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.
The uselessness of Dendur didn’t worry Hoving at all; what counted was the amount of publicity it generated. He was determined to drag the Met, by the scruff of its neck if necessary, into the new media age of the 1960s; to “shake it up” no matter where the pieces fell. This led him into a disastrous early exhibition, “Harlem on My Mind” (1969). It was designed to counter the Met’s well-established image as a white fiefdom, to “chronicle the creativity of the downtrodden blacks and, at the same time, encourage them to come to the museum…everything about it was dynamic.” Consisting of blown-up photographs (many by the great, and then wholly obscure, black photographer James Van der Zee) it managed to offend nearly everyone, high and low, WASPs, blacks, and Jews, with its catalog, prefaced with what Hoving now calls an “embarrassing” foreword by himself and containing, in the main text, references to such matters as the exploitation of black tenants by Jewish landlords. Ironically, this might have made a perfect PC show today, but for the Met in the late Sixties it caused a scandal.
Hoving’s account struggles, manfully but unconvincingly, to make the best of it. He also does his best to get through, or if possible around, scandals that blew up later in his directorship: the acquisition of the million-dollar Euphronios krater, the celebrated “hot pot,” and the “deaccessioning” problem. In his efforts to show that the krater was not stolen from an Etruscan tomb in Italy and illegally acquired by the Met (thus grievously damaging the hitherto cordial relations between the Met and the Italian government) Hoving implausibly posits as “my latest theory” that there were actually two similar kraters, both by Euphronios, on the clandestine antiquities market at the same time. But the supposed second krater has not appeared since, and there is no evidence that it ever existed.
On the matter of “deaccessioning”—in which the Met in the early Seventies was subjected by The New York Times to a prolonged inquisition for rashly selling off, or preparing to sell, a large number of works of art at fire-sale prices in order to raise money for other acquisitions—Hoving is evasive. He claims, for instance, that one of the pictures he wanted to sell—Manet’s Woman with a Parrot—“had been skinned [damaged] by an incompetent restorer at the museum in the early sixties,” a charge which museum sources vehemently deny. In June 1973, four months after the reports of John Hess and John Canaday in the Times raised the alarm over the sales, the state attorney general’s office forced the museum to write and observe stricter guidelines on deaccessioning—but Hoving writes as though these rules were in place before the sales. There was nothing in the museum’s charter to prevent it selling or exchanging works of art from its collection (most American museums, being private corporations, did so regularly to clear out deadwood) but much of the material on the Met’s axe-list was serious stuff: it included an important grisaille odalisque by Ingres, Henri Rousseau’s Tropiques, van Gogh’s Olive Pickers, and the museum’s only works by Max Beckmann.
These are old wars, unlikely to be of much interest to anyone who was not involved in them two decades ago. What matters more is the general legacy of Hoving’s administration. If one of Hoving’s ancestors was Phineas Barnum, the other was the preacher-man, Billy Sunday, perhaps, or, more recently and smoothly, Fulton J. Sheen. He told his curators that
a superb painting pinioned in its frame or a sculpture plunked on a pedestal…without the explanation of why it’s so perfectly the spirit of its times is a sort of mad silence. We must break through and communicate the full life of a work. We do very well in collecting and preserving. We do less well in communicating. To me the happiest experience in the museum field is to be able to give back to an ignored and “silent” work its own resounding eloquence.
This sounds very fine, except that great works of art are not necessarily in line with the “spirit of their times,” whatever that may mean, and that there is something gratingly obtrusive about a museum which is always breaking in, with large interpretative wall labels and audio-visual aids, to tell you what to think about its contents. The “resounding eloquence” produced by these means may only fill the galleries with portentous or pseudo-populist jabber. Rather, the museum’s task is to set up a zone of contemplative silence in which works of art can be viewed, without distraction, in such a way that you can make up your own mind about them.
The words of the French historian and critic Marc Fumaroli, printed (not without some reluctance) by the Met as part of the catalog to its recent loan exhibition from the Lille Museum, are a useful counterweight to the didactic razzmatazz espoused by Hoving. The much-derided “archaism” of the traditional museum, Fumaroli argues, is opposed to the grand spectacle, “whose only aim seems to be to attract the largest crowds”:
This purpose subverts and denies the one that the inventors of the Museum, the descendants of the Enlightenment, envisioned for it: the awakening of artistic genius through contact with works of genius, and the development of artistic taste through the careful comparison of masterpieces. How can these democratic and civic tasks still be fulfilled today if they must be subordinated to such ephemeral needs as the wholesale satisfaction of indeterminate touristic obligations or the mechanical and sheep-like curiosity of museum goers? How can any artistic vocations be cultivated or the eye trained amidst a hubbub reminiscent of the subway…which, more often than not, assaults the visitor who comes in good faith to the galleries of our major museums?*
It is a measure of the impact of Hovingism that practically no American museum director, today, would dare affirm that there is real truth in Fumaroli’s words, for fear of being pilloried as an “elitist.”
