Seven years after announcing ambitious plans to rebuild its wing for modern and contemporary art – which later had to be suspended due to financial problems – the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced on Tuesday that it had finally secured a main grant of $ 125 million dollars, the largest capital donation in its history, from longtime trustee Oscar L. Tang and his wife, Agnes Hsu-Tang, archaeologist and art historian. The wing will bear their name for at least 50 years.
“It comes from inside the Met,” museum director Max Hollein said in a telephone interview. “It shows the confidence the museum has in this very important project.”
With their donation, the Tang join a rarefied group of philanthropists who have made groundbreaking donations of $ 100 million or more to fund cultural building projects (and secure naming rights). These include oil and gas billionaire David H. Koch, benefactor of the New York City Ballet’s refurbished Lincoln Center home, in 2008; private equity billionaire Stephen A. Schwarzman, for the New York Public Library, in 2008, and a new cultural center at Yale, in 2015; and entertainment mogul David Geffen, whose 2015 gift was dedicated to the gut renovation of the former Avery Fisher Hall.
The donation represents a significant leap forward for the Met project, which is now expected to cost around $ 500 million and provides for the creation of 80,000 square feet of galleries and public spaces with an architect to be announced this winter. An earlier design by David Chipperfield had inflated the price up to $ 800 million.
While the Met has yet to collect the rest of the money, Daniel H. Weiss, president and CEO of the museum, said “we’re not worried.”
“We know what it will cost more or less to build it, to staff it,” he continued. “Our finances are very stable.
The museum, which predicted a $ 150 million shortfall last year due to the pandemic, has responded by raising funds, cutting spending and reallocating costs. The Met also took advantage of a two-year window during which professional guidelines were relaxed to allow museums to sell works of art to help cover operating expenses.
Weiss said the museum has not yet determined whether it will seek funds for the project from the city, which owns its land and building.
Tang, the first Asian American to join the Met’s board 30 years ago, said he was moved to support the museum’s efforts to upgrade the Lila Acheson Wallace wing in the shape of a maze and misconfigured, which has been seen as problematic since it was first completed in 1987.
“The Met has a special opportunity to be much more global in the modern and contemporary context,” Tang said in a telephone interview. “In the field of art, there hasn’t been enough attention to this subject. We wanted to help the museum move in that direction, beyond the western cannon.
Although Tang, 83, and Hsu-Tang, 50, did not put conditions on their donation, both said they were encouraged by Hollein’s inclusive approach to art. “The new director is oriented this way,” Tang said.
Finally, the new wing will house the significant 2013 donation of 79 cubist paintings, drawings and sculptures by philanthropist and cosmetics tycoon Leonard A. Lauder.
Some have questioned why the Met needs to improve its modern and contemporary game, given that the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, and the Guggenheim have covered the territory well. But the Met isn’t just encyclopedic, the Tang said; it is ideally placed to present a narrative of interconnected periods and disciplines. “It is the only museum that can tell the holistic story of humanity beyond these demarcations,” Hsu-Tang said. “Art is a visual story.”
The Met had initially hoped to complete the project when it occupied the former Whitney – then called the Met Breuer – on Madison Avenue. But its eight-year lease on the Breuer has expired, and that building is now used by the Frick Collection, which is renovating its own headquarters on Fifth Avenue.
The wing’s delay had been attributed in part to the Met’s apparent inability to come up with a major primary donation, a theory former museum director Thomas P. Campbell denied during his tenure. The museum has also been criticized for announcing the new wing before raising funds for it, a flaw Hollein corrected this week. “We’re not going to announce a project or an architect and then start raising money,” he said. “We have a significant amount of money on hand.”
Since becoming director in 2018, Hollein has said he has updated the Wing Project to encourage interdisciplinary work among the Met’s 17 curatorial departments. The museum has also made clear its commitment to include more women artists and artists of color, which will be reflected in the programming of the new wing.
In line with an ongoing movement in museums across the country – notably MoMA, which reopened in 2019 after a major overhaul – the physical organization of the new wing will reflect a multiplicity of perspectives, moving away from the traditional linear narrative of the history of art.
Tang in the past has mainly supported the Asian department of the Met; his earliest art gifts include 20 significant Chinese paintings from the 11th to 18th centuries. He also donated a hanging scroll from the Song dynasty, “Riverbank,” which the Met attributes to 10th-century artist Dong Yuan, although the authenticity has been disputed.
Now retired, Tang co-founded asset management firm Reich & Tang in 1970 in New York City. After the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing in 1989, he partnered with architect IM Pei, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and others to create the Committee of 100, a China-US leadership organization for advance the dialogue between the United States and China.
Born in Shanghai, Tang was sent to school in the United States at the age of 11, after his family fled China for Hong Kong during the Communist Revolution of 1948. He attended Phillips Academy in Andover , Massachusetts, Yale University and Harvard Business School, the third generation in his family to study in the United States.
Tang is also co-chair of the New York Philharmonic. In early 2021, he and his wife founded the Yellow Whistle campaign to fight historic discrimination and anti-Asian violence, which distributed 500,000 free yellow whistles bearing the slogan “We Belong”. The couple married in 2013; Tang was a widower and his second marriage ended in divorce.
Hsu ‐ Tang, Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, is a former Mellon Fellow at Cambridge and Stanford. She has advised UNESCO in Paris as well as the Advisory Committee on Cultural Property of President Barack Obama, and has worked on the protection and rescue of international cultural heritage since 2006.
She is also president-elect of the board of directors of the New-York Historical Society and former executive director of the board of directors of the Met Opera.
Tang said he’s keenly aware of the power of a Met Wing named after an Asian couple. “This country has been good for me – good for both of us,” he said. “And we want to make our mark on it.”