For a brief time I took Hilton Kramer seriously. Now I read him for amusement. I adore the "Catskills Hotel" (which is what Gore Vidal dubbed him) when he's slobbering over something. I get this image of the outer-space creature from Alien, maw pulsating open and closed, dripping a viscous acidic goo that eats away anything it touches. A cartoon character.
In the August 28 version of that antic newspaper, the New York Observer, Hiltie slobbers over the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and its director Malcolm Rogers for trying to modernize the joint by creating a "strategic plan" to bring various curatorial departments together, pare down the bloated staff and renovate and expand the buildings.
Hiltie looks upon these much needed efforts as a modern-day Spanish Inquisition that will destroy the hallowed institution and result in the MFA becoming "a shopping mall or a theme-park entertainment center, where little or nothing is demanded of the mind and success is judged entirely in terms of attendance figures and cash receipts."
The reconstruction of the Boston MFA by Rogers and the trustees who back him has been rough. All reconstructions are. Eighteen staffers, including full curators who've been around for several decades, have been fired -- some much too coldly and abruptly. Rogers seems to have been insensitive to the need for prior consultation when lay-offs have to occur and the necessity to place the ones to-be-canned in other, preferably better, jobs. When I had to fire 100 or so employees at the Metropolitan some years ago, the museum first set up a counseling procedure and actually got the unfortunates better jobs than they ever would have dreamed of.
At the MFA, a number of curatorial departments have been merged. An extensive master plan by the chic British architect, Norman Foster, is being hacked out.
And all crap has hit the fan.
Staffers are squealing. Donors have publicly announced that they are taking their money and art elsewhere. The Wall Street Journal and the MFA-unfriendly Boston Globe have clawed Rogers and his backers.
For those of us professionals in the museum director trade (Hiltie calls us "commissars"), the MFA has been a wounded, desperate and sad body of work for far too long. Yes, they've put on some pretty shows up there. Yes, they have some curators who are peerless in their fields. Yes, the I. M. Pei addition isn't as bad as local critics have barked. Yes, the collections are super-duper.
The old-hat Brahmin trustees had until recently failed in their responsibilities. They hounded one of the most progressive and keenest directors out of the place for having been caught smuggling from Italy a painting thought to be by Raphael (but actually by his Genoese contemporary, Sinibaldo Ibi). They virtually destroyed one of the most gifted curators in MFA history by haggling over his meager pension. They ran away from any serious confrontation with the city fathers to make the environs safe and hospitable and thus set into motion a downward spiral of attendance. Past directors failed miserably to attract the youth of the entire Boston community and thus put a serious damper on the future vitality of the institution.
Over the years the MFA, in the eyes of us professionals, allowed its installations to deteriorate. Curators were allowed to become satraps and their departments fiefdoms. One curator, thankfully now retired, plumped down on his department and its holdings like Jabba the Hut. He vetted for an eccentric, wealthy donor a number of antiquities that could only have been illegally removed from Turkey and staunchly defended the legality of a Roman torso of Hercules even though he knew the lower half remained behind in the country of origin.
In this strategic plan, director Rogers has already merged American painting and American decorative arts with Pre-Columbian art, Eskimo art and Haitian primitive painting. Asian and African art have been placed into a new department called the Art of Africa and Asia. To Kramer, these moves are horrifying and malevolent and are likely to become a vast movement in the museum world that will succeed in "stripping our art institutions of the last vestiges of esthetic conscience."
Gimme a break!
Rogers and his resolute trustees should proceed at full speed. In fact, they ought to pare the staff down even more. They should allow donors who bitch to take their art elsewhere -- the MFA has already got much more than it can intelligently deal with anyway. (And where else can these donors go?) Someone who admires modern thinking will always put up twice the amount of money that is supposedly being bequeathed elsewhere.
The MFA ought to demand that Norman Foster deliver a truly sensational, buzz-propagating plan as newsworthy as Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. Rogers and the trustees must reach out to the community five times farther than they're thinking of now. Get the unwashed, untutored youth in the place even if it means rap music concerts and lectures by Ricky Martin.
Hurry up MFA Boston. It may be too late.
THOMAS HOVING is the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.