Text by Ariella Budick
for the FT
My whole life, I’ve entered the Metropolitan Museum the same way: up the majestic stairs, through the vaulted lobby, then right towards Ancient Egypt, left towards Greece and Rome, or straight ahead, down a hallway of ancient bric-a-brac leading back to the Middle Ages. There’s something comforting about stepping off Fifth Avenue, with its hawkers, bus fumes and hot-dog smells, and into the distant past.
Starting in a half-dozen years, though, on completion of the new wing currently being designed by architect David Chipperfield, we’ll be able to plunge into the museum from a new Central Park entrance and find ourselves in the shocking present: face to face with a digital video installation, perhaps, or Jeff Koons’ latest big bauble.
Reorienting the Met falls to Sheena Wagstaff, the high-octane curator who chairs its modern and contemporary division. “For the first time you’ll be able to enter 5,000 years’ worth of human creativity from the portal of the modern — from the now — and go backwards. That’s pretty amazing,” she says.
Before the new wing is completed, however, the venerable museum is undertaking another giant shift. The Met is creating a new outpost, dedicated to modern and contemporary art, in the former Whitney Museum on Madison Avenue, a brutalist giant designed in 1966 by Marcel Breuer. As we sit and talk in the new Met Breuer, as it will be known, opening day on March 18 is sneaking up quickly and Wagstaff’s head swivels anxiously as workers mount lights and drill holes in the walls.
She talks like someone who is always late for a meeting. Her sentences gallop off in pursuit of her thoughts, and when she realises how long it’s been since her last full stop, she pauses, looking slightly alarmed. Ask what tempted her to give up her position as chief curator at Tate Modern and move to New York, and you get a rapid-fire biography that rewinds to her student days at the University of East Anglia, detours through Pittsburgh (where she worked at the Frick), and includes a mention of her children’s “slightly weird transatlantic accents”.
She lives according to onrushing deadlines and long-term plans. When the eight-year lease on the Breuer building expires, Wagstaff intends to move her department back to the mother ship and into the new wing. In the meantime, she has exhibitions to organise, a new corps of curators to wrangle, and an architectural design to steer. All of which merges into her real task: giving a slow-moving institution an entrée into the world of investor/collectors, young artists, unconsummated trends, blowout biennials and feverish prices. “I’ve been brought on as a kind of thought-leader. I hate that term — maybe you can substitute a better one?”
Read the complete article on FT: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/3dcef02c-ce53-11e5-831d-09f7778e7377.html
The Met Breuer opens on March 18. metmuseum.org/visit/the-met-breuer