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Metropolitan Museum of Art
Gary Tinterow, chief curator of the new department of 19th-century, Modern and contemporary art, outlines his plans

This summer, the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced the establishment of a vast new department of 19th-century, Modern, and contemporary art, embracing European paintings from 1800 to the present, international 20th-century sculpture, drawings, prints, decorative arts, and design. Gary Tinterow (50), curator since 1983 of European paintings, was named chief curator of the new department.

According to Mr Tinterow, curators Nan Rosenthal and Anne Strauss will continue to focus on contemporary art, while Sabine Rewald, Magdalena Dabrowski and Lisa Messinger will continue to deal with Modern, and Susan Stein, Rebecca Rabinow, and Mr Tinterow will address the 19th century. The departmental staff also includes three curators of decorative arts and William S. Lieberman, now chairman emeritus of the Modern art department, who will continue to install changing rotations of the Pierre and Gaetana Matisse Collection that he recently acquired for the museum. Mr Tinterow has no plans to add or eliminate any positions.

“The first thing we have to do”, he says, “is assess the 12,000 items we have in the 20th-century collection”, including about 1,000 prints, some 4,000 drawings, nearly 1,750 paintings, 5,000 items of decorative art, and sculptures. “My goal will be, with the curators, to study the collection, commission catalogues, start working on displays, and pull works out of storage so we can evaluate them, better see our strengths and, frankly, recognise our weaknesses, and try to make a cohesive display of 20th-century art”, he says. The collection has important Picassos and Matisses and, in the Gelman and Schoenborn Collections, is strong in Modern art, but only a handful of important post-war and contemporary works, such as Pollock’s “Autumn rhythm”, a room of works by Clyfford Still and paintings by Lucian Freud, Hockney, and Kiefer. “Then we need to redress the problem of what we don’t have”, he continues, citing the lack of works by Beuys, Gerhard Richter, Lee Bontecou, Bruce Nauman, Nam June Paik, James Turrell, and inadequate holdings of Minimal art, Arte Povera, and Art and Language. “We have one great Jasper Johns, but we need others”, he says.

But the greatest obstacles to filling out the collection are the museum’s chronic lack of space and the high cost of contemporary art. “We’re not going to be able to afford to give over entire rooms to all the significant artists of our time—although it is clear that for contemporary art that is the best way to display it. So what we need is to have a good range of works on view”.

The space shortage and the skyrocketing prices for contemporary art will significantly affect the department’s collecting strategies. “The art world has changed tremendously from the days when [MoMA’s founding director] Alfred Barr and [curator] Dorothy Miller could go to Betty Parsons or Leo Castelli and buy a great work of art for $2,000. Now when you go to the Gagosian Gallery or Pace there’s a waiting list, the great things have been pre-sold, and for works by young living artists the prices are often in the millions of dollars”, Mr Tinterow observes. “The old model of sending your curators out to buy something from every show, and in 30 or 50 years selling what you don’t need, no longer works. And with our severe storage problems we cannot afford to hold all these works hoping that some will turn out to be great. We have to be much more precise in targeting the great works of art that we want”.

“I have encouraged the curators to think in terms of great masterpieces”, he says. “If I have a chance to buy a great Gerhard Richter, a distinguished mature artist whose career is well understood, of course, I will take it,” he says, “but there will be less speculation in contemporary art. I don’t know that we will be acquiring the work of 25 year-old artists who are just beginning their careers”.

To reclaim display space, Mr Tinterow says he will cull the collection and deaccession. “We have hundreds and hundreds of works from the first years of the 20th century by minor American artists that haven’t been on display since the 1940s”, he says, adding that he will also upgrade the work of specific artists.

The great unanswered question is the degree to which the Metropolitan will differentiate itself from New York’s other museums of Modern and contemporary art. Mr Tinterow says he hopes to show contemporary art that is not being displayed at MoMA, the Guggenheim or the Whitney. “I hope that our displays won’t just look like everybody else’s”, he says, adding cryptically, “There will be a point of view”.

But he emphasises that the Metropolitan will not reposition itself in relation to the other Modern art museums in town, and he minimises the possibility of competition for art and patrons. “Yes, there are works that we want, some privately held, some in the hands of the artists, some on the secondary market, and we are going to try to obtain them in any way we can. But we can never be MoMA, which is without doubt the most comprehensive collection of 20th-century art, and works of art that make sense in their collection won’t make sense to us”.

“We are different from other museums in that we are not focused simply on recent art. We have 5,000 years of art on display, and the kind of Modern art we show and the story we tell is necessarily going to be different”. He says visitors to the Metropolitan will see Modern and contemporary art displayed in the context of this longer historical span. And he plans to invite artists to select exhibitions from the collections and by launching an exhibition programme about artists as collectors, “showing how living artists live with works by other artists, not only of the present but of earlier periods. For example, if Baselitz has a great collection of Mannerist painting, to have an exhibition about that makes sense here in a way it might not at MoMA”.

Next month the museum opens a show of South African artist William Kentridge, who was previously featured at the New Museum. There will be a roof garden installation by Sol Lewitt next Spring and another project with Anish Kapoor, artists who have shown at the Whitney and MoMA, not to mention the Venice Biennale.