Sheena Wagstaff often visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the 1980s when she was an art student, seeking refuge among the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of the Asian Art Department. Her appointment in 2012 as the museum’s curator of modern and contemporary art brought the most overshadowed department of America’s leading museum an acclaimed program of international exhibitions that included Kerry James Marshall, Gerhard Richter, David Hockney, Lygia Pape, Jack Whitten and Siah Armajani.
Earlier this week, as she neared her 10th year as department chair, Wagstaff announced to friends and employees via email that she would be stepping down from her post this summer – after a difficult recovery from A coronavirus infection prompted her to take stock of her priorities beyond the museum.
“I had always wanted to work in an encyclopedic museum,” Wagstaff, 65, said in an interview, adding, “It’s a bittersweet moment.
Describing its mission in her email, she said that despite the creation in 1967 of the department now known as Modern and Contemporary Art, the museum “has rarely strayed far from North America and Europe in its collection or exhibition program”.
She changed that. “The vision was to amplify international modernisms beyond the western hemisphere and significantly rebalance our representation of the most important artists of the 20th and 21st centuries, including major works by women artists and artists of color around the world and closer to home.”
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The ability to contextualize modern and contemporary art in the same venue housing Egyptian sarcophagi and Greek and Roman marbles had drawn Wagstaff to New York from her longtime position as chief curator of Tate Modern in London. Wagstaff, an art historian born in England but raised in the Mediterranean, Germany and Scotland, arrived at the Met at a time of great transition as the institution prepared to take over the Marcel Breuer building from the Whitney Museum. of American Art on Madison Avenue and many curatorial departments were being reorganized.
She brought a passion for art from the Renaissance to Cubism and showed works from Latin America to North Africa to Southeast Asia, expanding the museum’s collections and presenting these works in conversation with their American counterparts, to expose the global movement of ideas.
Breuer’s maze of modernist galleries became a testing ground for Wagstaff’s vision. There she helped produce experimental exhibitions of unfinished works of art, works of art that investigated conspiracy theories, and realistic sculptures. Some critics hailed the Met Breuer program as a bold leap from the stilted selections of canonical Warhols and Pollocks in the main building while others wished it had pushed the envelope further. “The Met Breuer will continue to make sprawling thematic shows that flatter, delight and provoke until they succeed,” New York Times reviewer Roberta Smith wrote of her second effort on this widely appealing species, “Like Life: Sculpture, Color and the Body,” in 2018. (The Breuer closed in 2020.)
Wagstaff was a prolific curator. According to the museum, she oversaw 88 exhibitions, expanded the museum’s collections by 1,400 objects and created the annual Met Rooftop Art Commissions that have become a staple of the city’s tourist season. (Los Angeles-based artist Lauren Halsey’s upcoming installation was recently postponed due to logistical issues.) She spearheaded commissions for the Met’s facade and Great Hall that have been filled by artists like Wangechi. Mutu and Kent Monkman.
Wagstaff announced its plans nearly two months after the museum announced that Mexican architect Frida Escobedo would design its new $500 million Modern and Contemporary Art Wing, a long-delayed project aimed at updating some of the most obtuse galleries of the institution. Wagstaff said she hopes the renovation will be completed within the next seven to eight years.
“Sheena was truly an inspiration as a colleague,” said museum director Max Hollein. written in a letter to staff. “She constantly challenges herself and others, always with the aim of achieving the best outcome for the institution together. »
Conservatives who worked with Wagstaff said she often took a hands-off approach, confident that employees could deliver on their commitments. “She was very supportive,” said Douglas Eklund, a photography curator who retired from the Met last year. In 2018, he worked with his department on an exhibition called “Everything Is Connected: Art and Conspiracy”, which examined conspiracies and American politics.
“The topic was kind of like touching the third rail, but she wasn’t scared,” Eklund added. “I felt strengthened by her.”
Wagstaff said one of the highlights of his time at the museum was working with the artists who proved his assumption to be true that modern and contemporary art is best viewed through the prism of history. “Kerry James Marshall constantly surprised me,” Wagstaff offered as an example. “He was someone looking at rococo, and very few people would even take a second look at rococo.”
The curator said she would continue to work in New York after leaving the museum. She already has her next projects online, although she declined to discuss specifics except to say she would remain involved in the arts.
“I take immense pleasure in passing the baton to a successor who can build on what has been achieved,” Wagstaff said in his final words to staff members. “I decided it was the right time to move on to my next set of goals.”