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Scandals at the Metropolitan Museum

Michael Gross’s new book [1] looking behind the scenes at the Metropolitan Museum. This includes new details between the acquisition of some artefacts – & the successful restitution claims that have led to the return of these artefacts.

Buffalo News [2]

A fascinating secret history of ‘Rogues’ behind the Met
By Jean Reeves Barre
August 16, 2009, 6:35 AM

Michael Gross’ audacious new book on New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art is as intriguing as a brace of novels. And in bulk it rivals such in girth — 499 pages plus index, notes and acknowledgments, a total then of 545 pages — and the reader is loath to skip one of them.

“Rogues’ Gallery: The Secret History of the Moguls and the Money That Made the Metropolitan Museum of Art” will be lambasted by critics. It’s true that it’s long on gossip and scandal and short on art. You won’t find any analysis of the fine points of color or form of a Matisse or a Monet.

The allure is in the rivalries, the machinations, the sexual dalliances of many of the men of fortune, and power and bloodline. It’s in the inner workings of the autocratic circle of trustees who have long guided the institution and stand revealed. Of course this is hush hush material, for the book is unauthorized. How could the Met endorse such “secrets?”

Gross summarizes the worldwide eminence of the Met: “a repository of more than 2 million art objects created over the course of 5,000 years; more than 2 million square feet of space occupying 13 acres of New York’s Central Park and encompassing power and fire stations, an infirmary and an armory with a forge — makes it the largest museum in the Western Hemisphere.”

The range of creative inspiration marches down the years from primitive to the most sophisticated modern idiom and among 17 curatorial departments, drawing more than 4.5 million visitors a year. The current building opened in 1880, when it was already 10 years old.

Gross’ research is encyclopedic. The building’s history, the architecture and the acquisitions are described in fascinating detail. The building and grounds are owned by the City of New York, which pays ordinary expenses and then some. There is also state aid.

Through the charitable corporation under which the museum is founded does not own the treasures, it manages them “in trust.” In practice, the board deems itself the owner. For many years it disdained the populace, even though the Met is a public trust and refused to open on Sundays, the only day the working class could visit. It was forced through protests, including those of highly placed persons, to open to the public in May 1889.

Indeed arrogance has prevailed among both trustees and the administration. Such men as J. Pierpont Morgan, C. Douglas Biddle, Robert Lehman, and various Whitneys, Houghtons, Rockefellers and other powerful men ruled the board. Money talks.

In more recent years, newer money, social climbers and a crowd of fashion-minded hangers-on have made inroads. Women of course were waiting in the wings for many years. Only in 1946 was the mold broken when Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney became the first woman trustee.

The museum’s first director was Luigi Palma da Cesnola, self-described aristocrat, U. S. Civil War veteran and expatriate Italian. (He served 30 years.) A confirmed tomb robber on the island of Crete, he demolished tombs, ruining priceless objects to build a collection which he sold to the Met. Much of it was deaccessioned in the modern era, a practice dear to museums, including the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo but decried by many art lovers.

The museum’s current holdings are estimated to be worth $300 million to $400 million and a seat on the board to cost $10 million.

John Pierpont Morgan became the leavening force in the museum as president in 1904. He was the dominant capitalist of his era, averting an economic collapse in the Panic of 1907 by forcing bankers to work together. Morgan launched a second career as the greatest art collector of his and “arguably any time,” Gross writes. He was said to have spent $10 million on art in one year, giving much of it to the museum. A brute of a man with white hair, a bristling black mustache and a “bulbous red nose,” he intimidated dealers and the “many married women that, a pious Episcopalian, he pursued,” Gross notes. His rival in museum benefactions was John D. Rockefeller Jr., who gave the museum its primitive jewel, the Cloisters.

Perhaps the museum’s most flamboyant personage was Thomas P. F. Hoving, who became director in 1967 after a stint as New York’s city parks commissioner after Robert Moses. His intent, he said, was “to modernize, popularize and evangelize, bring the museum to the public.” His first foray into exhibitions was the blockbuster “Things for Kings,” a show that ordinarily would have taken years to prepare but was accomplished in about a month due to Hoving’s drive and brilliance. He decked the portals with banners and himself recorded a walking tour of the exhibition. He appointed Robert Lehman chairman — a new post — to secure his $100 million collection.

Hoving was to some “a fresh breeze,” to others “a strong wind.” His most controversial exhibit,

“Harlem on My Mind,” aroused hisses of racism and anti-Semitism. He created a new Department of Contemporary Art headed by Henry Geldzahler, whose precedent-breaking exhibition, “New York Painting and Sculpture 1940-1970,” opened in October 1969. I was fortunate to be among the art critics observing installation of the gigantic show. The opening, wrote Calvin Tomkins of the New Yorker, was “a circus of see-through blouses and pot smoke wafting through the 2,000 guests.”

Throughout his reign Hoving was the butt of hysterical attacks by the priggish critics at the New York Times — John Canaday, Hilton Kramer, et al. His many accomplishments, including a long-range building plan and the Primitive Art Wing donated by Nelson Rockefeller will long outlive their reputations. Hoving said he quit in 1977 after nine years, others claimed he was forced out. He said in later years, “They may have wanted me canned, but I headed them off at the pass.”

Gross’ last chapter in his saga, “Arrivistes, 1974-2009,” refers to the parties, fashion shows etc. of a new breed, no more aesthetically minded than their forbears. The most significant milestone has been the installation of the new Greek and Roman Galleries during the decorous tenure of Philippe de Montebello, a true caretaker who never resisted a chance to enforce the status quo. Sadly because of the limited space now available at the museum, even after years of diggings underneath, these galleries, despite their glories, seemed cramped, particularly when one reflects on the grandeur and sweep of space enjoyed by Elgin Marbles at the British Museum.

Gross ends his massive tome with the encomium, “Some institutions deserve the chance to be as eternal as great art.”

His book is a honeypot of gossip, but one should not denigrate the exhaustive research of Gross and his crew. The detail boggles the mind.

The one omission I would score is the lack of photographs. Readers would surely appreciate a glimpse of the Temple of Dendur as well as the bristling mustache of John Pierpont Morgan.

Let us hope the new director, the Briton Thomas Campbell, will not only keep up the good work but verge toward greater public education, as the book recommends, and an end to “frivolous exhibitions.”

This book takes a factual and often irreverent tone regarding the Metropolitan Museum but at the heart of this great institution is the art on display in its multiple galleries, riches no book can diminish.

Jean Reeves Barre is a retired art critic for The News.

Rogues’ Gallery: The Secret History of the Moguls and the Money That Made the Metropolitan Museum
By Michael Gross
Broadway Books/Random House
545 pages, $29.95