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 …

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