With Choice of New Director, the Met Gets a Scholar and a Showman

“You fulfill your programmatic ideas and then you do everything you can to find the funding to make that happen,” Mr. Hollein said in an interview at the Met.

A ‘Think Big’ Coach

This ability to strike a balance between art and business was a skill Mr. Hollein learned from Mr. Krens at the Guggenheim.

Mr. Hollein met Mr. Krens through his father, the prominent postmodern architect Hans Hollein, whom the Guggenheim had tapped for a branch in Salzburg that ultimately never materialized.


The young Max Hollein, background, left, grew up in a creative household and attended the opening of the Museum Abteiberg in 1982 with his father, Hans Hollein, the building’s architect, and Joseph Beuys, the German conceptual artist. “My parents would have loved me to be an artist,” he said last week, “but I had no talent for that or inclination.”

Udo Dewies

“You became part of the family,” Mr. Krens said. “We had a close relationship.”

Growing up in a creative household (his mother Helene was a fashion designer), Mr. Hollein became conversant in the art world and interacted with leading figures like Joseph Beuys and Claes Oldenburg. When Andy Warhol went to Vienna in the 1980s for a show of his late large-scale silk-screens, 12-year-old Max got the artist to sign every single page of Warhol’s exhibition catalog.

“Contemporary artists for other students were these out-of-this-world figures,” Mr. Hollein said. “For me, it was a friends and family background.”


Hans Hollein, the Pritzker Prize-winning architect, in 1988 with a proposal (never built) for a suite of buildings that would have integrated Mies van der Rohe’s Nationalgalerie in Berlin.

Günter Peters/ullstein bild, via Getty Images

When Max had to do a report on an artist at school, other students chose subjects like van Gogh and Monet; Mr. Hollein said he chose Naum Gabo, the Russian avant-garde sculptor.

“My parents would have loved me to be an artist,” he added, “but I had no talent for that or inclination.”

Mr. Hollein’s sister, Lilli Hollein, the director of Vienna Design Week, said her brother’s business instincts were apparent early on. “He once developed a game that had an economic background,” she said. “It was played with farm animals and people, and you had to buy cattle and stuff and then sell it.”

At the University of Vienna he studied under Konrad Oberhuber, an eminent scholar of drawings, and Hermann Fillitz, who directed Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum — but also, “as a revolution against my parents,” studied business.

When Max was 21, he came to New York to work as an intern at the Guggenheim and Mr. Krens invited him to return for a job after completing his education. He ultimately became Mr. Krens’s chief of staff and executive assistant, working closely on projects like the Guggenheim branch designed by Frank Gehry in Bilbao, Spain.


Thomas Krens, then the director of the Guggenheim Foundation, in Bilbao, Spain, in 1997. As his chief of staff and executive assistant, Mr. Hollein watched Mr. Krens plan the export of the Guggenheim to Bilbao and other cities.

Eric Vandeville/Gamma-Rapho, via Getty Images

“The reason that Max is so multifaceted and has had so many great opportunities in life has a lot to do with Tom Krens,” said Lisa Dennison, chairman of Sotheby’s Americas division, and a former director of the Guggenheim, who overlapped with Mr. Hollein. “Tom gave Max opportunities — he was building museums, he was thinking about technology and he told Max to think big.”

After five-and-a-half years at the Guggenheim, Mr. Hollein told Mr. Krens, “I have to leave here because I risk becoming a copy of you.”

What he took from Mr. Krens, Mr. Hollein said, was that he could push an ambitious agenda until the pieces fell into place and naysayers came around.

“One must not forget the success of Bilbao,” Mr. Hollein said, by way of example. “Two years before it opened there were large amounts of people who thought it would be a huge failure.”

Returning to Europe, Mr. Hollein imported the strategies and techniques he’d learned in New York. “He has this mixture of the European and the American know-how, and that’s a very rare thing,” said Renée Price, the director of the Neue Galerie and a fellow Vienna native.

