A Hushed Departure at the Met Museum Reveals Entrenched Management Culture

In 2010, the Metropolitan Museum of Art hired Erin Coburn away from the J. Paul Getty Museum, lauding her as its “first chief officer of digital media” — a role created and promoted by the Met director and chief executive, Thomas P. Campbell, as part of his efforts to move the museum into the 21st century.

Two years later, Ms. Coburn quietly left, along with a confidential settlement from the Met. Though no clear explanation was given at the time, recent interviews with former and current staff members reveal that Ms. Coburn had long complained that she was unable to do her job effectively because of a close personal relationship between Mr. Campbell and a female staff member in her department.

Mr. Campbell announced his resignation in February. And while the relationship was not the reason he left, staff members say that it contributed to a yearslong erosion of respect for his authority and judgment within the Met and that it reflects larger problems in how the institution is managed by top executives and the board of trustees.

Despite its vaunted collection, prodigious $332 million budget and a board stocked with some of the country’s most powerful donors, the Met is largely run by a dozen or so executives and trustees, interviews show, with little transparency or accountability.

The recent discovery of a looming $40 million deficit that forced the institution to cut staff, trim its exhibition schedule and postpone a heralded $600 million expansion are signs that the system is showing cracks. Now, details about how dysfunction in the digital media department was allowed to continue are revealing additional consequences of the Met’s turning a blind eye to problems.

Ms. Coburn filed a formal complaint in 2012. Met executives investigated her claims but concluded they didn’t warrant action. The board’s chairman, Daniel Brodsky, and several museum executives negotiated Ms. Coburn’s departure and settlement while Mr. Campbell stayed on.

Yet, for many then at the Met, the results of Mr. Campbell’s relationship with a member of Ms. Coburn’s staff were plain. The employee had a direct line to Mr. Campbell and amassed power well beyond her rank, they say, sidelining certain colleagues as well as commanding resources and hiring outside staff members for her projects, which added costs and created infrastructure complications.

Leaders of the Met board and staff knew of the relationship before Ms. Coburn was hired, and at times had urged Mr. Campbell to end it, according to several people inside the museum.

Mr. Campbell and the staff member “had an inappropriate relationship,” said Matthew R. Morgan, the general manager of the Met’s website from 2006 to 2012.

“It was the reason I left,” he said. Mr. Campbell’s decisions favored the “vanity” of the staff member with whom he had close ties “over doing digital the right way,” Mr. Morgan added.

This article is based on interviews with more than two dozen people during the past month, including Met trustees, senior executives, curators and former and current members of the digital staff. All expressed admiration for the museum and its acclaimed exhibitions, but many indicated concern that Met leaders would not take a hard look at themselves and find ways to change.

“This is not just the singular responsibility of the C.E.O.,” said Reynold Levy, the former president of Lincoln Center and an expert on nonprofits, speaking generally about the Met’s culture and recent struggles. “The board needs to hold a mirror up to itself and assess its own performance.”

As boards go, the Met’s is high end and old school. An international jewel of the art world, the museum sits atop the hierarchy of major New York cultural institutions and a spot on its board has long been considered the pinnacle of prestige.

At 101 members, the board is also unusually large, which means decisions tend to be made in committees, the most important of which are the executive and finance committees. Expectations for most everyone else are relatively simple: deep pockets, attendance at five meetings a year and a willingness to let the Met’s top executives handle the details.

“If you’re not on the executive committee, you don’t know anything,” said a trustee, who insisted on anonymity because board members have been warned against speaking publicly. “You’re expected to work and give, but not to question what goes on.”

Another trustee said, “Few people have spoken up in a meeting for about 40 years.”

This laissez-faire style appeared to work well enough, including throughout the 31-year tenure of Philippe de Montebello, who retired as director in 2008, just before the financial crisis. But the world has changed for the Met since then. Corporate and government donations to cultural institutions have declined; competition from contemporary art institutions like the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art has increased; and the demands to reach new audiences digitally have become urgent.

