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.”

6. Heckscher had also asked the Museum to “take some definite step to improve its services to other boroughs” before submitting the master plan. Now he was emboldened to pursue this hope from a bargaining position vaguely improved by Brownell’s agreement over the wisdom of the Museum’s being polite to public agencies. On April 9 Heckscher expressed to the Museum’s president, Douglas Dillon, his gratification at the appointment of a trustees’ committee to “consider and implement” what he hoped would be the Museum’s “determination to extend its services into the outlying boroughs.”

This decentralization committee’s chairman is Richard Perkins, a partner in the stockbroking firm of Harris Upham and Company. It labored for six weeks and to no one’s surprise, came up with a recommendation that the Museum do not much more than it is currently doing and that it should, incidentally, ask the New York State Council on the Arts for $250,000 to help do it.

The argument for decentralizing the Museum, while not urged by Heckscher, has been aroused in other quarters by the prospect that two fair-sized museums—the Rockefeller and the Lehman—will now be brought into what is already an exceedingly large one. The argument against this imperial design has already been well made by Mrs. Gabriella Canfield in these pages [NYR, July 23]. Neither her philosophical argument against the plan, nor Hoving’s for it, will be extended here. The argument for is anything but philosophical, being based on the vanity of patrons: “Bobby Lehman wouldn’t have given his collection to be put in the Bronx,” Hoving has said. (Mrs. Canfield and her friends, of course, insist neither on the Bronx nor on any other specific location; it simply seems to them absurd that the new acquisitions should all be added to an already huge museum on 81st Street and not shared by other neighborhoods in the city.)

When it was suggested that the Temple of Dendur might be more evocative on the Hudson, Nora Scott, the Museum’s associate curator for Egyptian art, invoked the dictates of two other patrons, Presidents Nasser and Johnson:

When the Temple was awarded us, we undertook to meet [certain] demands…and, if we don’t honor them, we lose the Temple. It is as simple as that. It is either erected on the north parking lot or it leaves the city. It is not a case of being on the banks of the Hudson. It is where we said we were putting it or it leaves the city.

Hoving has said, in plain good sense, that decentralization quite aside, the Museum is not going to do anything new for the outlying boroughs until it has some idea what they want it to do. To achieve that consensus of community opinion, he has high expectations from a current study of the cultural desires of the poor being directed by Tom Lloyd of the United Black Artists. The employment of Lloyd’s skills, which are by no means unimpressive, had the ancillary, if unintended, benefit of allaying an inconvenience: Lloyd has been picketing both the Modern Museum and the Metropolitan with demands for the installation of black wings. Hoving found him $29,000 for a community cultural study and showed irresistible dash in the process: “There’s a guy who can put you in his limousine and take you down to the Rockefeller Brothers,” Lloyd remembers.

Lloyd has been too busy since to affront the sensibilities of the Manhattan art compound; he has defected from his old allies in the Art Workers’ Coalition and supports the Metropolitan’s expansion. His study moreover seems bound to produce results at once accurate within its limits and fortifying the Museum’s indisposition to proselytize in deprived areas.

When Lloyd’s team asks ghetto residents what they might want from a community cultural center, the answers most generally recorded run to: a Drug Addiction Clinic; the Art of Self-Defense; Handball Club; Remedial Reading; Parties and Dances; Black Arts; and, very occasionally, a Creative Arts Workshop for children three to twelve.

These expressions are hardly unexpected. Lloyd is surveying areas with almost no services at all; and what most of those questioned want are things any really engaged society would have already provided. These are not persons who, when you ask them what they need, can soon exhaust their list of immediate pressures and summon to mind the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The inevitable result will support the Metropolitan’s desire to spend its second century as it did its first—receiving, without being distracted by vagrant thoughts about its duty to give.

The Metropolitan’s requirements for public appreciation of high culture are elastic according to its convenience: the citizen who blames the Museum for traffic congestion is to be deplored as a philistine, while the citizen who hasn’t the time to know that the Museum exists and thus does not trouble it with demands for service is to be commended for his sound sense of priorities.

7. When Hoving finally had to endure a public hearing before the City’s Commissioner of Cultural Affairs in June, he gave even that unwelcome occasion a certain sheen by the display of his powers to cajole and to bully. Most of the witnesses he presented were either his brother museum directors or his own architects’ brother architects, who were fervently and unsurprisingly fraternal. He could also call upon Tom Lloyd who said he now trusted the Director to install a black wing in the expanded Metropolitan.

The source of that trust is elusive. There appears to be no mention of a black study area in the master plan; and Hoving is abstract in his appreciation of the idea:

I think it would be very beneficial…. We would be very desirous of having a place where the community could be represented…. It shouldn’t be restrictive.

—a commitment distinctly spiritual but hinting just enough to serve.

And, as Hoving can be agile3 when there is need to avoid, so can he be terribly direct when he feels the need to assault.

Mrs. Jessie McNab Dennis, an assistant curator for Western European arts, had attended the hearing as an observer, since not only her sentiments about the project but her expression of them were not of an order of docility her Director would find serviceable in a witness.

