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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Campbell and the staff member “had an inappropriate relationship,” said
Matthew R. Morgan, the general manager of the Met’s website from 2006
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
for the staff, no one was told the real reasons for the departure of
Ms. Coburn, an executive described by former colleagues as “visionary”
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.”Read More..