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ARTFUL TOM, A MEMOIR
by Thomas Hoving
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27. THE MIGHTY MET

What happened during my wild, wooly and controversial decade running the mighty Metropolitan are set down in my 1986 tell-all best seller, Making the Mummies Dance. The book was the first -- and perhaps still the only -- revelation of what really goes on inside a great American art museum. It was praised and also condemned by critics and today is widely read by young people entering museum work. Since the book is still available, I won’t rehash here the myriad good and nasty things that took place during my directorship.

In its introduction, I wrote that the place was “a combination of the Vatican, Versailles just before the fall, the Sultan’s Court and the Cave of Ali Baba.” To be the director of the Met, I said, one had to be “a gifted connoisseur, a scholar, an esthete, a diplomat, a gunslinger, fixer, smuggler, anarchist and toady.” I was all of those things.

I do have a few revisions about what I wrote twenty years ago. I never mentioned how distressed I was after accepting the job. A few days after blithely telling President Arthur Houghton, "Why not?" I realized I had made a monumental mistake and was trapped. Lindsay and his team -- some of the very ones Brooke Astor had assured me were against me -- pressured me to change my mind and remain in city government. Astor hadn’t been truthful. But it was too late.

I took a vacation in Puerto Rico before joining the Met officially -- I had been working for months as both Parks Commissioner and museum director, which was not exactly legal. Through an associate of Nancy’s we found the idyllic vacation spot on the lovely island. Nancy and I with Trea and a friend of hers went to a tiny, private beach, Chiquita del Mar, on the north shore set aside by the government for special guests.

We were invited to dinner at the home of the legendary former governor, Luis Munoz Marin. He took me aside afterwards and bluntly told me I had done a great disservice to the people of the city in resigning so soon and retreating to the "insignificant" museum. I had betrayed politics because the game needed creative, slightly crazed and forthright people like me. When I tried to protest and said that my big mouth would destroy me in politics, the governor lashed out, "What’s the point if you do not get destroyed in politics? Shame on you!"

I was rocked.

Once I was on the job full time I knew that after the heady responsibilities of administering Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs, running the dark, disappointing and, frankly, little museum, was a step backwards. At the first meeting of all the curators, I found myself facing a platoon of petty divas with loud but insignificant complaints about a plethora of minor matters. Not that they weren’t brilliant or creative or friendly, many of them were, it was just the overall bitchiness and smallness of their vision that annoyed me.

Within three months I tried to talk the Deputy Mayor into appointing me as drug czar. "You know my ability to focus press on an issue. I shall do the same for the drug issue; it’ll get nationwide press. And especially because of Nancy’s expertise, I’ll get the best people to start dealing with the growing drug use in all segments of our society."

The official, who looked like some oversized cockatoo, gave me a baleful stare and muttered, "I sure do know what you can do with the press, Tom, and that’s what worries me. You’ll just dramatize what the Mayor has not done in this area, which is a lot. Stay where you are."

In 1973 I tried to escape again. I was recruited to be the master planner for the proposed Bi-Centennial World’s Fair in Philadelphia. My scheme was to have Louis Kahn, Philadelphia’s talented architect, working with Roche, Dinkeloo, the architectural firm I had signed up to create the Metropolitan’s expansion plan, design a fabulous bridge with a series of multi-story World’s Fair structures on the first deck high above a new federal highway. Plans already called for spanning the Schuylkill River at the juncture of two uncompleted federal highways. That way Washington would complete the interstate highway and in doing so would pick up most of the costs for the fair structures, which could be used for a variety of purposes after the fair was over. A major steel factory was situated several miles above the site and the steel could be barged down at minimal cost. Roche and Dinkeloo’s drawings show a fantastic “London Bridge” festooned with searchlights eight stories high contained all the pavilions and plenty of parking spaces. The project was all set to go and then President Nixon, in a knee-jerk of paranoia, killed the idea. He preferred to have multiple celebrations in modest venues across the United States so no bunch of hippies could take over one fairgrounds.

In Mummies, I should have given more credit to the people who backed my every deed (and hunkered down without complaining when I got in trouble). This was the in-crowd of a half-dozen trustees who, essentially, told the others what to do. I failed sufficiently to praise my president, Arthur Houghton, who was a font of sparkling ideas. He had selected wily trustee Roswell Gilpatric, the head of the city’s top law firm, to be the overseer of the centennial. Ros had hired as secretary of the operation a live wire by the name of George Trescher. A gaunt, chain-smoking dynamo, Trescher had come from Time Inc. where he had helped People magazine become such a success. Houghton and Trescher looked upon the centennial as a testing ground where anything could be tried out. If it worked, it was touted as established museum policy; if it failed; it was a centennial experiment.

