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Masterpiece Theater

No other museum director in American history has had as much written about him as Thomas P.F. Hoving, who ran the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for ten years (1967–1977). The striking thing is how much of it he has written himself. Memoirs by American museum men are fairly thin on the ground, and when they appear—like Self-Portrait with Donors, by John Walker, a former director of the National Gallery in Washington—they tend to be mild, discreet, and ruminative.

Mildness and rumination, let alone discretion, have never been Hoving’s forte. He is and always was obsessed with publicity, with being quoted and noticed. “The rage for fame infects both great and small / Better be damned than mentioned not at all”—Hoving was the first American museum celebrity, and his compact with the mass media was a Faustian one. But clippings go yellow and languish unread; books are needed. Thus far Hoving has written two memoirs of his career at the Met: first King of the Confessors (1981), an account of his earlier years, centering around the acquisition of a twelfth-century ivory crucifix for the Met, and now Making the Mummies Dance, which covers his period as director.

The two books have much in common. They are written in hectoring, zip-blam-pow prose, replete with malapropisms: the style is the man, for Hoving has always been a lapel-grabber. They present their author as a fascinating buccaneer of the art world, swashing down the corridors of power, up to his long neck in secret deals and perilous transactions; an ace sleuth tracking down “undiscovered” or “hidden” masterpieces; the art world’s Dick Daring or Indiana Jones, perpetually at odds with stuffy trustees and nitpicking critics. And they are laced with fibs, taradiddles, spin, implausibilities, and dramatic inventions. (These begin with his assertion that in 1967, before his appointment as director, he impressed the trustees with the revelation that “the State Commissioner for Human Rights, Eleanor Holmes Norton, was preparing to hit the museum with a series of legal charges alleging massive abuse in the hiring practices and promotions of women employees”—whereas, in fact, Norton’s inquiry into the Met did not even begin until early 1975, almost eight years later.)

The current book is full of “he said—I said” dialogue, and Hoving claims that every line he puts in everyone else’s mouth, some going back thirty years, is reconstructed from his journals and tapes. If so, he need not have bothered, since it all comes out sounding like Hoving anyway. One ends up thinking of him as a male version of that other mythomaniac, Lillian Hellman—but without the literary gifts. Which is not to say that Hoving does not, some of the time, tell the truth; but the background beat of mendacity is such that it’s not always possible to know when he is telling it, or if he cares—so deeply rooted is this curious man’s habit of self-dramatization.

Finally, although both books—and especially Making the Mummies Dance—are loaded with gossip, they are curiously short on serious and intelligent reflection about what museums are actually for, and the meaning of the very considerable changes that Hoving caused in his. Hoving’s tenure at the Met spanned the period when the American museum began to shake off its traditional introversion, go for the largest possible public, and become a low-rating mass medium in its own right. This change of direction was very largely driven by Hoving’s own policies: where the Met goes other museums follow, because the Met is the greatest encyclopedic museum in the United States, with immense prestige and cultural influence. If something was OK at the Met, it would become OK everywhere else; and the motor of Hoving’s regime was renovation, populism, and spectacle. He was, unquestionably and without rival, the Barnum of American museology, and the fallout from his deeds and personality is still felt fifteen years after he quit the museum world.

Hoving was the protégé of James Rorimer, his predecessor as director, who singled him out as a gifted and promising young medievalist, a likely man to head the Met’s great medieval department. “My collecting style,” Hoving boasts, “was pure piracy, and I got a reputation as a shark…. My address book of dealers and private collectors, smugglers and fixers, agents, runners, and the peculiar assortment of art hangers-on was longer than anyone else’s in the field.” But scenting opportunity elsewhere, Hoving in the mid-Sixties attached himself to John Lindsay, the mayor of New York, and became parks commissioner (and thus an ex officio trustee of the museum). Rorimer never forgave him for this; but with Lindsay’s backing, he was able to jump from Central Park back into the Met as its director shortly after Rorimer died of a heart attack—triggered, Hoving suggests, by the hostility of the former president of the Met’s trustees, Roland Redmond. Thus began what at times was a wild and troublesome ride, not only for Hoving, but for the Met and all who sailed in her.

Running the Met is akin to running a small principality, or a large corporation. When Hoving arrived it had long been the biggest art museum in America, with the most diverse collections. But it was also, for reasons embedded in its haphazard growth, a disordered palimpsest with bad circulation and worse storage. No comprehensive master plan had ever been successfully imposed on it, and although its annual attendance had grown from 1.2 million around 1930 to 4.5 million in Rorimer’s time, hardly a square foot of new exhibition space had been added in those four decades. Hoving strives to create the impression that, before he “bounded up the staircase” to take the helm, the Met had been moribund, tacky, and unpopular, which is not at all the case—many of us remember the “old” Met, dingy and granny-like though it was in some ways, with unalloyed fondness and respect. But there is no question that it needed more space and a rationalized plan, and Hoving set out to secure them both.

