Sheena Wagstaff would often visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the 1980s when she was an arts student, seeking refuge among the Buddhas and bodhisattvas of the Asian art department. Her appointment in 2012 as the museum’s top curator of modern and contemporary art brought the most overshadowed department in America’s leading museum an acclaimed international exhibition program that included Kerry James Marshall, Gerhard Richter, David Hockney, Lygia Pape, Jack Whitten and Siah Armajani.
Earlier this week, nearing her 10th year as chairman of the department, Wagstaff announced to friends and employees by email that she would leave her position 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 her mission in her email, she said that despite the creation in 1967 of the department now known as Modern and Contemporary Art, the museum “had seldom strayed from North America and Europe in either its collecting or exhibition program.”
She changed that. “The vision was to amplify international modernisms beyond the Western Hemisphere, and to significantly rebalance our representation of the most consequential artists of the 20th and 21st centuries, including major works by women artists, and by artists of color from across the world and nearer to home.”
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The chance to contextualize modern and contemporary art within the same venue housing Egyptian sarcophagi and Greek and Roman marbles had lured Wagstaff to New York from her longtime position as the Tate Modern’s chief curator in London. Wagstaff, an art historian who was born in England but grew up in the Mediterranean, Germany and Scotland, arrived at the Met during a period of great transition, when the institution was preparing to take over the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Marcel Breuer building on Madison Avenue and many curatorial departments were undergoing a reorganization.
She showed works from Latin America to North Africa to Southeast Asia, featuring these works in conversation with their American counterparts, to expose the global movement of ideas.
The Breuer’s modernist maze of galleries became a proving ground for Wagstaff’s vision. There, she helped produce experimental exhibitions about unfinished artworks, art that investigated conspiracy theories and lifelike sculptures. Some critics praised the Met Breuer program as a daring leap forward compared with the staid selections of canonical Warhols and Pollocks in the main building while others wished that she would have pushed the envelope further. “The Met Breuer is going to keep doing sprawling, themed spectacles that pander, thrill and provoke until it gets them right,” the New York Times critic Roberta Smith wrote about her second effort at this broadly appealing species, “Like Life: Sculpture, Color and the Body,” in 2018. (The Breuer closed in 2020.)
Wagstaff has been a prolific curator. According to the museum, she oversaw 88 exhibitions, expanded the museum’s collections by 1,400 objects and originated the Met’s annual rooftop art commissions that have become a staple of the city’s tourist season. (The upcoming installation by the Los Angeles-based artist Lauren Halsey was recently postponed because of logistical issues.) She piloted the Met facade and Great Hall commissions that have been filled by artists like Wangechi Mutu and Kent Monkman.
Wagstaff made her plans known nearly two months after the museum announced that the Mexican architect Frida Escobedo would design its new $500 million modern and contemporary art wing, a long-delayed project seeking to update some of the institution’s most obtuse galleries. Wagstaff said she hoped that renovation would be completed within the next seven to eight years.
“Sheena has been a true inspiration as a colleague,” Max Hollein, the museum’s director, wrote in a letter to staff. “She continuously challenges herself and others, always with the purpose of jointly achieving the best result for the institution.”
Curators who worked with Wagstaff said that she often took a hands-off approach, trusting 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 her department on the exhibition “Everything Is Connected: Art and Conspiracy,” which examined conspiracies and American politics.
“The subject was kind of like touching the third rail, but she wasn’t afraid,” Eklund added. “I felt fortified by her.”
Wagstaff said that a highlight of her time at the museum was working with the artists who proved her hypothesis true that modern and contemporary art was best viewed through the lens of history. “Kerry James Marshall constantly surprised me,” Wagstaff offered as an example. “He was someone who looked at Rococo, and very few people would even take a second glance at Rococo.”
The curator said that she would remain working in New York City after leaving the museum. She already has her next projects lined up, though she declined to discuss specifics, other than to say that she would remain involved in the arts.
“I take immense pleasure in handing over the baton to a successor who can build on what has been achieved,” Wagstaff said in her closing words to staff members. “I have resolved that this is a good juncture to move on to my next set of goals.”