It was in this environment that the board promoted Mr. Campbell, a former tapestry curator who — while erudite and elegant — had never managed an institution, let alone one with 2,200 employees.

Many inside and outside the Met describe Mr. Brodsky, a real estate executive who has been chairman since 2011, as a likable but passive leader who avoids conflict and has continued the Met tradition of informing the full board of museum developments at the last minute or, in the case of the Coburn investigation, not until he learned about the impending publication of this article.

Inside the Met, several top executives knew about Ms. Coburn’s complaints, former employees say, including Emily K. Rafferty, then president; Sharon H. Cott, the senior vice president, secretary and general counsel; Debra A. McDowell, the vice president for human resources; and Carrie Rebora Barratt, the associate director for collections and administration, all of whom declined to comment.

But aside from Mr. Brodsky and Candace K. Beinecke, chairwoman of the board’s legal committee, other trustees were not made aware of the complaint. The Met said that this was to protect the confidentiality of the parties involved.

Moreover, without the approval or knowledge of the entire board, the Met brought the full force of its resources to bear on the case, hiring an external management consultant as well as two law firms, which conducted a six-week investigation.

Tax records show that Ms. Coburn received $183,000 in addition to her annual salary of $166,000 in her final year at the museum, an unusually high payment given that she had been employed for just two years. The museum would not comment on whether the size of the payment was connected to her claim or why the terms of her departure had been kept confidential.

As for the staff, no one was told the real reasons for the departure of Ms. Coburn, an executive described by former colleagues as “visionary” and “principled.”

“To drive someone like Erin Coburn out and see her undermined was very disconcerting to the whole department,” said Paco Link, the digital department’s former general manager of creative development, who had also worked with Ms. Coburn at the Getty.

The exact nature of Mr. Campbell’s relationship with the staff member — whom The New York Times is not naming to protect her privacy — is not widely known, except that she became friendly with Mr. Campbell when he was chief tapestry curator and that their relationship grew closer after he became director in 2009, current and former employees say.

The staff member joined the Met in 2000 and was promoted to manager of online publications in 2009. She was generally considered capable and helped develop the museum’s acclaimed online timeline, as well as website programs that feature curators and artists discussing pieces in the museum.

Nevertheless, her relationship with the museum director made her “very hard” to manage, said Morgan S. Holzer, a former project manager at the Met.

Neither the staff member nor Mr. Campbell responded to requests for comment.

During the past seven years, newer trustees from the business world have, by many accounts, brought a more bottom-line metabolism to the board — zeroing in on the Met’s financial troubles; hiring a new president and chief operating officer, Daniel H. Weiss, a former president of Haverford College, in 2015; and enlisting Boston Consulting to do one of the “360 evaluations” commonly used by Fortune 500 companies to assess employees.

Mr. Campbell remains director until June. Mr. Weiss, who has taken over Mr. Campbell’s role as chief executive on an interim basis, is considered a leading candidate for the next director, though the Met is planning a formal search. At a recent board meeting the Met agreed to examine the job descriptions of president and director.

Mr. Brodsky, in response to detailed questions from The Times, said in a prepared statement: “The board is deeply committed to ensuring a professional workplace, and one that is free of favoritism of any kind. While we believe, in this case, that the board responded appropriately by ordering an investigation by independent, external experts — which concluded Ms. Coburn’s complaint was without merit — there is more we can do.”

Ms. Coburn was replaced by Sree Sreenivasan, who left in June, and then by Loic Tallon, under whom the female staff member was laid off, along with several others, in October.

The current president, Mr. Weiss, said he was committed to establishing a very different management culture at the museum.

“I know that this has been a difficult time at the Met,” he said in an email last week. “I look forward to working with my administrative and board colleagues to support a climate of candor, transparency, accountability and mutual respect.”

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