At one point, Vincent Cahill, a hostile speaker, observed how many “professional men” had come down to testify for the Museum:

They are saying this is good and this is beautiful and then building Sixth Avenue and building Park Avenue the way it is and a lot of those men who were tonight speaking for the Museum created those monstrosities.

At that,” Mrs. Dennis remembers, “I clapped very enthusiastically. When I looked up there was Hoving. He was in a passion. ‘I’ve been watching you,’ he said. ‘It’s obvious you’re very unhappy at the Museum.’ ”

Three weeks later, John Goldsmith Phillips, chairman of her department, invited Mrs. Dennis into his office:

He said, “I’ve had a serious talk with Mr. Hoving and he’s very angry with you. You are merely an employee of the Museum, and you have no right to act as you did. Mr. Hoving says he feels that you are not happy here and that, if you will leave, he will be glad to find you a good job somewhere else.” “No,” I answered, “if Mr. Hoving wants me to leave, he will have to sack me.”

By August, when the Landmarks Commission held its hearing, Hoving had disbanded his troop of witnesses and did not even come himself, having, as he said, a low boiling point. His enemies were left with free play if no visible impact.

But there had been other confrontations, the most exotic in June, when Hoving invited the Art Workers’ Coalition to meet with the trustees. It is possible, in view of his dexterity, that he may have believed that this delegation would be abusive and fatuous enough to erase any small doubt in the trustees’ minds as to the triviality of the opposition. Yet, odd as it may seem, these intruders were hardly as fatuous as the trustees or as vulgarly abusive as the Director. Here is Douglas Dillon’s response to the Art Workers’ Coalition’s indictment of him and his fellow directors as embodiments of war and racism:

Very stimulating and educational…. Very interesting to all of us here…. We’ll continue to learn from this sort of thing…. Maybe we haven’t done enough…. We want to hear what life impression we as individuals are making.

Here is how Roswell L. Gilpatric dealt with the Art Workers’ Coalition’s challenge to the Museum to find black and Puerto Rican trustees (Robert Lehman seems to have died not entirely sure that his brothers on the board were quite comfortable with Jews): “Let me say a word about that…. I don’t see why it shouldn’t be done in time, which shouldn’t be too far away.”

And here is the Director’s response to challenges too numerous to list:

For God’s sake help the place…. Sit down, you’re gonna get your chance…. What the hell is this. Damn it, Ralph…. For God’s sake, if you don’t get your God-damned inaccurate information out of here….

Even if we concede a single “shit” from the audience, the balance of vulgarity between Hoving and the New Left ended heavily on Hoving’s side.

Still one likes Hoving somehow, at the end, and for reasons arising from more than his appeal to that crude historical imagination which Roger Fry noticed “as the only flaw in the otherwise perfect insensibility” of J. P. Morgan, then president of the Metropolitan. The Rockefeller and Lehman collections and the Temple of Dendur are all monuments to his talents at Acquisition, at wheedling patrons and politicians if you will; and we might expect him rather to bask in the vanity of their possession.

Yet he himself is glad of a chance at the outlying areas; he travels to the Bronx to inspect the Metropolitan’s Eye Opener Exhibit, an itinerant display built around examples of the spiral and paid for by the Billy Rose Foundation. (It is the philosophy of the trustees to ask money from each other when they are collecting and memorializing, but to ask money from government and foundations when they are reaching out.) “Come and see our hole,” a little boy greets him; the exterior of the Eye Opener Exhibit, made of inflated sections of rubber panel, is irresistible to the young with knives.

This hazard of the street seems to make Hoving more cheerful than anything surrounding him in his palace. His heart seems to waver between the temptations of adventure in the world outside—say, as Minister of some narcotics crusade—and of repose in the world within—say, as only a curator and teacher again.

But at the Metropolitan he sits now between the repose of the cloister and the excitement of the camp, while possessing neither. You come upon him here expecting to find the condottiere in residence and are surprised to be reminded rather less of Francesco Sforza at Milan than of Grant at Galena. There must be moments when he feels as if he had strayed, like his father before him, into being manager of some great department store, a place where you manipulate the very rich and they ruin you.

There are signs, it must be said, that the process has brought some new, if faint, impurity in his taste—some unfortunate intrusion of the eclectic. What are we finally to decide, for example, about those ornamental French statues of the Seasons—the gift, naturally, of an honorary trustee—which sit so gracelessly in the sculpture court, seeming gross, almost oppressive, evoking nothing so much as the haut mercantile? They were meant to be seen at the end of a long vista; having been designed to serve the open air, they are confined in circumstances where they might as well be serving Bonwit’s.

No ambition as susceptible as Hoving’s could have resisted the image of being the youngest director in the Metropolitan’s history. And yet the owners of property are stronger than any servant of theirs; what is most noticeable at the end is the mark not of the change he has made in them but of the change they have inflicted upon him. You leave him and reflect that the way we order our affairs rather encourages the disablement of good men in bad jobs.

  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.

  3. 3

    On September 4, Hoving announced that the Metropolitan agreed with City Council President Sanford E. Garelik that its expansion plan should be subject to a public hearing before the Board of Estimate. His tone, as we might have expected, sounded as though he had never felt otherwise.