Ken Weine of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Has a Very Important Person on the Line – Transcript
Kirk: Welcome to, let’s Hear It.
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Ken: get onto the show.
Kirk: And welcome in for another episode of Let’s Hear It In the Chill Fall Weather.
We come together again to hear another one of these great guests that Eric has conjured from the ether.
Eric: how you doing? Like you, I’m shivering in my shoes, , although, I am told that Buffalo, New York is under five or six feet of snow right now, so I should just shut the hell up, right? .
Kirk: But we won’t.
We’ll just complain about the weather, but we won’t. We’ll just
Eric: complain. And I am not sure that I conjured Ken Wine, the Chief Communications Officer and Senior Vice President of External Affairs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, out of the Ether , but I think he always exist. And yet for me he is evanescent.
How’s that? Oh man. Got it. Ken, we is an amazing guy and he has, to my mind, one of the hardest communications jobs I can think of. What he does is no less than simplifying to me.
Kirk: This was a great conversation in our discussion about that’s gonna take a lot of different directions and once again, Ken so gracious and, and.
Generous to come onto the podcast. So this is Ken, we, the Chief Communications Officer and Vice President for External Affairs for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Yes, indeed.
Eric: That one. Yes, that one. And so if folks are, are listening, like, eh this, I’m gonna skip this one, but you just wanted to hear our fabulous introduction.
I would say two things. First, Ken is sitting at the, at the, this central thing of culture, providence. Sociology, art, history, communications, marketing, all of these things. And he is dealing with some very high level folks. And so that’s one. And the second thing is that, If you stay around to listen to, to Kirks and my blah blah at the end, I will let you in on a fantastic secret that Ken couldn’t tell me when we recorded this and that.
You don’t even know Kirk. So there you go. There’s my teaser for listening and then waiting till the end to have us chat about it.
Kirk: Secrets ahead. Well, this is Ken Wine on, let’s hear it. We’ll, we’ll listen to Ken and then we’ll come back.
Eric: Welcome to, let’s Hear It. My guest today is Ken. We, the Chief Communications Officer and Senior Vice President of External Affairs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Ken, I can’t wait. I cannot wait to have this conversation cuz you have you stick a quarter in you and 99 stories come out. Thank you so much for coming on.
Ken: That’s, it’s a pleasure to be here and I hope you brought, brought a lot load of quarters cuz I’m happy to talk and I particularly appreciate you know, your audience of a communications profess.
Eric: Well we’re gonna hear and more we are gonna hear from the master. I, you know, if you ask me your job is a variation on, on Dickens. It’s the best of jobs and the worst of jobs. I mean, you get to hobnob at the costume gala if you like. Maybe not. You get to, and then you’re dealing with every kind of potential cultural touch stoney thing.
That we have, whether it’s cultural appropriation or the providence of your collection and maybe taking the names of some donors off of some collections. That’s so, I mean, I guess the first question is, am I right? Is it the best of jobs? It’s the worst of jobs.
Ken: I, I so appreciate the way you position that, because that’s kind of the way I think about it and.
You know, you meet people who aren’t in the communications or cultural world, and they’ll either see it really simplistically like, oh, it must be just joy. You know, one benefit after another. Or it must be just, you know, utter hell every day. And the truth is, like most complicated jobs, It’s both with the medium, the way I say it is everything at the med is kind of super size.
So we happen to have a large external affairs department. We have about 30 people, and broadly what I say is my team gets to do the really fun, positive things. We have 40 special exhibitions a year covering everything from 17 curatorial departments. So this very month it goes from mayr to cubism art to the tutors and all the glory of.
The bad news is my team gets to do that. So they get to do the fun, create the press conferences, talk to the critics, walk around with the living artists. I get the tougher institutional work. And, and to your point, what’s so exhilarating and often scary about being in a place like the Met is they’re only a handful of so-called encyclopedic art museums around the world.
The Met is the only one in the United States. I’d say our peers are the proto and the Louv and the British Museum, but we are a particularly American institution and we really are a metaphor for New York, American capitalism, American philanthropy, so all. Challenges and opportunities of the world land up on our doorstep.
Land on our doorstep. So I’ll just say one more thing. You know this, this very week, there are protestors who wanna bring attention to the death of the murder of the woman in Iran and the feminist amazing protests there. And there was a protest on the steps of the. Why exactly is that We’re not allied with the Iranian regime, but we are a large target.
Of course, we’ve seen the climate activists horrible actions overseas that thankfully has not hit the Met that is defacing the pieces. But the point is whether it’s the Sackler name or opioid or cultural property. It’s all arrives at the doorstep of the world’s largest
Eric: art museum, and for the person who is responsible for helping to shape the image, to respond to the press, to help, I don’t know, square the, that circle that the, let’s just say the matter flows as gravity does downhill.
Onto your head, if I’m not , as you say, your team gets to do the fun stuff and you have to try to make sense and interpret, and if not explain, at least contextualize this huge as you say, the metaphor for American everything. Did you know that that’s what you were signing
Ken: up? It’s funny when I, so I’ve spent my career, I’m trained as a community organizer and lawyer, and then did a shift over into communications and basically spent my career in nonprofit communications, leading communications group.