Hoving was a risk-taker. His deep streak of unreconstructed adolescence drew him to love the defiance of the elders, the secret transaction, the clipped ethical corner. When he casts himself as the hero of an adventure yarn, he’s genuinely intolerable. Making the Mummies Dance is so full of this dubious Indiana-Jonesery that it’s hard to know where to begin. But a prime example is his account of the Met’s acquisition of Velázquez’s portrait of his mulatto servant Juan de Pareja, bought at Christie’s in 1971 for the unheard-of price of $5.44 million dollars—a sum which would hardly have secured a mediocre Jasper Johns at the height of the market boom of the Eighties, but which at the time was the highest ever paid at public auction for any painting, old or modern. There is no question that the Juan de Pareja is one of the finest of Velázquez’s portraits, but it makes no sense to compare it to the master’s larger figure-compositions like the Las Meninas or the Surrender of Breda. But Hoving, unfazed, calls the Juan de Pareja one of “Velázquez’s two finest surviving works” and even, in the crescendo of disinformation, “the most important painting in world history.”
In his efforts to show that his Velázquez is better than all other Velázquezes, Hoving even relays an improbable piece of hearsay to the effect that the condition of all the Velázquezes in the Prado, not excluding such works as Las Meninas and the Hilanderas, was ruined by an over-enthusiastic chief conservator who, in the 1920s and 1930s, allegedly cleaned them by rubbing them under his thumbs with pills of stale bread. (Given the acreage of Velázquez paintings the Prado owns, one cannot but sympathize with this lonely curatorial phantom in the bowels of the museum, chest-deep in stale crumbs and aggressive mice, wearing his thumbs to stubs over the years.)
Hoving was determined to get Juan de Pareja for the Met, and after many dramatic exchanges whose dialogue rings like a parody of Conan Doyle (“But no matter, we all matriculated into connoisseurs without all these fashionable instruments, if I may say so, Dr. von Sonnenberg,” the head honcho of Christie’s is alleged to have said by way of refusing to let the Met’s chief conservator scientifically examine the painting), he and his colleagues are at last led before the easel on which it reposes in a small back room in the London headquarters of Christie’s. They are accompanied by a security guard, whose job it is to prevent the Met’s quartet of experts—Hoving, Theodore Rousseau, the vice director, Everett Fahy, the curator in charge of European paintings, and the chief conservator, Hubert von Sonnenberg—from touching the picture, examining its back, looking at it under UV or through a magnifying-glass, or even approaching it too closely. How to get rid of this obstructive minion? The next day the four experts return to Christie’s for a second look. They drink coffee with the guard. They butter him up. Rousseau suggests that he should take notes on their conversation. The guard disappears to get a notebook in which to record their words of wisdom, and
We moved into action. Ted placed a chair against the door under the knob, and Hubert seized the painting and was about to take it off its easel when I cried out, “What if it’s wired?”
“Then we go to a British jail,” he laughed.
He carried it over to the window and held it up before the light and exclaimed, “Marvelous! See! No relining. Fabulous.”
He handed the canvas to Ted.
“Got to get it out of the frame,” Hubert said…
“Do you hear anything?” I whispered to Fahy, who had his ear to the door and looked exceedingly uncomfortable.
“Okay. Go ahead,” I told Hubert, but the order was unnecessary…
“He’s coming,” Fahy said in a strangled voice. “I can hear the elevator. Hurry. Please!”
“Get that damned chair out of there!” I cried.
In short, the perfect Hoving scenario: Dick Daring, boy hero, dramatically frustrates the grown-ups. But it mostly never happened. The only factual thing about it is that a group from the Met inspected a painting in a room. Everett Fahy confirms that in every other respect—restrictions, keyhole, chair, nosy guard, surreptitious peeking—Hoving’s tale is pure fiction. Fahy points out that it is “unheard-of” for a major auction house to prevent the representatives of a major museum from examining a prospective $5-million purchase as closely as they wish, and Christie’s put none of the impediments or conditions on their inspection of Juan de Pareja that Hoving describes. Why should they? The way to sell a picture is to let the client study it, not to prevent him from doing so.