In 2001, after impressing Frankfurt’s mayor, Petra Roth, at a dinner in New York, Mr. Hollein was named director of that city’s Schirn Kunsthalle, a non-collecting institution with such low attendance that local politicians were arguing for its closure.

Mr. Hollein quickly whipped it into shape, and was savvy about sponsorships, getting private corporations to help pay for exhibitions of Yves Klein and Pablo Picasso.

Attendance surged, and hipsters in Berlin began to take note of the upheaval underway in sleepy, big-money Frankfurt. By 2010, the weekly newspaper Die Zeit had called the Schirn “the most exciting exhibition hall in Germany.”

Ambitions Beyond the Rhine

Mr. Hollein was soon invited by trustees to take the director’s post at the Städel foundation, a more venerable institution, and home to one of Germany’s best collections of medieval, Renaissance and Baroque painting. He agreed to take the post, as well as the directorship of the neighboring Liebieghaus sculpture museum under a surprising condition: that he keep the Schirn as well.

This struck some as a power grab, and in Germany, a country whose citizens stick their academic titles on every surface, Mr. Hollein’s lack of a doctorate in art history caused additional concern.

Eventually, Mr. Hollein’s efforts began to speak for themselves. At the Städel, he helped expand the collection to include 20th- and 21st-century art by brokering unusual long-term loans with two German banks — Deutsche Bank and DZ Bank AG — that allowed the museum to retain the works in perpetuity.

Exhibitions of Cranach, Botticelli and Monet attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors. An ambitious digital program — including art history video lectures in German and English — brought international attention to what was once a museum of only regional influence.

And at both museums, Mr. Hollein indulged his abiding passion for electronic music. At the Schirn, he backed exhibitions featuring experimental composers like Carsten Nicolai and Ryoji Ikeda; at the Städel, during a 2012 exhibition of Romantic and Symbolist painting, he invited the public to dance until 2 a.m. to D.J.s from the Berlin nightclub circuit.

Mr. Hollein’s progress gained attention on the other side of the Rhine. In 2013, he emerged as the odds-on favorite to become director of France’s leading modern art museum, the Pompidou Center in Paris.


Max Hollein and his wife Nina, an architect turned fashion designer, in San Francisco on March 1.

Drew Altizer

“Max, in Frankfurt, had been committed to very strong temporary exhibitions — blockbuster shows as well as more scholarly, researched, niche shows,” said Alain Seban, who was the Pompidou’s president from 2007 to 2015. He praised Mr. Hollein’s “capability to make the whole curatorial team participate in an exhibition strategy for the museum. And perhaps, considering the current situation of the Met, it’s something that he might have to do there as well.”

Mr. Seban would continue to hold the top job — a situation that closely parallels Mr. Hollein’s new arrangement at the Met, where he will report to Daniel H. Weiss, the Met’s president and chief executive.

Yet leaks to the French press damaged his Pompidou candidacy, particularly reports that his requested salary was three times higher than expected. Mr. Hollein withdrew before the final selection. (The job went to Bernard Blistène, a Pompidou veteran.)

In his Met interview, Mr. Hollein said he felt that the French government couldn’t give him the freedom he needed to make significant strides.

“I draw a lot of energy where I feel I can move the institution forward,” he said, adding: “It clearly was not the money.”

Some people in the art world were surprised to see Mr. Hollein take the job in San Francisco, in part because of its powerful board president, Diane B. Wilsey, who has a reputation for being loath to relinquish control of the Fine Arts Museums.

Ms. Wilsey, 74, ceded the chief executive title after the museums paid a $2 million settlement to a former high-ranking executive who said Ms. Wilsey had her ousted for revealing alleged museum misspending.

But both Mr. Hollein and Ms. Wilsey said they have had a very productive working relationship. “He pushes the staff, but they like it,” Ms. Wilsey said in a telephone interview. “They’re energized by his energy and intelligence and ambitions.”

Indeed, Mr. Hollein managed to make an impact during his short tenure at the museum, balancing the budget and initiating shows like “Contemporary Muslim Fashions,” which is set to open in September. (Breitbart News Daily questioned whether it was “a celebration of subjugation.”)

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