And my prior post was at the New York Public Library, and I remember saying to my wife, wow, the three positions seem to be opening up soon to run comms. The Whitney and MoMA and the Met, I said to my wife, I really want one of those. And sure enough, for whatever set of reasons the Met called and and it worked out.
I now look back and think. I probably couldn’t have even gotten the jobs at Whitney or MoMA because they would’ve wanted somebody who really knows something about contemporary, modern, contemporary art. I have never taken an art history class. I don’t, I’ve come to, I, I love art. We raised our children in the art museums of New York City.
I love public institutions and a civic discourse. And that’s the way I presented myself in this process. So I knew that I was going to have the incredible privilege of being at a large institution that was iconic in New York. I really don’t think I fully grasped its cultural import. And you know, the new, I thought, oh, the New York Public Library and the Met Museum, they’re both.
Buildings, about 150 year old, years old may have made of marble on fifth Avenue. Happened to be about the same. Budget, happened to be about the same size. That’s actually where the similarities end. The Met drives the entire museum and art field and. Culturally, particularly in the fashion world as well.
It just has an extra weight that I don’t think I fully appreciate it, but that’s okay. It’s been fun to embrace it. Well, this
Eric: is actually a, A is good news for the comms people out there because , it’s amazing what kind of access you get into the kind of jobs that you could get if you have the ability to make sense.
Of things. You don’t have to be an art historian or an expert in art to, to do your job because your job is a lot more than that. And it is, it is about trying to navigate the , incredibly dense and complicated world of communications, but politics and messaging and as it happens, marketing. So much of what you’re doing is trying to sell people on.
On this great institution on on, on the one hand and on the other hand, This incredibly complex mix of, of politics and culture and history and civic engagement. What, so you say you’re, you started as a lawyer. Is it, do you think you’re drawing on your legal, should I, should I go out and get a legal ? How are, how are you pulling together all the strands of your life to be able to do this kind of job, which sounds like, like the, the West Wing, an episode of the West Wing.
I know my
Ken: my boss often says we need to. Sitcom, we’ll call it the museum. And you know, every three hours, some fun problem walks in the door. I’d say a couple things. I went to law school hoping to fall in love with the law and I did variety of things in law school and shortly thereafter and, and never did successfully fall in love with the law.
Yet having a legal degree enables me. Shall we say engage with the lawyers internally? And that’s actually a
Eric: skill, the word engage. If, if, if people could see you, your hair stood up on end and you made air quotes and you did other things, I can only imagine what that engagement is like
Ken: and it’s about everything.
And they look, the lawyers mean well. Their job is to keep us, you know, out, out of trouble with law enforcement and other. There. We often have a conversation about, well wait a minute. Is this a legal objection or a policy objection? The topic of cultural property is, is a perfect one, by which we mean, okay.
The incredible thing about a big place like the Met is we have a collection of 1.5 million pieces of art. They all came from somewhere. And our ambition is to collect, be, to be an encyclopedic museum of art. We collect art across 5,000 years of human creativity. The goalposts are moving very fast on what is appropriate and legal, but those goal posts, those are two sets of goal posts.
What is culturally appropriate and what is legal? Particularly in the social justice movement that we’re in. So that means we’re gonna have real conversations between our legal department and our communications team, and we’re both doing our jobs. Again. They wanna keep us so we’re not, you know running into trouble downtown.
And I wanna protect our brand and our, and our reputation and not just. For narrow reasons, but because we wanna have, we wanna have big loan shows like we’re opening up next week, a fabulous show, if I may have an advertisement for lives of the Gods First review in over a decade of Mayan art, which will have loans that have never been to the United States from Mexico and Guatemala.
To have loan shows like that, you have to have a really strong international rep reputation. So, Law and policy inter intersect in that regard. But I’d say to the broader thing you were raising is, wait a minute, why are they hiring a non-art guy for an art museum? And is that a good or a bad thing? And I would say US Communications people would say, in no industry is it healthy to only have people who know that industry.
Because I mean, here at the Met, we have 17 curator departments. In a prior era, our leadership decades ago would say, we don’t have one museum. We have 17 museums. That’s the great thing about the Met is you can enjoy 17 different museums. Well, guess what? Today we actually think our best asset is not to have 17 museums, but to integrate those museums to have.
Intense outreach so that the contemporary art piece is speaking to the Egyptian piece, is speaking to the African piece that requires a different set of skills and a different set of outreach and a different conversation. So of course you wanna refresh that.
Eric: I’ve always said that the, whenever I hire somebody, or whenever I’ve been putting myself forward for a job, the stuff that I don’t know I can learn.
But the stuff that I have can’t be taught. And I think that the kind of skills that you need to navigate that crazy world besides having a brain that fires in different ways than humans, than most humans, it is those, many of those things can’t be taught that. And then you can learn, obviously you can learn the history, you can learn about the way that these, about the way the museum runs.
But you, you certainly can’t teach somebody to not lose their mind when a reporter calls you at midnight with some kind of crisis at the same time that you’re trying, that you have an opening the next day. And how, how do you, you must be one of those kind of walk and talk West Wing characters in that you can, you know, fi you can respond to six different things at a time and you can juggle 11 plates.