Along with the boyish desire to brag and shock goes a seemingly unappeasable sense of vendetta. He can be grimly ungenerous to former colleagues. A few of them do deserve the retrospective boot: Henry Geldzahler, for instance, who did little visible work to justify his position as curator of contemporary art. But with a few exceptions, like Ted Rousseau, the socially well-wired and discreetly rakish chief curator and vice director, whom Hoving clearly liked, his discussion of his colleagues is always superficial and often spiteful: it’s as though his own ego used up all the air in the room.
Thus Philippe de Montebello, who succeeded Hoving as director and has run the Met with real distinction and care for the last twenty years, guiding the focus of the museum back to its permanent collection while putting on a succession of exhibitions of real scholarly value, strikes Hoving as stuffy. “No one in the museum was more self-assured,” Hoving writes, “but Ted Rousseau was convinced he had no eye.” (When critics or curators want to pepper one another but don’t have the ammo to do it properly, they always fall back on this talk of the “eye,” as though their enemies were blind or, at best, Cyclopses.) When Montebello left the European paintings department to run the Houston Museum of Fine Art in 1969, “I was glad to be rid of him. I knew he was conservative, but I hadn’t quite realized that he was opposed to everything I was trying to do.” Those who go to the Met today may be glad, on balance, that this was so: it fell to Montebello to brake the Met’s slide into showbiz.
Nor do the trustees fare much better. Charles Wrightsman, for instance, could by many accounts be a difficult and dictatorial man. But he and his wife, Jayne, gave unstintingly to the Met over the years—one need only mention the exquisite eighteenth-century French period rooms, the David portrait of the Lavoisiers, and masterpieces by Vermeer, Poussin, El Greco, Tiepolo, and Georges de la Tour, among many others. And there is no question that they knew more than most American collectors (or European ones, for that matter) about the things they owned and gave away. It therefore seems unconvincing that Hoving should deride them as a pair of autodidacts with “little comprehension of the spiritual sense of art”—especially when the florid clichés of his own prose convey so little of that sense themselves.
Some of his accounts of meetings with prospective donors strain all credibility. He claims, for instance, that the aged Averell Harriman summoned him to discuss giving the Met his collection, which included “a superior early Picasso, The Woman in White.” It did not; The Woman in White, 1923, already belonged to the Met, and Hoving would later get in hot water for trying to sell it; Harriman’s painting was the far more significant Woman with a Fan, 1905, a Rose Period masterpiece which he gave the National Gallery in Washington in memory of his second wife, Marie Norton Harriman, in 1970.
The meeting, says Hoving, took place in Harriman’s townhouse where “his wife, Pamela,” was at his side. Harriman announced that he would give his collection and his 81st Street townhouse to the Met with the strict condition that they should be kept from the public; access to them would “be reserved only for the use of the trustees and certain highly selective [sic] members of the staff…The paintings could not be sent across the street for viewing even on a temporary basis.” Hoving says he turned this “elitist proposal” down, as any director should. But was it ever made?
Not according to Pamela Harriman, who says that no meeting with Hoving ever took place in her presence; that she and her husband never received Hoving together in the 81st Street house, or anywhere else; that before their marriage, Harriman always told her that he had decided to give most of his collection to the National Gallery in Washington, in memory of Marie Harriman, so that no such offer would have been made to the Met; and that far from wishing to keep his pictures from the public, Harriman stipulated that they should always be available for loan from Washington to other museums. It is difficult to imagine, therefore, why Hoving should indulge in this ludicrous fabrication, casting aspersions on a man of intense public spirit.
The great institution survived one Hoving and owes him quite a lot; it might not so easily have weathered two of him. Yet this was the prospect that arose as Hoving’s directorship drew to its end. He had a plan. It was that, on leaving the Met, he would come right back into it by a different door, as director of something called the Annenberg Communications Center, to be housed within the museum.
Walter Annenberg, the ultra-Republican billionaire who owned Triangle Publications and whose convoluted public utterances as Nixon’s ambassador to the Court of St. James had caused much mirth among the uncharitable English, had seen Kenneth Clark’s Civilization—the first of the BBC’s educational maxi-series—on television, and had been mightily stirred by it. He now proposed to Hoving that they set up a center within the Met to produce TV art programs on a pharaonic scale: “to record all the works of art in the world—why not be ambitious?—and to create programs on the entire history of art…. This is technology in the service of humanism and education.” Hoving, seeing a pork-barrel the size of the Grand Canyon (for Annenberg was prepared to put in $40 million for starters, with much more to come) instantly produced a plan for a twelve-hour series “in the general style of Civilization but with a greater emphasis on learning.” plus archival and publishing spin-offs, and this was only to be the merest sketch for the future. There are no prizes for guessing who the narrator of the pilot series, more learned than Kenneth Clark, was to be.
