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A dream job for Haverford College's art lover

When Haverford College president Dan Weiss begins his new job at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City this summer, he won't be able to see his favorite work of art.

Haverford College president Dan Weiss takes over at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this summer. (Elizabeth Robertson / Staff Photographer)
Haverford College president Dan Weiss takes over at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this summer. (Elizabeth Robertson / Staff Photographer)Read more

When Haverford College president Dan Weiss begins his new job at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City this summer, he won't be able to see his favorite work of art.

Known informally as the "Baker Dancer," the small, bronze statue, dating to ancient Greece, is on loan to the British Museum.

Not to be deterred, Weiss took a visitor last week to the gift shop to see a replica of the statue, which takes its name from its donor, Walter C. Baker.

Her figure is ample, her face is wrapped in a veil she draws close to her face. She seems to be twirling.

"You can almost hear the music that she's dancing to," Weiss said, whimsically. "It's an incredibly innovative and captivating image."

After decades in higher education, Weiss, 57, has landed his dream job. He takes over this summer as president of the Met, a fitting post for a medieval art historian with an M.B.A., who visited the museum as a youngster and, as a professor, has taken all of his art students for visits there.

He's been there hundreds of times. When he steps through its doors, it's as if he is visiting old friends.

"I could not imagine a more exciting, career-culminating experience," he said.

The 2.2 million-square-foot edifice, one of New York's most iconic, with its high ceilings and imposing columns, is a repository for more than 1.5 million priceless pieces of art, spanning more than 5,000 years. At the edge of Central Park along Fifth Avenue, between 80th and 84th Streets, the museum captivates visitors from the moment they enter the Great Hall with its dramatic arches, saucer-shaped domes, and marble floor.

The first place he showed a visitor was the Leon Levy and Shelby White Court, a room full of Greek and Roman limestone and marble sculptures, painted vases, and bronzes, illuminated by skylights.

"It's the most beautiful setting for displaying classical art that I've seen anywhere," Weiss said.

Yet, it once was used as a cafeteria. "Crazy," he said. "You could get your green beans and eat here."

He pointed to a balcony overlooking the room.

"That's a real chariot from the ancient world, 500 B.C. You don't see those everywhere."

Weiss' favorite art period came right before the classical age, when artists were just beginning to figure out how to show a three-dimensional figure moving through space. He pointed to Statue of a kouros, a young man from 590-580 B.C., another of his favorites.

"It gives us a glimpse into a culture that's just about to explode in terms of its creativity," he said.

Weiss isn't an artist himself. Can't draw. Can't paint.

But he's had a lifelong connection to art and museums; he once took Alec Baldwin to the National Gallery to look at Rembrandts when they were students at George Washington University.

His earliest exposure came through his father, who painted in the Impressionist style. His parents were divorced, and he would visit his father, a businessman living in Brazil and Puerto Rico, and marvel at his paintings.

"One of my favorites in the world was a street scene in Paris, which reminds me of that time I had with him," he said. "When I was named college president, he gave it to me, and I've had it on my office wall ever since, and it will hang in my office at the Met. I love that idea - he has since died - his picture hanging on the wall in my office at the Met."

In a freshman composition class at GW, he decided to write about a Renoir - Girl With a Watering Can.

"It was dreadfully written," he said. "I got a D, but I was drawn to writing about art."

Sophomore year, he enrolled in an art history class because he had a mad crush on a girl who was taking it.

Love bloomed - for the art and the girl.

"I've since married her, and I've been married 35 years," he said.

And the professor, a medievalist, inspired his love of art history.

"He was this young, very charismatic, compelling teacher," who also taught him how to write, Weiss said.

Weiss and the professor, Jeffrey Anderson, have stayed in touch and plan to meet next month in Chicago. When Anderson, now retired, read about Weiss' Met job, he said: "I felt great joy and pride."

Weiss went on to get a master's in art history from Johns Hopkins and then an M.B.A. at Yale, thinking he would work in a museum. But after Yale, he was hired at a management consulting firm where he stayed for four years. He returned to Johns Hopkins for his doctorate and was hired as a professor there. Thus began his academic trajectory. He became department head, then dean, then a president, first at Lafayette College in Easton then at Haverford.

In February, he was giving a lecture at Haverford when his phone rang. The Met job was his.

"It is so perfect for Dan," said his wife, Sandra Jarva Weiss, a lawyer. "These opportunities only come along once in a lifetime."

In his new role, he hopes to increase access to the museum, which already draws 6.2 million visitors a year, employs 2,500, and runs on a $325 million budget and $3 billion endowment.

"We want to make it feel like it's everyone's museum," he said.

At the Met, president isn't the top job. He'll oversee operations and external relations and report to the director.

Weiss will be back at the Met this week; he's taking his class of Haverford students, something he had planned before he got the job.

He may show the students a spacious wing that houses the Egyptian Temple of Dendur from 15 B.C., brought to the Met when the work faced destruction. Jacqueline Kennedy, on behalf of the United States, chose the temple from among five that would have been submerged by the building of the Aswân Dam. Her apartment across Fifth Avenue looked down on the wing's long, glass curtain wall.

"It was a nice neighborhood improvement for everybody," Weiss said.

He waits for the Baker Dancer. She'll be back from London in August.

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