Is that your, is that your personality? Or do when you go home, do you just line things up in a neat little road
Ken: or than it was? No, I have many, many weaknesses, but I happen to be a, a very strong com compartmentalizer, so I can go for a run and take a break and send for emails during the run and then come back so I can kind of switch back and forth like that.
I’m also a firm believer that this little phone in my hand. Is a liberator. I mean, I know all the ailments and I’ve raised kids and faced, you know, making sure they’re not living their digital lives. But, you know, I coached Little League Baseball for 10 years on the sideline and had jobs that had a lot of crisis communications and I couldn’t have done it with, without a phone.
And, you know, the, the, the liberation that comes to that, but, I also happen to be a stimulation junkie, and that’s kind of what I enjoy most. The, the other thing about these jobs, and I was very clear these last couple times, I’ve, you know, these last two jobs to say, look, if you want a communications person who is going to be, and there are many institutions that need this or want this, who is going to just kind of take care of the institution?
And frankly, a kind of conservative, small sea conservative way. I’m not interested in that. I’m interested, like I remember a moment to your point about bringing new skills. It the men appropriately were worried about security and how we bring art in the building and whatnot. And there had always been this rule.
We will never show behind the scenes how art is unpacked or hung up. But sure enough, we had. First ever like 80 foot high Mexican bureau that was going to be hung up in one of our galleries. So I had the tamer, this is my first year-ish to say, perfect. Let’s show the unveiling of it and long conversations with our friend in security in the registrar’s office.
And my point was, we live in an era. With, you know, three full-time food shows on television. People don’t wanna know just what’s happening in the restaurant. They wanna know what’s happening in the kitchen and they wanna know what’s happening at the Met behind the scenes. And it’s not going to, we’re not going to put anyone in danger to show the art coming out of the crates.
We’re not showing when it comes in the building. And sure enough, that was a front page, wall Street Journal piece. So the point is, and this is not rocket science. Your point is correct. You need to bring people from different fields into other fields and hope that they can embrace the mission and apply those skills.
Eric: Well, I I am looking forward to a few more of those behind the scenes stories in the second part of the show. We’re gonna take a quick break and be back with Ken Wine of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. You’re listening to, let’s Hear It, a podcast about foundation and nonprofit communications hosted by Kirk Brown and Eric Brown.
Let’s hear. It is sponsored by the Communications Network, which connects, gathers, and informs the field of leaders working in communications for good, because foundations and nonprofits that communicate well are stronger, smarter, and vastly more effective. You can find, let’s hear it online at let’s email@example.com or on Twitter at Let’s Hear at Cast.
Thanks for listening. And now back to the show. Welcome back to, lets here. My guest is Ken. We, the Chief Communications Officer and Senior Vice President of External Affairs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Ken, you were just telling us, Eric.
Ken: Eric, again, I gotta tell you, you’ve asked for met gala tickets three times and I’m doing the best I can.
I’m sorry. Go ahead.
Eric: Is that the, is that the number one question you get? You get asked like if you’re wearing a Met pin or carrying a Met bag, walking down the street. Do people ask you for gala tickets? I get
Ken: a lot of a lot of fun requests and I have a lot of fun answering like, why don’t you reply, I send it to your Gmail.
Did it hit spam? So, no, we do get a lot of questions.
Eric: You’re the handsomest man in New York once a year. Correct? like the handsomes. Funniest, most intelligent.
Ken: Exactly. People buy, people buying me drinks. But to be clear, that is a, just from a communications perspective, it’s a really fun, obviously it’s a fun night, but it’s a fun conversation about.
Is it good for the brand? Is it good for the institution? What does it mean for us culturally? Internally, as you can imagine, our partners, the Conde Nast, do an incredible job in helping us put this event on. But it’s the, we are, we are closed only three days a year. Thanksgiving, Christmas, new Year’s.
Fourth day is the, the day of the Met Gala, because it is such a large operation and we have to prepare for it. And that also does a lot of things culturally. I’m a huge fan of employee communications. What does that mean to the staff? We have to say, please step aside. This major thing is happening, and also we’re giving such a, a bright light on the Costume Institute part of our portfolio as a communications person who is just.
Hungry for eyeballs in media impressions, I would suggest it’s an incredible thing for art for New York and for the Met, but as you can imagine, reasonable people disagree with that ,
Eric: and I’m sure there are no egos involved with the costume gala, right? There’s no, because, because celebrities are really easy to deal with, and that sounds like your job is just duck soup on a on right around that time.
It is, am I wrong, ?
Ken: It’s, it’s, there’s a lot of complex personalities, but look, again, at the end of the day, these are people who. Are generously giving us, you know, part of their individual fame brand and devoting it to the Met. They don’t, you know, lady Gaga, she doesn’t have to be a co-host of the Met Gala, but you know, she does this unbelievable presentation for us up and down the red carpet on the occasion of our camp show.
And that’s all a gift to the. Which at the end of the day is a nonprofit bringing art to people and people to art. Now of course, when you see a front page story in the New York Post, it doesn’t, it may not, that might not be one’s first impression. The first impression is what is Lady Gaga wearing? And that’s our obligation, is to take the incredible energy from the gala and focus that on the art and the institution.
And. Sometimes successful and sometimes not.