Luckily for the Met, this future never materialized, for it would likely have produced a tail that wagged the dog—the conversion of the museum into the shell of a TV production center starring Tom Hoving. At the time, Hoving was also giving speeches about the wonderful future of museums in which the original objects would be replaced by holographic replicas keyed to main-frame computer technology—another ghastly pipe-dream of the 1970s that didn’t come true. By now, it no longer mattered to Hoving that one of the purposes of a museum is to defend the audience’s experience of the original work of art against its possible clones; to stand for the firsthand, as against the simulation and the copy. Marketing was too important: and the Annenberg Communications Center, fundamentally, was no more than a grandiose extension of the Met’s already hypertrophied gift shop, swollen by now to a smaller version of Bloomingdale’s.
In fact, the Met has long been, in a small way, involved in the production of “educational” TV art programs, not one of which seems to have risen above the intellectual level of a travelogue. The idea that such audio-visual kapok would go into full industrial production did not find favor with many trustees and struck most people outside the museum, even those who (like myself) believe that there is a place on American television for good visual-art documentaries, as a serious threat to the institution. It was not hard, for instance, to imagine the pressures that might come to bear on the Met’s curators to put on shows that “illustrated” or “complemented” whatever didactic Barnumism was brewing across the corridor in the Annenberg Center.
Furthermore, there was the problem of space, of which the Met was short. Hoving wanted his new fief in the Met’s southwest wing. “The general schema,” he writes, “was for a visual arts center of about forty-five thousand square feet, which would include galleries for Western European arts and contemporary art of some sixty-five thousand square feet.” How one can fit 65,000 square feet of exhibition space into 45,000 square feet of “visual arts center,” and still have room left to film all the works of art in the world, is unclear, but this peculiar sentence is only a remnant of the incessant persiflage by which Hoving, at the time, sought to persuade his critics that the proposed Annenberg Center would not eat up any more of the floor-area the Met so desperately needed—and still needs. Whether the Annenberg Center would have fulfilled any useful purpose or not, there was no good reason to plant it physically in the Met—except to satisfy the egotistical folie à deux that Hoving and Annenberg were locked in. It could have been down the street, or in Brooklyn for that matter; in making films about art, you send the camera to the work, not vice versa.
The point was soon rendered moot. Angered by criticism of the scheme, offended that anyone should dare look his gift horse in the mouth, and feeling like Gulliver pricked by the Lilliputian darts of journalism, Annenberg withdrew his offer and took his marbles with him, leaving Hoving without the prospect of a further base within the Metropolitan. Twelve years later, his inflammation soothed by copious applications of diplomatic balm from Philippe de Montebello and the Met’s president, William Luers, Annenberg gave his Impressionist collection to the museum—a far more suitable present.
It isn’t an easy career to sum up, and Hoving’s autobiography, being so long on self-aggrandizement and puffery, doesn’t make the task any easier. Those who dismiss his reign at the Met as an unrelieved institutional disaster are wrong. Certain things Hoving did very well. His record on acquisitions was the best of any major American museum in the 1970s: from the Juan de Pareja to the Euphronios krater, from David’s portrait of the Lavoisiers to Claude Monet’s Terrace at Sainte-Adresse, from Bernini’s Bacchanale to the new collections of Asian art assembled by the curator Wen Fong, extraordinary objects entered the permanent collection. This is in sharp contrast to the record of the National Gallery of Art in Washington during the same period, which bought little of the same significance.
Hoving was and is a blatherskite, but he loved masterpieces with a passion that now, in these days of shrunken supply and political quibbles about the relevance of “quality,” seems almost archaic. Moreover “his” Met was buying on a market very different from that of Montebello’s Met. The hyperinflation of the 1980s had not begun. Masterpieces were expensive, and Hoving made a lot of publicity capital out of record prices, but none of the huge sums ($54 million bid, but not paid, by Alan Bond for van Gogh’s Irises, a price artificially underwritten by Sotheby’s own loans; $80 million actually paid for another van Gogh, the portrait of Dr. Gachet, by a Japanese plutocrat just before the market crashed) had even been imagined. It was still possible to buy an entire Frank Lloyd Wright interior, furniture and all, for the American Wing for $150,000. Today, the Met is chronically pinched for money. Every year it used to publish a brochure of “Notable Recent Acquisitions.” It is a sign of the times that, in 1990, the word “Notable” was quietly dropped.
