Sheena Wagstaff, the chairman of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s modern and contemporary art department, will leave her post after nearly a decade, she announced Wednesday morning.
In a letter to colleagues, Wagstaff called the occasion bittersweet and said she would step down this summer. Wagstaff cited the Met’s difficult economic recovery from Covid as pushing her to seek other opportunities. She did not detail her forthcoming plans.
Wagstaff’s department, she wrote, “has been steadily expanding its trans-national representation and reach, drawing on the knowledge of our regional experts and working alongside truly exceptional colleagues and friends both in the Modern and Contemporary Art team and across The Met.”
She continued, “The thrill of participating in the rich pooling of historical knowledge and intellectual enquiry has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my professional life – and I shall miss every one of my dear colleagues deeply.”
Wagstaff’s departure comes as the Met readies itself to undertake a long-awaited $500 million project to build a new modern and contemporary art wing. Progress on that initiative had lagged for years amid a struggle to balance the museum’s budget and raise the necessary funds for the wing, though signs that it was finally underway came earlier this year when the Met announced Frida Escobedo as the architect for the project. A $125 million donation from Oscar Tang and Agnes Hsu-Tang in 2021 had helped breathe new life into plans for the wing.
For years, the Met’s modern and contemporary art program had been considered one of the museum’s weak spots. Wagstaff and the Museum have made significant efforts to bulk up the Met’s contemporary art offerings since she joined the staff in 2012.
Not all of the initiatives she oversaw were successful—the Met Breuer, an annex for contemporary art shows housed in the Whitney Museum’s nearby former home, only lasted four years, running from 2016 to 2020 and closing unexpectedly during the pandemic. But the ones that drew acclaim, such as a Kerry James Marshall retrospective and a Kent Monkman commission, were considered to be smash hits for the museum.
Among her key moves was to move contemporary art out of the areas where it typically appears—a dedicated wing and the roof garden—and into other, more unusual spaces in the museum. The Monkman paintings appeared in the museum’s Great Hall; a series of Wangechi Mutu sculptures appeared in shallow niches in the Met’s facade.
“I think it’s very, very important that what we present at the Met is artist-centered,” Wagstaff told ARTnews in 2012. “It is artists’ voices always over centuries that enable us to understand the world we live in now and the world of the past.”
When Wagstaff’s position was announced by the Met, she was chief curator of Tate Modern in London. At that museum, she had become known for overseeing a series of major commissions for the Turbine Hall, an expansive atrium that, under her leadership, hosted works by Olafur Eliasson, Carsten Höller, and Doris Salcedo that drew sizable crowds and international recognition.
“I would like to add a personal note that Sheena has been a true inspiration as a colleague,” Met director Max Hollein wrote in a letter to staff obtained by ARTnews. “Her combination of deep intellectual reflection, outstanding commitment to the Museum, high energy in everything that she does, and extraordinary passion for the work of artists past and present is infectious and impactful.”