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The Agony in the Garden

Was it in the garden, also as I say, that the Metropolitan Museum had struck me as standing?… Sufficient to the situation is the appearance, represented by its announcing shadow; that Acquisition—acquisition if need be on the highest terms—may during the years to come, bask here in a climate it has never before enjoyed…. There was money in the air, ever so much money—that was, grossly expressed, the sense of the whole intimation. And the money was to be for all the most exquisite things—all the most exquisite things except creation, which was to be put off the scene altogether; for art, criticism, selection, for knowledge, piety, taste.”

—Henry James comes upon Richard Morris Hunt’s new Metropolitan Museum
of Art, 1905. (The American Scene)

We have been probing beyond the white middle-class liberáls who yell decentralization. Decentralization is mostly a cover-up for the rabid park person who doesn’t want us to build on our own property.”

—Thomas P.F. Hoving, Director of the Metropolitan Museum, on its plan
to expand into Central Park, as recorded in The New York Times, April 13. (Emphasis added)

Not since Thomas Hoving has New York City had a Parks Commissioner who could have resisted the imperial pretensions of the Metropolitan Museum of Art with that high disregard for candor and courtesy, that alacrity for arms, conspiracies, spies, and ambushes which he asserted.

For Hoving, to draw the sword is to throw away the scabbard. But August Heckscher, his successor as Parks Commissioner, lacks even that vanity which equips a man with at least the illusion that he has a sword. The Metropolitan’s plan to spend $50 million to increase its existing establishment a third again in size is thus being disputed with every advantage on its side: the Museum has most of the weapons and the only commander in the field with the temperament that shrinks from neither boldness nor stealth whenever each suggests its proper occasion to him.

That temperament can be recognized at its highest pitch when Hoving asserts that the Metropolitan wants only “to build on our own property.” Central Park is not, of course, the Metropolitan’s property; even the Museum’s building does not belong to it, having been constructed—except for the American Wing—entirely with City funds. Its own lawyers have never disputed the Parks Department’s status as landlord and never claimed more than a right to build within the boundaries prescribed for the Museum in the state legislature’s 1878 grant of space in Central Park. Hoving’s statement is therefore evidence of nothing except his achievement of the fighting pitch which enables a partisan to feel something that he knows is not true. Yet the Parks Commissioner made no public objection to this claim of Hoving; poor Heckscher is too agreeable and pleasant to stand up even for such perquisites as he has.

The muster against the Museum’s expansion plan is especially disabled because it lacks a Parks Commissioner with the vanity to assert perquisites he does not have. The governance of New York City results less from any broad public opinion than from a series of unequal tugs between the proprietors of some great private interest and the persons who turn out to picket them. The balance is too uneven to be even remotely redressed except by the intervention of some public official swollen enough with his title to be deluded that it conveys authority.

Hoving himself, in one of those moments when he charms the beholder even more than he makes him uneasy, recently observed that the mayors of New York whose memories are most agreeable to him have all been condottieri. The mark of the condottiere is an active appetite for prerogatives not indisputably his own. Hoving’s frequent display of that appetite characterized his own years as a “rabid park person” and did much for his achievements as the most conspicuous and probably the most useful commissioner Mayor Lindsay has ever had. A City official needs an inflated opinion of the authority of his office if his tenure is to be noticeable for occasions other than those of embarrassment. New York’s great private interests govern themselves with the consent of the governors and according to regulations written by the regulated. The legal powers remaining to public bodies after such accommodations were acutely defined by Sophy Burnham, the art journalist, while testifying against the Metropolitan’s expansion plan before the City Landmarks Commission.

By a remarkable set of coincidences [Mrs. Burnham said], there is no one in the city who is able, it seems, to question the plan, the concept. Not the Arts Commission which can only judge the design. That Commission has nine members—four of them, counting the Mayor, are trustees of the Museum. Not the Parks Commissioner, who is under considerable pressure from the Mayor, for whom the museum director campaigned….