On exhibitions, Hoving was weaker. For instance, the series of great monographic exhibitions (van Gogh, Seurat, Manet) that have done so much to open and redefine our understanding of French art in the nineteenth century, organized jointly by the Réunion des Musées Français and other partners during the 1980s, had no equivalent on Central Park in the 1970s. Perhaps because his own career as a medievalist was cut short by larger ambitions, certainly because he is no intellectual and lacks the stamina for reflection, Hoving tended to relegate scholarship to the back burner. He was mainly interested in spectacle—such as the exhibition called. “In the Presence of Kings,” which was accurately aimed at the American appetite for the aura of absolute power, or the fashion and costume shows done under the eye of Diana Vreeland, which generated seas of ink and much TV coverage, or the exhibition that gave that weasel word “blockbuster” to museum argot, “Treasures of Tutankhamun.”
Nothing made him more frantic than the sight of Carter Brown stealing a mega-show from under his nose—which Brown’s superior diplomatic contacts, through the White House, often enabled him to do. “I watched, grinding my teeth, as Carter Brown plucked show after show away from me.” The Met could borrow works of art from foreign governments by lending its own holdings in return. The National Gallery was much more restricted in lending, but it had more political muscle. This competitive fixation on the blockbuster worked seriously against the long-term interests of both museums, condemning them to a series of eclectic, undemanding exhibitions in which works of art, often of great rarity and beauty, were assembled at vast expense without any corresponding scaffolding of argument and thought: the National Gallery brought this kind of magazine-show to the point of apotheosis with “Treasure Houses of Great Britain” in 1988, and its 1492 extravaganza.
The mega-show syndrome fixed in the public’s mind the idea that there were basically two kinds of important art: Masterpieces and Treasures. Treasures had gold in them, whereas Masterpieces did not. But it also created the unfortunate illusion that the main job of museums was to act as conduits for Masterpiece-and-Treasure events, thus diverting public interest (and loyalty) from the permanent collection to the temporary show. The result was a quick fix for the museum’s relationship with the public, but not a stable one, since the people who flocked to “Gold of the Gorgonzolas” could no more be counted on to be loyal to the museum than those who attend a hit movie may be assumed to be “loyal” to the movie theater in which it is screened. This became an excruciating problem for museums smaller than the Met, which, taking their cues from their institutional grandfather, came to believe that they too had to pump attendance with their own versions of Masterpiece-and-Treasure—but didn’t have the influence to do the necessary borrowing.
There have been, of course, many exhibitions that turned out to be great crowd-pleasers while hewing to the highest standards of scholarship and connoisseurship: one thinks of the Museum of Modern Art’s 1980 Picasso retrospective, or of its magnificent successor, the recently ended Matisse show, attended by 900,000 people. A show’s popularity is never wholly predictable (the Met did not expect its 1992 Magritte retrospective to pull in nearly half a million viewers, becoming the fifth most popular exhibition in the museum’s history) and this, in times of recession, makes corporate sponsors nervous (“Magritte” was done without any corporate underwriting, and only just broke even).
Much garnish came with the museum’s new role as an exhibition factory. First, an obtrusive concern for designing each show as an “experience,” a theatrical package: one of the few heroes of Hoving’s book, apart from the author himself, is Stuart Silver, the Met’s chief designer, who enjoyed a status at least equal to any curator’s. Hoving quotes Silver as saying, in the course of preparing the Met’s 1968 show of Florentine frescoes and sinopie, “What I design may make this exhibition more memorable than the art.” No wonder the two men vibrated in tune: although, since Hoving says he included on his “dream list” for that show frescoes by Verrocchio, who never did any, Silver may not have been hubristic enough to utter such words either.
Then, the spin-offs. The figlio di Tiffany diverted much of the Met’s energy into franchising and marketing—everything from museum copies to sheets and bathtowels with “museum patterns” on them. As Hoving notes with blustery candor, “Almost everything I thought of or looked at, I tried to bend into a business.” It was not, in retrospect, a good idea, however much money it generated for the Met; but it seems that we are stuck with this unlovely legacy, too. A more genuine vision, a more authentic commitment to the idea of the museum, could have saved the Metropolitan from the corrosive effects of Hoving’s evangelical populism, without diminishing its audience. But no director who possessed such qualities could have written a book like Making the Mummies Dance. Here lies one whose name was writ in hot water.
March 4, 1993