Eric: All right. I’m gonna deconstruct that answer someday as a, as a, a, an object lesson and how to answer a difficult question. So, okay. Well, good on you. I, I would say that that, Some of the behind the scenes things that you can talk about must be fascinating. For example, I think you mentioned to me once that these exhibitions take sometimes up to a, a decade to, to create.
So you are in the, and you are engaged in various stages along the way on. Any number of exhibitions that have a, as you say, incredible breadth of time and culture and all that stuff that sounds like talk about juggling plates, but that sounds like an incredible opportunity, as you say, to to create a story that runs through the entire museum.
Can you just talk a little bit about this exhibition development process and how you manage all
Ken: of. Sure. It’s super interesting because at a, at a broad level, there’s a tension within the museum, our museum, because there are some museums that only do special exhibitions, and there’s some museums that only have collection areas, and we have both.
And if I had the blessing of being in Paris tomorrow, I would go to the Louv, regardless of what their exhibitions are. So, When I arrived at the Met about six-ish years ago, I did an audit of how are we promoting our exhibitions? How are we using our marketing budget rather, and PR and all of that. And the answer was 95% was on exhibitions.
Now, one hand that makes great sense because to your point, Yes, curators can work from three to 10 years. I gestating a show. And when that Michelangelo show or that guitar show opens, they want the building to sing for them and that’s our one opportunity to get guitar e autos one time in 10 years in the door to talk about that.
On the other hand, again, if I was in Paris tomorrow, should that, should we be promoting the museum experience or the, or wait. If we promote the museum experience and they’ll get in the door, then we can nudge them to go see guitars or Michelangelo. So that’s the Fus. Fun, fun tension. But it is an incredible privilege to work with these curators who literally, I mean, if you’re a Greek and Roman curator to pick that one area, you’ll spend, I don’t know, the first decade or two of your career making it to the Met Museum, and now you’re one of six Greek and Roman curators at the Met.
You’ve got 20, 30 years left to produce. You’re only gonna have about three shows your entire career. And now your moment is coming and every loan matters. How do you navigate? There’s a Greek government going to give it to us. What about that fancy donor who has an apartment? I heard they have an amazing statue in their bathroom.
Like, how do you navigate, get that all in here And then, and this is the, the thing. Really does bum me out is I’ve never been in a comms job. Usually the comms person runs around and says to the program people, gimme content, gimme content. We have two darn much content . We literally, we literally, you know, our friends at modern art museums in town that everybody knows and love, they have six big shows a year.
That’s great. Well, we have 43 , so I can’t call the New York Times every single week. Actually, a half hour ago, I just sent an email to the New York Times editor saying, Hey, somebody coming back to see the Cubism show again. Oh, and by the way, in three weeks, the Mayan show opens up. How many times can we do that?
So we have to make some sequencing and some priority judgment calls, which is hard. And also, last thing I’d say is my experience as a civilian in museum. Isn’t necessarily driven by that one so-called blockbuster show that I saw. It could be about one piece. So it’s really unfair how we make these marketing decisions.
Should we do it? Cuz the big Michel Angeles show, or this very week we got this amazing loan from Los Angeles of an African American artist who has done a contemporary depiction of Washington cross the Delaware. And for the first time in history, it’s adjacent to Washington Cross the Delaware. But instead of George Washington in the boat, it’s George Washington Carver in the boat.
So, This is one piece that I found out about last week. If we were a normal museum, that would be a huge banner on the outside. So making those decisions. And now, okay, you can imagine what are the 17 things I want to do to promote this moment? I want to get, you know, we have black history coming out in February.
I want to get, you know, city leaders to see it. But what about that Mayan show coming up in two weeks? So these are all kind of fundings. One has to.
Eric: I can’t imagine that. Not only that, but, so you’ve got a curator who gets three shows in their, in their lifetime at the Met, and it’s competing with 42 others, and they all want you to promote their thing because life is short.
I, I can’t imagine the pressure that must be for you and for them and, and to try and weave this together into one institution. Because as you say, like that, that one fact like blows my. You can work at the me.
Ken: The other thing, the other thing to layer on it, and we don’t have it as bad as some of your amazing listeners.
For whatever wonderful set of reasons. There still is a little arts media world, so there’s art, newspaper and hyper allergic, which is a, a newish arrival, which is amazing and, and Artnet and others. But let’s be clear, the amount of lines of print. Is smaller. You know, the Cleveland Plain dealer used to send an art critic to met openings.
The Cleveland Plain dealer, I’m guessing, doesn’t have an art critic anymore. So we’re competing for a much, obviously smaller space in the so-called traditional media. So we have to use all these new channels and figure out other ways. And the other thing is have a conversation with our curators. The other cultural thing that we have that’s super intense internally is that Greek and Roman curator to, to return to him and her, they’ll be here for 30 years.
But the comms people, the HR people, the finance people we’re cycling in and out. And part of our conversation is, guess what? The review in New York News Day A doesn’t exist anymore. And B, if it did exist, doesn’t. What we need to do, believe it or not, is to do a TikTok about your, I mean, you laugh, but that’s literally the conversation that our, not to put it on age, but you know, our 20 something new social media producer is having with our north of 60 Greek and Roman curator, the
Eric: curator to set up his phone into a little dance in front his, his.
