in all of the things that go on in here all of the time. We are in the process of installing a major exhibition on Middle Kingdom Egyptian Art. I go down there every couple of days to see the galleries are taking shape and watching this extraordinary process unfold. The creation of a world class special exhibition that is unfolding before me.
AZ: What was your first reaction when you found out you will be appointed president of the Met?
DW: Gratitude. I have had a lifelong interest and involvement in this museum as an art historian and as a professor of art history. I’ve been coming here since I was in high school and it never occurred to me I’d work here. The idea to come here and be a part of this community as my job, my first reaction was how fortunate I am. I am very lucky to be able to work here and be a part of this.
AZ: Did you celebrate?
DW: It felt like a constant celebration once I made the decision to come. I heard from people all over the world who wanted to congratulate me but also wanted to tell me how special this museum is in their lives. I’m talking about hundreds of people reaching out and saying “just heard you got this job Dan and I just wanted to let you know that when I was a child I used to come to the museum all of the time,” or “I go to the museum, it’s my favorite place in the world.” To have the opportunity to learn about how powerful this place is for so many people was a sort of celebration for me.
AZ: What was your first exposure to the arts?
DW: As a little kid, my father lived in Puerto Rico and Brazil, and he was a bit of an amateur painter and he had pictures on the wall of his apartment when I was living with him that I loved. They were Impressionist style and I fell in love with his art, which then led to becoming interested in more art. But it was through my father’s work particularly these two city scenes of Paris in a nineteenth century Impressionist style that were on his apartment wall. About twelve years ago, I became President of Lafayette College, he gave them to me and I’ve had them ever since.
AZ: How do your sons feel about art and the art world in general?
DW: My older son is more interested in it than my younger son. My older son is a freshman in college and he spent the summer living in New York with me. He was doing an internship in the city and he would come to the museum several times a week to walk the galleries and then go have lunch with me. My younger son is in the eleventh grade and I think he’s more interested in the technical side so I bet he would really like to visit the conservation labs here, which are among the best in the world.
AZ: Do you have a favorite piece at the Met?
DW: My greatest art love is classical Greece and I think our Greek and Roman galleries are the finest galleries in the world and it is not lost on me how privileged I am that every single day that I come to work I see those galleries.
AZ: What are some of your goals for the Met?
DW: We have a couple. One of them is to open the Met Breuer in March and have it be a smashing success. What we want to accomplish is an art museum that is really complementary to what we do here at Fifth Avenue. The program focuses primarily on modern and contemporary, but the ways in which modern and contemporary art intersect with tradition and the history of art, which is what the Met brings distinctively because of our collections and resources. I would view us as a great success if people say, “The Met has made a major contribution to the understanding of modern and contemporary art by the way it’s presenting its ideas in this contextual way.”
We are in the process now of planning for a major renovation of our modern and contemporary wing of the building. That’s something that will unfold over the next several years. In addition, we are renovating a new gallery around the Egyptian collection and we are about to do one in European sculpture and decorative arts.
Another major goal is opening up this place to everyone. We want this museum to be everyone’s museum and for some people who come all of the time, it is. But there are others who find the museum intimidating and we don’t want that.
AZ: What are your thoughts on the intersection between the arts and technology?
DW: Digital technology has now reached a level of quality and an art museum that presents itself digitally is extremely useful. Ten years ago people would say that the quality of images wasn’t good enough, you have to see the real thing. We still stand for seeing the real thing as the primary experience, but we let people from all over the world who visit our website (40 million hits a year) who will never come here, experience the Met.
We want to make the collections, scholarship and programming available to everyone so they can have that experience. I think one might think of the museum as having a building on Fifth Avenue, The Cloisters, the Met Breuer but then there’s our digital museum which provides access to people all over the world. All of those are important and access is always a new frontier for us that we are pursuing very energetically and with great success.
AZ: Do you have any advice for young people who may be interested in pursuing a career in art or working at a museum like the Met?
DW: My own career is a testament to the fact that it’s possible because this is my first museum job. When I was in school I thought about a career in museums and I actually did a fair amount of research, but I didn’t come back to it for 30 years. I think engagement with the world of art is an extraordinarily rewarding thing for people who care deeply about art, and there are many ways to do it. You can learn through tutorial work, administrative leadership, educational programming, working at an art gallery or supporting an artist’s foundation. It’s a competitive field, so a lot of people want to be in the art world, and therefore you shouldn’t do it unless you are deeply committed to doing it.
If it is your dream and your passion, then you should pursue it with the idea that there are lots of ways forward to have that kind of access. I have been really impressed and inspired by the quality of the people at the Met. There are some 2,500 people that work here and they all love art. They are security guards, accountants, marketing people, curators and conservation people. There are all kinds of skills that they bring to it, but what they share is a deep commitment to the enterprise of preserving, exhibiting and studying works of art of every civilization. It’s a calling, it’s not a job. The hardest job to get in the art world is probably your first one, but once you do that and if you are committed to it and do well, there’s lots of opportunities.
AZ: What kind of professional backgrounds work at the Met?
DW: When I hire people, I always look for core skills and capacities. Whether or not they have a background in a particular thing, they can always pick that up. For an art museum I think the most important thing is an appreciation for the mission of the institution. For example, we have 600+ security guards here and every single one of them has a college degree. They all have a deep appreciation for what it is that they are protecting.
I heard a presentation at a tech conference and one of the speakers was a security guard at the Met and he said, “I don’t work for the Met, I work for Rembrandt and Rainer,” and I loved that. His commitment is protecting and securing this timeless cultural legacy. So whether he actually majored in art history or not is not as important as that appreciation that he brings for the work.
AZ: Lastly, what’s your favorite art city?
DW: I love Paris and I’ve always loved the Louvre, my two favorite museums have always been the Met and the Louvre. But I also love Athens because I love Greek art. I think the Acropolis Museum is extraordinary and it is a wonderful venue for seeing Greek art. It’s beautifully done.