They had decided upon most of the major shows before I arrived and their choices were superior. Trescher even wrote the catalogue for the first show, “New York, New York, 1940-1970,” when the over-rated curator of contemporary art, Henry Geldzahler, could not finish it in time.

Without Houghton, and especially Trescher, I might have done only half of the good things I managed to accomplish. Of course neither one could save me from those stupid and profuse errors which were all my own.

I also didn’t adequately describe in Mummies how I looked upon the job, the museum and its perquisites. I came back not as a museum man but as a city parks man. I ran the Metropolitan like a city administrator, far more mindful of the needs and desires of the common folk -- the real owners -- than the wealthy trustees, patrons and donors. Like any municipal bureaucrat, I made comprehensive plans. One was the architectural master plan with the goal of completing the building on the allotted space in the park and after that to stop enlarging for all times.

Another plan, linked to the first, was to complete the visual encyclopedia. To complete the visual encyclopedia I am proud that I grabbed the Robert Lehman collection, the Temple of Dendur and, especially, the David Packard collection of Japanese art. Once that was done, the plan was to acquire only the very few rarest of the rare works of art. I was also determined to weed out lesser duplicates by selling them or giving them away or using them as loans to obtain temporarily works the museum didn’t possess. That way the museum would never need to expand physically again. 

In Mummies I failed to spell out how avid I was to de-accession supernumerary works and clean out the over-filled art attic. I knew damned well that as a curator I had at times over-collected -- just for the fun of it and for the joy of spending someone else’s money. I’d say that some departments of the Metropolitan, especially the American and European paintings collections, should get rid of at least thirty percent of their present holdings. There’s not enough space to show the stuff; much is second-rate and costs like hell to preserve. I am still in favor of making it an ironclad rule that all revenues from sales should go into collecting and keeping and exhibiting art.

I was accused then and now of “destroying the sanctity” of the mighty Met by making the place too popular and for inventing the awful “blockbuster.” I suppose I did. I stole the idea of major exhibitions from the Council of Europe, which assembled huge theme shows every four years or so -- the International Style or Charlemagne or Mogul Art -- and mounted them with a series of catalogues and seminar papers in differing museum throughout Europe. I didn’t push blockbusters for venal reasons. I simply wanted temporary shows that would allow visitors to see works they’d have a difficult time getting to, say, Cairo or the Ukraine or Brunei or someplace even further away. Curiously, the two biggest blockbusters after King Tut were Islamic art and early Christian art, not Impressionist painting.

As I have written at the outset, we could afford the “blockbusters" not because I was smart, but because a new hire, the chief financial officer, Daniel Herrick, was. He tipped me off to the idea that if the federal government could indemnify American businesses abroad against loss, so our State Department could indemnify major traveling art shows coming from abroad to private American museums. The legislation, the Arts Indemnity Act of 1975, was signed into law by Gerald Ford, who told me later on that it was the "best bill I ever signed in my tenure." Sure, the President was flattering me, but he happened to be right.

What few critics give me credit for are my aggressive initiatives to buttress scholarship, more so than any director before or since. What else for the only Ph.D. among the eight directors? I demanded that there be scholarly catalogues and published seminar reports that accompanied the major shows of the centennial. I also instituted a scholarly journal, which is still being published today.

I attribute the successes I did achieve to the fact that I had a healthy disregard for the sanctity of the mighty Metropolitan. One curator groused, "Hoving will break a few toys and then move on." He was probably right. I never believed that being the director of the Metropolitan was more exalted than being Parks Commissioner and perhaps a lot less. I turned down the offer of a chauffeur and limo, preferring a radio cab instead, since I knew that some curators who were trying to form a staff union were tailing me to tally up my “excessive” life style -- which wasn’t in the least lavish. I rode my motorcycle to work and to appointments and when that was wrecked, a scruffy little motor scooter.

Arthur Houghton told me early on that he and some other trustees had purchased a majestic duplex apartment on Fifth and 93rd Street for the director. He planned to hire the then hot interior decorator to load the place with museum furniture and works of art from every department and I’d be expected to entertain constantly (oh, goodie, a whole suit of armor, just for me). Nancy scotched the idea by saying, “we like where we are and, besides, Arthur, living in a museum apartment, means you have golden chains on our wrists.” The place was sold shortly thereafter for a profit. We continued to live in our own apartment.

I heard that one trustee had muttered, "Nancy Hoving is not a good museum director’s wife." Well, thank God for that, I thought!

When I reckoned trustees or egotistical donors deserved it, I’d criticize them. Charles Wrightsman, the oil mogul whom my stepmother had charmed, started a campaign to vilify me for instituting the pay-what-you-wish admissions deal. I showed up in the lobby of his fancy apartment across from the Arsenal, stayed until he couldn’t avoid me. I then chewed him out, perhaps not the way my Marine Corps drill instructor Harry Sinclair would have done, but enough so that he never tried to screw around with me again.