Ken: I won’t get it right, but at the last Med Gala, we vogue to this unbelievably cool thing where they had basically took. Our Greek and Roman pieces and then superimposed a celebrity who was shot on those pieces. So one I think was Beyonce and people came in for weeks after saying, I need to see the Beyonce, Greek and Roman piece, , which doesn’t exist.
Eric: what’s the best, what was the best day you’ve ever had in
Ken: this job? Oh, that’s a great question. I’m having. The best little marketing run of my life right now, which is we happen to be late on open late on Friday and Saturday nights and we’ve been late, open late for years and it’s always frustrated me that we weren’t well enough attended on those nights.
Just it was a secret and my wife and I always entertain on that night and bring friends and our friends are like, this is amazing. Thanks for the treat. It’s like, actually, anybody can do this. It’s pay asy wish after O Crown, somewhat receded in January. I did this thing. I. I’ve had it, you know, forget, I wanna go all in on promoting the experience, not the exhibition.
We’re calling it date night at the Met Buy. And it’s, we don’t need any art. The programming is buy one, get one free drinks, and we have a jazz quartet. So that night, the, the night we kicked it off, we doubled the tens the first night and it’s been doubled and more ever since. Younger audience. Profoundly more diverse audience, profoundly lower household income.
And so just getting that, we, I get an hourly email of what the attendance looks like, which is kind of like the stock ticker. You don’t wanna look at it, but you do watching those come in and seeing, I, I talk to our volunteers. We have 1200 volunteers in the museum. Many of them are senior citizens who are, this is a, you know, second, third kind of career thing.
I talked them into doing these things. I said, look, I don’t want a formal walk. Tour cuz who knows if you’re on a date, if you want a tour, let’s call it a gallery chat. So people would come and visit a gallery. We’d say, oh, in these three places you can go visit. So these kind of Arian docents, were giving gallery chats to these, you know, young couples and the docents are over the moon about the experience.
So the whole thing has been really invigorating and, and I try to just take moments like. And I encourage anybody listening to this is when you have a big complicated job, you better have a passion project to keep you going. So those moments are the counter to getting that call about, you know, tough cultural property issue or another covid protocol, or you know, three egos bent outta shape about something.
Eric: someone throws soup on a plane, on a painting,
Ken: God, thank God that has never happened. God forbid I’m sures yet. Yeah,
Eric: I So the idea that you, you get an, an hourly email about how many people are at the Met seems like a very interesting job. Just that, that
Ken: you, it’s interesting. Let me ask, I can ask the interviewer.
Do you think bad weather helps or hurts? Oh,
Eric: Oh, I, I don’t have any idea. I inte sort of, I, intellectually I’d say it helps, but, but on the other hand, that’s probably why I’m wrong.
Ken: Yeah, it’s, it’s kind of in the middle is a fair, unfair question. Horrible downpour. Nothing. No one’s gonna come. You want kind of modestly bad weather.
And, you know, I can, I now like try to treat my like, okay, four o’clock on a Thursday if I happen to not be in town four o’clock on a on a Saturday 60 degrees. How many people you know is it, is it 1500 or 2200 on for that one hour? So eventually you can come
Eric: guess . So you get to play a lot of funny little intellectual games with, with what’s the other, attendance and weather and everything else.
Ken: can imagine. Exactly. And one scary thing for all of us in the tourism industry is people’s habits are changing. What I say is, you know, MoMA Whitney Guggenheim. They are our friends. Our enemy is Netflix and your pajamas. Getting people outta their house, particularly when they don’t have to go to Manhattan anymore for that job.
That is our biggest challenge. So find in any way we can get people out, whether it’s community or a show or a free drink. We really need to do it.
Eric: Well, I , I really, I I love the Met. I love you, Ken. You’re just one of the most generous and as it happens, entertaining folks I know in this business, and I’ve learned so much from you over the years, and I think that our listeners can learn so much from you about how you, you have taken this job and made it.
Even more interesting than it probably was when you got there, the idea that you could have the opportunity around programming. You know, in a sense you’ve become curator. Of of source . Don’t tell the caring. That’s okay. They’re not listening. They’ll never listen . But the idea that you can use communications and your own marketing savvy to shape an institution, I think is really important because it, it is so central to what we all do at our.
At our jobs is to, is to help build a relationship between our organization and our various constituents, these audiences and others. And, and I think that what you’ve done there has is a really great example of it and I’ve just so much appreciated what you’ve been doing over, over the years and it’s just so much fun to talk to you.
Ken, we thank you so much for coming on. Thank you, Eric.
Ken: And we
Kirk: are back. Okay, so I’m not gonna go straight to the secret. We’re not gonna spoil the secret immediately. No. I have to know. How do you know, Ken? This is, we’ve had a lot of great guests on this podcast. This was a total flex. This
Ken: is such a flex.
Like, oh my
Eric: gosh. This is, what’s a flex. Are you hanging out with young people, younger than yourselves? What does
Ken: does that mean? This is, this is the coolest job. The
Kirk: coolest person. One of the greatest cities in the world, you know? Would you say that my my comparison group is the Proto in
Ken: the middle of the move,
Kirk: is Rare Air. This is Rare Air. So how do you know Ken? How do you
Eric: know Ken? Ken and I were on the board of the communications Network together. Ah, and Ken proved to be the most irreverent, witty. Articulate, creative and just fun board member and really kind of human that I’ve ever had the good fortune to encounter.