Indeed, not even the trustees of the Museum have approved the plan…. And the Museum denies the jurisdiction of the Board of Estimate…. No estimates of operating cost are being circulated.

But cost is not a problem of the Landmarks Commission either, which is only to judge whether the plan fulfills the terms of the Museum’s landmark status. There is a certain irony in the fact that the city “owns” the building—and yet has no jurisdiction over the overall plan.

The few public hearings on detail that are the only point of assault for the expansion plan’s opponents are, in essence, nullities, since there is absent as splendid an official demagogue as Hoving might have been in their cause; and there are present only municipal servants resigned to letting the Metropolitan do what it wants and moved to feeble protest only when Hoving goes about the business without the grace to conceal his and their knowledge that they are helpless against him.

The proposed new Metropolitan would encompass an area larger than that of the Louvre. There would be three major additions: the first-century B.C. Temple of Dendur, the gift of Presidents Nasser and Johnson; the Michael Rockefeller Collection of Primitive and Oceanic Art, the gift, except for construction costs, of the Governor; and the Robert Lehman Wing, “the most important private collection of European drawings ever assembled in the Western Hemisphere.”1

Only the Lehman Wing will encroach on natural parkland. The Metropolitan has promised that the 38,000 square feet of grass lost there will be more than restored through new planting after alterations and there will be a total gain of 53,700 square feet for park use when the master plan is complete.2

The opposition to this project comes from a disparate group of persons responding to intimations other than those of Acquisition; it ranges from the “park people,” who are more concerned about works of nature than of art, to the “Art Workers’ Coalition,” which can often sound more concerned with war and racism than with either art or nature. These different elements are held together by a common passionate doubt whether the Museum’s trustees have ever cared about basic public issues or whether their Director lately has; they do not; in short, trust the Metropolitan.

The reasons for such animus become clear in any review of Hoving’s conduct of the affair:

1. Last February, when the master plan was fixed in his mind, Hoving asked the City’s attorneys to rule that, since the Museum was building the Lehman Wing with its own funds and within the boundaries of its 1878 lease, it need not even ask the approval of the Parks Commissioner. His legate in these dealings was Herbert Brownell, Mayor Lindsay’s oldest political patron. Hoving is not vain enough to share Mrs. Burnham’s assessment of the Mayor’s gratitude to him personally, but he did not need much to depend on it. The Metropolitan, whatever gaps its collections might otherwise suffer, has a gallery of lawyers weak only in the primitives; and Brownell was the perfect object for exhibition. The Corporation Counsel duly, if informally, agreed with Brownell that no law inhibited the Museum from building without asking for approval.

2. About that time, Parks Commissioner Heckscher was becoming faintly aroused in what serves him as the insolence of office, largely because his assistants had complained that Hoving had gone to the Bureau of the Budget without consulting the Parks Department and gotten $15,000 more than his original allotment of city funds to help finance the transportation of the Dendur Temple to the Museum. Once Hoving could start getting money budgeted for the City Bureau of Cultural Affairs without asking that bureau, its director warned Heckscher, the Parks Department would end up as “the caboose of a long train of events we have not been party to.”

3. Alarmed, Heckscher went to see Hoving. On February 16, he wrote the Mayor that he had told Hoving that he would have to see the whole master plan before transmitting the Lehman Wing plan to the Arts Commission with his endorsement.

Tom Hoving has rather grudgingly acceded to this position [Heckscher’s letter continued]. This means that the whole plan will be made public and subject to discussion. I am convinced that the museum…will be able to make a clear case for a program which will greatly increase its value and will involve building mostly over existing parking spaces.

4. But Hoving’s acceptance of the prospect of public discussion had not been merely grudging, it had not been acceptance at all. On February 20, Marmon Goldstone, chairman of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, wrote the Museum that, after the necessary preliminaries, his group would schedule “a public hearing on the appropriateness of the design.”