Once when trustee Roland Redmond came through some receiving line and made some inane, insulting comment about Jim Rorimer, I whispered harshly into his ear, “You piece of shit, you helped to kill him.” And I felt proud that I had been so insufferably rude.

In my book I didn’t elucidate strongly enough, once the centennial was over and the master plan had squeaked its way through a spate of lawsuits, how constricted and bored I felt. I saw myself becoming nothing more than a grandiose superintendent. I was moving farther and farther away from any contact with the art I still loved. I was bogged down in exceedingly dull household issues.

I reacted in the worst possible way -- I became a curator. Big mistake. Administrators should never become workers. I should have left all collecting and exhibitions to my superb vice-director for curatorial affairs, Ted Rousseau, and the able curatorial staff, but I meddled, just to keep myself amused and sane. When I had appointed Philippe de Montebello to succeed Rousseau after he died, I became even more of a grand curator and the institution suffered.

But was it fun! I single-handedly collected Monet’s luminescent Terrace a Ste. Addresse, the great Diego Velazquez, Juan de Pareja, and that "hot pot," as I called it, the infamous Greek 6th century B.C. vase painted by Euphronios. And I personally arranged the landmark show about Scythian art, working for weeks with my colleagues in the Soviet Union and the Louvre. I visited the Soviet Union fifteen times in a five year period, heartily enjoying myself every time (and even had a passing affair with a lovely blonde KGB agent who, thankfully, kept her mouth shut, at least to her bosses).

I created the overall theme for the King Tutankhamen show and picked every one of the fifty-five shining objects. I designed the show by selecting a series of photographs taken at the time the tomb was discovered by Harry Burton, the Met’s photographer. I arranged the objects for every participating museum in the order Howard Carter had found them and decorated the walls with over-sized Burton photographs. Going through the show was a little like going to a movie.

It has been said that I was a phenomenal fund-raiser. I wasn’t. My attitude was, if the place is exciting enough and talked about enough and does good things, the money will pour in over the transom. It did. The largest amount of money that was given because of me, I never asked for. This was the donation that Lila Acheson Wallace, the co-founder of the Reader’s Digest, gave over several years. We’d have lunch in the River Club many Wednesdays and she’d coyly tell me over martinis that she was giving the New York Community trust a few shares of Digest stock to be given to the Met at the proper time. When, after her death and when the company went public, the Met’s "little gifties," as she put it, amounted to over three hundred and fifty million bucks.

My only true accomplishments at the Met were helping to complete the visual encyclopedia and buttoning up the building program. I simply continued the tasks my nineteenth century forebears had dreamed of. I did nothing as worthy or creative as closing parks drives or arranging an 832-acre capture-the-flag game or getting massive amounts of capital budget moneys for adventure playgrounds and bocce courts.

As director I became a much-hated man. Parks lovers felt I had betrayed them by drafting the master plan that called for expanding the museum from seven to fourteen acres. The elitist art critics loathed me for encouraging so many people into the joint. Some visitors didn’t like me because they had to crane their necks to see the art.

It has been rumored that I was fired in 1977. The rumor was spread by my former friend, trustee Roswell Gilpatric. Truth is, I quit, partly because I was getting bored, partly because of a hissy fit I pulled with Gilpatric for canceling the purchase at auction of a painting I wanted (and had raised the money for), but mostly because I believed firmly that for CEOs to remain more than ten years at any institution was injurious to both the individual and the place as well. Beyond ten years, the director almost unconsciously begins to do everything to stay longer. And the trustees, wanting to avoid the agonies of the selection process, will do anything to keep the director bubbling quietly away. Sometimes having a director longer than a decade works -- but it’s rare and usually conceals considerable malaise inside the institution.

Months before I left, I alerted the board president who followed Houghton, the indomitable Douglas Dillon, one of the most honest men I have ever had the pleasure to work for, that I would bow out at the stroke of a decade. "After all, Doug, the New York Times called me the ’disaster of the decade’ and I wouldn’t want to disappoint them."

He agreed and I left -- almost to the day. When I did the museum’s finances were so strong that to hide our surplus from city and state officials, every curator received five quarters of pay for four quarters of work.

Did I mature as director of the Metropolitan? No. Had I been truly creative? No. I now believe I pretty much wasted my time and should have quit after five years. That would have given me the Met cachet and would also have allowed me to go back to my earlier risk-all, imaginative, too-many-aptitudes true self.

Dillon asked Nancy what I would like as a going-away present.

"He’s got a watch, a cheapo Casio, so forget about that. My suggestion is to give him a lifetime free space in that lucrative underground parking garage he built."

This is chapter 27 of Artful Tom, A Memoir, which is being posted in full in Artnet Magazine. For the complete book to date, click here.


THOMAS HOVING is author of Master Pieces: The Curator’s Game (2005). He is former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He can be reached at Send Email