He is such a fun guy. Anytime, anytime I go to New York, I call him up and he’d walk, walk me through the galleries and he would show me like, here’s this poster I spent. Two years dealing with the curator on this poster to get, because they wanted to, you know, so here’s a guy, . He goes from, you know, the costume gala and managing the Sackler name to the minutia of making sure that the poster was right, because we wanted to be able to promote and market this exhibition in the right way that.
Do the things that we wanted to do for it. So like that’s the level of detail. He gets into , I mean Unbeliev, and then I tell you all the fact stories and like, oh, there’s unbelievable just the bees knees that Ken win. Well,
Kirk: you, you opened up and said, so is this the best and the worst job? At the same time?
It, I was thinking, this is such a, be careful what you wish for. You might just get it kind of a job, right? Yes.
Eric: I mean, what a huge job. And so now I will get, I will tell you the. I didn’t tell you in the intro is that what Ken couldn’t tell me when we were recording this episode was that the, the Secret Service had just called oh my, and the president of the United States of America, him wanted to come to the memorial service.
For Secretary of State, Anthony Lincoln’s father. Oh wow. Who was a donor to the museum and I think there’s a blinken wing. He wanted to, the president wanted to come to the memorial service and so it was of course super duper hush hu top secret. So he couldn’t tell me this. He told me that after, afterwards, but that’s what he was, his own brain was spinning about how are we going to manage this, oh man.
Event with the president, and it was not on the president. Calendar. So it was something he was just gonna dip into, attend and leave. Of course, it made the news afterwards, but that’s the level of complexity that he has to deal with on, on any given day. He has no idea if the president is gonna wanna show up at his
Well, so this is the personality part, and you talked about that in terms of the MET Gala and how they, you know, how that, that, that connects with the content. The Met is putting forward in terms of its different exhibits. But you said, he said something almost in passing. I felt that put such a rich question on the table.
So he talked about the goalposts for what is culturally and legally appropriate to share or do. Yeah, and And I was thinking, oh my goodness. Eric has taken us at a very interesting time. Write smack dab into the middle of a conversation about what is free speech. with one of the people that’s responsible for integrating what we think of that meaning and sharing it in the most simultaneously persuasive, compelling, and also sensitive way possible.
Ken: doing. Nobel prize level thinking
Kirk: every day about how to, about how to balance this. So, sure. So I have a question for you, Eric. What does free speech mean when it comes to an institution like
Eric: the Met? Oh, that’s an interesting, that’s a very interesting question. Maybe, well, Ken was the, Ken’s the lawyer, so he, he’d have a legal definition.
But I also think that we’ve begun to incorporate a social definition of free is my, my right to, what is it? I can’t remember exactly what it is, but like my right to use my hand until it hits you in the face, you know, , it’s, it’s that free speech is an absolute. And free speech affects other people. So on the one hand, let’s just say it is really important for people to be able to articulate their feelings around cultural ownership and appropriation.
So is long past time where you can go into somebody else’s country, take all their stuff and put it on your wall and say, Ooh, I got it. That’s okay. Look what I found. That’s right. And so it’s kind of, and, and this is art that more people can see. And so therefore there’s some kind of. Openness about that.
That’s what, that was the argument for why the British Museum could, could keep the Elgin, the so-called Elgin marbles, which are the freezes that are at the top of the in, in the Acropolis, in, in in Athens at the parking lot. And, and keep it because they said, oh, it’s gonna deteriorate over there. So this gives, it gives more access to more people and so on.
And of course people are realizing that that. Crap. So that’s on the one hand this, this notion that we have to begin to return. Artifacts that were acquired under hazy circumstances. That’s one. Two, that somebody doesn’t have the right to put their name on your gallery if maybe they did bad things.
That’s two mm. And then the third is that nobody has the right to throw soup on your painting , that’s three . And if people want, you know, free speech stops where the, where the soup hits the painting. So yeah. And, and so that’s the other part that they’re trying to, to deal with because people understand.
Context of great art and that you will, your message will get out if you situate yourself next to it. And that it gives you the op, it gives you a platform, but what it doesn’t give you, I think, and I think Ken will probably agree with me, is the right to throw so at it. Yeah. And so, so there are all these things that, that these institutions, because they are touchstones for thought and beauty.
And how societies function. There are these incredible historical places for, you know, teaching of history that it all comes together at the Met. Totally. You know, and he said people were protesting about the Iranian. About what was happening in Iran at the Met. And he was like, we don’t have any Iran, you know this.
That was not our area, but it’s the Met and yeah, it’s, it’s the place where people go to express themselves. And he says, like, to bring people to the art and art to the people, which I think is a really cool way of thinking about your job. So, wow. Wow. What a, what a great and crazy and interesting job. And then of course, he’s also checking how many people are coming through the turnstiles every hour on the.
Kirk: that was amazing too, getting that email, so right. This notion that he surfaced in such a profound way, the notion of a museum being backward looking is such the wrong way to think about it. Right. This, the, the Met is the place where our culture aggressively. Revisits itself daily, right? Like, like, like the, like these exhibitions, how they’re curated.