At once Hoving asked Goldstone to meet with him. Afterward, Goldstone recorded their discussion in his office diary:

Hoving annoyed by my letter. I told him public hearing was optional and that it was my decision…after learning of opposition which he minimized. Said he was getting ruling from [Corporation Counsel] as to rights to expand as proposed…. He disagreed on my view that a public hearing was desirable…[and said] that certainly nothing could be done until he has [the Corporation Counsel’s] ruling. I told him…that Mayor might consider it of sufficient importance for policy airing, after which objections can be answered. He disagreed and threatened that Lehman Wing might go to National Gallery.

5. But Brownell, as the Metropolitan’s lawyer, already was about to surrender the Museum’s claim of immunity even from small inconveniences. He and Heckscher met in the Parks Commissioner’s office on February 24 and Heckscher explained that, however the Corporation Counsel ruled, the Parks Commission must insist there be no precedent for the Museum to proceed without its approval and thus “do with private funds what it could not do with public funds.”

Mr. Brownell agreed with me,” Heckscher wrote the Corporation Counsel on February 24, “that it would certainly be wise for the Museum to return to this [the Parks] Department for a permit before actual construction could begin.”

  1. 1

    That characterization covers an area beyond any claim of competence of mine. Still it ought to be noticed as an instance of that grandiloquence which regularly leads the Metropolitan into flat assertions on matters that are hardly indisputable. The Lehman collection is very fine; but is it more important than the Walters, the Mellon, or even the Morgan and the Gardner? An institution which claims to have acquired the most important private collection in the history of the Americas hardly proves it by boasting that it now owns a Giovanni Di Paolo. But the Metropolitan’s reach of pretension is quite beyond patience. What it thinks of itself is fairly summarized in Calvin Tomkins’s Merchants and Masterpieces (Dutton), a history which is inspired by the centennial and, while not official, faithfully repeats the in-institution’s litany to itself:

    By 1933 [Tomkins asserts], the Metropolitan’s collection of paintings…now held its own with all but the Louvre and one or two others.

    What are we to suppose the “one or two others” to be—the National Gallery in London, the Uffizi, the Accademia in Venice, the Prado, and so on, until it becomes not easy to decide against the Borghese Gallery in Rome?

    It would be nonsense to undervalue the Metropolitan in redressing its overvaluation of itself; still, when you set aside the late nineteenth-century French paintings, admittedly no small omission, its painting collection is barely, to use Hoving’s jaunty way of talking about these things, of “world class.” To take the Italians alone, they list two Titians, three Paolo Veroneses, a Peruginesque Raphael, cramped and angular Botticellis from that unfortunate period just before his seizure by Savaranola, one muddy Caravaggio, one Cimabue, no Piero, two Correggios as I recall, and, of course, no Michelangelo or Leonardo. You can be grateful for what is left and still feel—to take an example without even having to leave the City—that there is, in the Metropolitan Collection, no Italian painting with the power of the Bellini St. Francis in the Frick.

    Hoving’s taste would hardly deserve the respect it does if you did not suspect the unspeakable torment he would endure if he were offered a trade of the entire contents of the Metropolitan just for the works on view in the city of Padua.

  2. 2

    Since then, Hoving has told the Landmarks Commission that

    …although the new construction will use 38,000 feet of existing green space, a combination of the added grassy style areas…will open up a total of 73,000 square feet of new green landscape areas for public enjoyment.

    Has he achieved this figure before or after deducting the park’s loss to the Lehman Wing? If before, he has deflated the Museum’s promise of net gain for parkland by 17,000 square feet; if after, he has increased it by 20,000 square feet. His temperament would suggest the latter; but on what showing it is hard to guess. The original promise of 53,000 new square feet was not overpoweringly persuasive as it stood, since the Museum’s illustrative maps showed its existing service roads among the areas to be grassed over and indicated no replacement for them, an omission which does not seem practical for an institution a third larger than before.

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