In the end his Master Plan (which came complete with capitals) gave the already huge Met as much additional space as all the other art museums of the borough of Manhattan—the Guggenheim, the Whitney, the Museum of Modern Art, the Cooper-Hewitt, the Frick, the Museum of the City of New York—rolled together. He left the Met at the limit of its physical expansion: not a foot of horizontal space can be added to its plan, or subtracted from Central Park, by any future decision of its director and trustees. Using the firm of Roche and Dinkeloo as architectes du roi, he created the Met’s suitably handsome entrance on Fifth Avenue; with a lavish endowment from Lila Acheson Wallace, the Reader’s Digest heiress, he returned Richard Morris Hunt’s Beaux-Arts entrance hall to its original airy, creamy grandeur, evocative of Roman imperial thermae. The three main space-eating additions of his regime were the Michael Rockefeller Wing for what, in the Seventies, was still called “primitive” art; the Lehman “pavilion,” to house the collection of the financier Robert Lehman, whom Hoving made it a first priority to court; and the Temple of Dendur.

The Rockefeller Wing remains a great asset; the Lehman pavilion, a more questionable one. In effect, Hoving got some fine pictures and a distinguished collection of drawings (many of them bought with the advice of the Met’s former curators, on the assumption that the drawings would go to the museum) at the expense of freezing a large tract of museum space. Hoving was outwitted by the Lehman Foundation. Lehman wanted his own mausoleum, and got it. His collection cannot be melded into the general collections of the Met. It has its own director and remains separate and distinct for ever, displayed in stodgy “period rooms” which are actually replicas of those done for Lehman’s townhouse by a French decorator in the late Fifties. This proved a bad precedent for other American museums; in the boom years of the Eighties every picture-laden plutocrat suddenly wanted his own museum wing and, sometimes, his own director. The reductio ad absurdum was reached at the Los Angeles County Museum when that execrable thug Armand Hammer tried to cut a deal whereby his collection—unlike Lehman’s, a wholly mediocre one—would go to LACMA with a close woman friend installed as its director.

But at least there was a case for Lehman’s art, if not his pavilion. For the third main element of Hoving’s plan, there was none. Within a year of becoming director, he committed the Met to what, in terms of inconvenience, historical insignificance, and size, must rank as one of the dumbest acquisitions ever made by an American museum: the Temple of Dendur. This building, consisting of a sanctuary with carved wall reliefs, a platform, and a gateway, was built on the bank of the Nile about forty miles north of Aswan, around 15 BC. Dating from the reign of Augustus, long after the Roman conquest of Egypt and the collapse of the Ptolemies, it was (to put it charitably) of minuscule value in terms of Egyptian history, though it repeated a familiar architectural prototype. However, it was to be covered by the risen waters of the Nile, once the Aswan Dam—that pride and joy of modern Egyptian technology which has since proven such a disaster to the really important Egyptian monuments—was finished. It had therefore been taken apart, and its 642 soft sandstone blocks, some defaced by nineteenth-century graffiti, now sat in open-air storage under tarpaulins.

Lyndon Johnson’s administration, as a gesture of good will to Egypt, had given $16 million to the United Arab Republic to defray the costs of restoring one of the great Egyptian buildings, the temple of Abu Simbel. As a thank-you note, Gamal Abdal Nasser decided to give the stones of Dendur to America. But no leading museums wanted it, and although civic boosters in cities like Memphis, Tennessee, and Cairo, Illinois, lusted to have it as a tourist curiosity, Johnson would not be satisfied with anything short of a leading museum lest the Egyptians take offense. The Smithsonian Institution wriggled like Little Egypt herself to avoid this unwelcome gift; in Cleveland, the great mandarin director Sherman Lee recoiled from it in distaste.

But Hoving, by his own account, saw the acquisition of Dendur as a way of showing “Ego. I wanted to impress [my colleagues] with what a Parks commissioner could do.” The temple could not go in the park, because (graffitists apart) its stones were too soft to withstand New York weather. It had to be enclosed in an immense vitrine by Roche and Dinkeloo, nearly 30,000 square feet in all, complete with artificial lake. This was an insane waste of potential gallery space for an encyclopedic museum which already possessed the greatest collection of dynastic Egyptian art in America. In all, the transport, assembly, and installation of Dendur cost rather more than $8 million, in pre-Reagan dollars. Its only museum use turned out to be as a rumpus-room in which large dinners and dances are given, amid the deafening reverberation of band-music and plate-clatter from the glass wall.

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