We’re bringing into context all of the convers, the cutting edge conversations about how we’re viewing ourselves today, and that that context is shifting day by day. And so here you’ve got this job of being in the, the communications center piece of all that, how challenging that is. It’s funny, so he talked about he’s in having this great moment where he.
Rolled out the date concept. Yeah, yeah. Date night at the Met. It is getting, I love it. Date night at the Met and it made me think and there, there, I wonder if there’s a way to do this cuz this notion that the Met is a great platform to surface protest. I wonder if there would be a way to authentically with the right kind of Respect to create protest night at the moment, right.
To actually say, this is part of our job is to create a platform for protests, so let’s, let’s curate, you know, let’s curate what protests could look like and let’s actually extend that as part of our, because you know, back to that notion about what is free speech and that notion of like what is culturally and legally appropriate to do that seems so.
Challenging because part of me thinks, well, okay, you have the whole question of what can you even display? You know, what are the terms of, of how you came into pos, possession of what you’re curating and all the context that has shifted around that. But then how you introduce people to. Parts of our history that are ugly, horrible, awful.
You know, what lens, what filter do you put on that? Do you, do you just intentionally challenge our perceptions by saying, actually back in the, you know, when this was reality, nobody thought anything about it, you know, or do you put our own, you know, kind of lens around what, how we view it today? That just, and so, so this was the other thing he was talking about.
These curators may do three shows. In their entire career. So you’re, you’re our arts person. This is like Broadway meets, I don’t know what Oscar night meets like. Like it’s the most rarefied air for creativity maybe on the planet. Right. Except for that two other institutions. I don’t know the job of curating one of these exhibitions that takes a decade.
I just, it’s beyond comprehension to me how you would, how you would actually pull that off. Okay. First, I gotta
Eric: get back to your protest night at the Met. I think Ken is gonna come to your house and throw soup at it. . Yeah. For suggesting that. I will put a
Kirk: picture of myself on my fence and he could just deface my
Ken: picture with so’s and
Eric: he’s gonna protest you.
But , either that, or you could, you could hold protest. Night at the met at their annex in Staten Island. Yeah, right. Please come to Staten Island. Take the ferry. Have a day, right? No, no. Well, I mean, it’s a legitimate question. Where did the yard come from? Is it, is it kosher to have it? What do you do with it?
Do you borrow it? Do you give it back? Do you, all that kind of stuff. I think that those are very important questions. And then this notion that the That they’re taking the na, you know, the Sackler name of the Sackler wing, which is, is quite interesting because again, if the organization is associated with activities that, that the Met doesn’t approve of or, or has finally kind of de de disclaimed, that’s, that’s a statement in itself.
So whi which gets back to my other point that I made with Ken, kind of vaguely at the end, which is that you’re using communications to program. The experience and kind of shape the conversation. I think that’s exactly true. Without an extremely deft, I mean like a really, really def communications person at a museum like that, you can cause all kinds of problems.
You can have the wrong kinds of conversations and you can, and the work. It suffers as a result of it. So that’s, that’s where all you communications folks out there, you have the opportunity to shape your organizations, whether it’s an art museum or. Or a, or environmental organization or a health organ or anything.
Yeah. Because of how people relate and, and talk about the work that you’re doing, you have such an important role in shaping that and I think that’s the genius of, that’s the genius of our field, honestly. And that’s why it’s so cool to see what he’s been able to. In a relatively short time, but, oh, and then the last, sorry, the last thing.
This notion that there are, you have one show every 10 years and there are 43 exhibitions going on in a given year, and everybody wants you to focus on their thing. That feels like one of those weird kind of, I don’t know, existential rubs, QB usher diagram. Grammy mind benders.
Kirk: Yeah. Well, and you know, the, You talk about is, I, I always love it when you get into the background, you know, what brought you into this field and, and his background as a community organizer and a lawyer.
What an interesting set of skills to bring to this. Task that he’s at the center of. But I did love that when you talked about the 43 shows and he said, how many organizations might share this sensibility? We have too much content. , we cannot call the New York Times every other week. And I’m sure even today he gets, you know, the door knocking, the phone ringing, Hey, you know, actually what, how he pitching?
That’s how he positioning this. And he started to talk about, you know, we actually want to emphasize the experience as opposed to maybe. Particular exhibits, but what a great expression of this. And you know, it kind of actually broke my heart a little bit. When you taught, when he talked about the Cleveland Plain dealer used to send a reporter to cover, right.
You know, like openings and they would have these traditional. Old school, mainstream outlets, Rome, all over the country. Could you imagine that journalists getting, however they get to New York, doing that, covering that coming back, that being in the Cleveland Plain dealer, people are starting to plan trips and travel around that and what does he say?
He says, New York News Day doesn’t matter. TikTok
Eric: matters. , like I just had conjured up these images of these curators. You know, they’re bow ties and they’re suspenders doing like a little TikTok dance .
Ken: Yeah, totally.
Kirk: So we get to your 20 minute moment, the classic moment where Eric really goes there. And so first we get the discussion about date night at the Met, which is again, Good for you, Ken.
Like just genius. You know? Let’s think about ways to refresh how we’re doing the work. And then he offers these two little tidbits that I think are actually like things we should think about in our lives. So number one, you need to have a key passion project to keep going. And wow, did that land for me?
You know, you can do all these different things, but what’s the passion project? What’s the thing that’s really connecting to you, to
Eric: the work? You know, what’s not my passion project? What the podcast. Oh, come
Kirk: on. Come on. It’s great. Come on. You just had
Eric: a great conversation with Ken. It’s gotta be your project.
I just kidding. Is a fashion project. I made you put the mic though, so that was good.
Kirk: Okay, so that, that this is, this is, this is the great philosophical statement of all time. What is it best? Do you want good weather? Our bad weather? and . It’s
Ken: like, I was like, oh, wow, all
Kirk: communications professionals. We want this.
We want moderately bad weather. , that’s, that’s
Eric: what it works best for us. Vague glue is excellent for business.
Kirk: Right? Exactly.
Eric: Exactly. Well, you know, it’s, it’s true when people have clients or colleagues or whomever, When they say, oh my God, we have this huge crisis at work. My response to them is, well, you’re the comps person.
That’s good for business . Yeah, right, exactly. That’s what they pay you to do,
Kirk: my friend. That’s right. That’s right. The last thing before we go, and again Eric, this is so great, and Ken, thank you so much for coming to let here and talk, talking about your work, but. You know, it’s really interesting. The last thing that Ken talked about as their primary com competition is people in their pajamas in front of Netflix.
Yeah. And not wanting to leave their houses. And, and it just struck me again, back to this notion of the Mets, where this sort of. Social cultural conversation is coming together and trying to provide the most inclusive, most inviting, most accommodating space for people of all sensibilities to come together and just see each other and share the experience of, of, of seeing whatever’s to be seen real time that this project that Ken is involved with to get people outta their houses.
Into a positive conversation around culture. This gets me back to what I wish our headlines were dominated by, right? I wish I was seeing daily reminders of what Ken is doing at The Met, rather than the stuff I’m reading about some of our social media giants and what they happen to be doing. You know, blocks from where you live, right?
I mean, are you telling me
Eric: they’re doing bad things? I’m
Kirk: you, they’re doing disheartening things, . I’m telling you, I’m telling you, it’s, it’s, it’s a little bit soul crushing. And yet here’s Ken, here’s Ken. Just doing this work day after day of building this place where people can come and have positive experiences and, and man, I mean, this is actually the most vital kind of work you could possibly be doing.
So it’s an interesting observation too, in the midst of this whole social media. Thing and how it’s playing itself out, that these opportunities to come back together to gather in person and be part of something positive. It’s just some of the most important work I think we can do. I mean, what do you think
Eric: about that?
Well, you’re right. You, yes, and I’m of course very flip about Twitter and social media and. All that other stuff. But here is a man who’s, who’s going to give you two for one drinks and hire a jazz combo so that you can take in great art and pay what you want. , that’s his answer to the disconnection and the lack of, of Yeah.
You know. M experience that we’re supposed to be having as compared to the crazy people out there who are doing whatever they can to drive us apart to, to let us fight. So that’s like, that’s a good job. But it’s also what, you know, that’s some real creativity. Yeah. So I totally agree. We have to find, and I, I guess again, I always try and come away with a lesson that we can.
Take from our any guest, which is that if you’re in a communications position, you have the opportunity to apply that level of creativity to your job no matter what it is or what issue you’re working on. Absolutely. And that’s, that’s the lesson I take away from Ken, first
Kirk: and foremost. Absolutely. Well, Ken Wine on, let’s hear.
What a treat. Eric, thank you so much for that guest. Thank you so much for that conversation. It was awesome to be able to listen in on that. So thank you so much. That was,
Eric: So much fun.
Kirk: Okay, everybody, that’s it for this episode. Please let us know if you have any thoughts about what you heard today or people we should have on this show, and that definitely includes yourself.
And we’d like to
Eric: thank John Beltran, our enthusiastic production assistant, John
Kirk: Ali, the tuneful and inspiring composer
Ken: of our
Eric: theme. Our sponsors, the Communications Network and the Lumina Foundation, and
Kirk: please check out Lumina’s terrific podcast, today’s students tomorrow’s talent, and you can find firstname.lastname@example.org.
Eric: certainly thank today’s guest and of course, all of
Kirk: you, and most importantly, thank you, Mr.
Eric: Oh, no, no, no, no. Thank you,
Kirk: Mr. Brown. Okay, everybody tell next time, let’s hear
Okay. Everybody, that’s it for this episode, please let us know if you have any thoughts about what you heard today or people we shouldn’t have in the show. And that definitely includes yourself and we’d like to
Eric: thanks to Jon Beltrano, our enthusiastic production assistant
Kirk: John Allee, the tuneful and inspiring composer, our theme music,
Eric: our sponsors, the communications network, and the Lumina foundation.
Kirk: please check out Lumina’s terrific podcast. Today’s students tomorrow’s talent, and you can find email@example.com,
Eric: we certainly thank today’s guest. And of course,
Kirk: all of you and most important. Thank you, Mr. Brown,
Eric: Mr. Brown,
Kirk: till next time.