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A BILLET-DOUX
FOR THE MET

by Thomas Hoving
 
Back in 1967, the Metropolitan Museum selection committee invited me to tell the members what I thought the museum should do next. I prepared for a week and I shocked them. Subsequently, they made me the seventh director of the museum and charged me with carrying out my wild recommendations.

* Suck up slavishly to the city. According to the original charter, New York City is responsible for paying all museum guards and maintainers. Today the museum can ignore this, since the municipality has long ago reneged on its legal financial obligations.

* Pay women employees the same rate as men and go into debt to do it -- fast. Accomplished.

* Stop a nascent Curators’ Union from forming. Done. In a rare, possibly unique move, management abruptly called for a federal NLRB election and the nascent union lost 70 to 30 percent.

* Plan and mount major loan exhibitions. And the "blockbuster" was born.

* Clean the joint up -- it was dark and dingy -- and create a master plan for ultimate expansion. Partly done, although significant areas are still dark and dingy.

* Snag the Robert Lehman Collection. Done. But now’s the time to get rid of it. See below.

* Re-write the by-laws and constitution to prepare for a new era of radical experimentation. Done and should be done again.

Today, if the search committee called me in -- which would truly be a unique event -- I’d suggest the following:

* Solve the chronic deficits, which are beginning to look like permanent acquisitions. Now a bit over $1 million, the deficit rolls on year after year.

* Weed out the over-inflated staff -- and that means curators, too. The cut should be at least five percent across the board. The layoffs can be handled through attrition. I’d single out the large special exhibition staff and the many fundraisers. Why is it still necessary to have a highly paid president as well as a munificently salaried director?

* Edit the board of trustees and change the by-laws to ease the elderly out faster.

* Slow down, even stop collecting. The Met has too much stuff as it is and not enough space to exhibit or store the works. And the museum made a deal with the city never to expand beyond the current footprint. Collect at most ten pieces a year and only those that positively add to the massive holdings (no footnotes, only grand treasures). Get splendid pieces by forming long-term exchange loans with the museums of Europe and Asia. 

* What to do with the plethora of pieces? De-accession at least 10 percent of all the holdings, starting with the storeroom material. The revenues could be used to buy such expensive and magnificent treasures like the Duccio Madonna and Child, one of the finest acquisitions in the Met’s history. Step one should be to give works to smaller museums across the country, especially those who have been badly hurt by natural disasters like New Orleans and Cedar Rapids. The Met recently announced that it will lend 28 pieces by artists like Beverly Pepper, Tony Smith and Louise Bourgeois to the University of Texas in Austin. Bravo! But why not make it a permanent gift?

* After the first round of de-accessioning and giving away, it’s an email to the rich collectors in Dubai and Russia.

* Mount shows that teach about the wonders of art and are more ambitious than the one-man omnibus everything-including-the-kitchen-sink "catalogue" shows that are current -- e.g., Courbet, Turner, Jasper Johns. Mount shows from the Met’s own collections on themes that actually tell visitors something. Why not "The Dark Ages" with a grand gathering of spectacular art from early Christian times up to the Carolingian revival? The art is not "dark" at all. Or "Hellenistic Art"? That’s never been done. Or shows about fascinating art personalities like the gnarly and brilliant Harry Packard, whose collection of Japanese art put the museum on the map.

* The Met has been admirably added to and spruced up in the past three decades, especially the much-needed Greek and Roman galleries, but vast areas of the museum still need refurbishing -- principally the Medieval and Western European galleries. It’s a joke the way one abruptly moves from 14th-century medieval art to the Baroque of the 17th century and back again to medieval without any indication of passage through time and culture. The Met officials seem to have an aversion to commonsense signs.

Those narrow corridors leading from the Great Hall to the Medieval Sculpture Hall with early Byzantine stuff have always been a disgrace. The effort to free up some sort of treasury beneath the main stairway (where mops and buckets used to be stored) was a noble one, but the space is far too cramped. Now is the time for the so-called Great Stairs to disappear and have western civilization present itself directly from the entrance. (The first piece on view should be the monumental, stunning head of Emperor Constantine.) The side galleries can be the much-needed escalators to the second floor.

* The subterranean restaurant beneath the Medieval Sculpture Hall is unappealing. Use its space for a grandiose crypt for a Medieval Treasury and put the restaurant where it belongs -- on the roof of the Lehman Pavilion.

* Get the board of the Robert Lehman Foundation to agree to put Lehman’s paintings, drawings and decorative arts in the departments where they belong. Before he died, Robert Lehman told me that the Lehman Pavilion should be there exclusively for his possessions for only 25 years. It’s time to use the pavilion full-time as a special exhibition gallery. Also, have the Linsky executors or whoever is responsible do the same with the Jack and Belle Linsky material.

* Show but do not collect modern or contemporary art (except in the most minimal numbers). Other New York City institutions are dedicated exclusively to that task and do it a lot better than the Met. Maybe it’s time to make deals with the Museum of Modern Art to give or sell the Met works that are arguably "old modern masters" by now.

* Above all, become lively, experimental and freewheeling. The current director was instructed 30 years ago to consolidate the revolution of the late 1960s and ‘70s. Three decades of consolidation is a bit much.


THOMAS HOVING is author of Master Pieces: The Curator’s Game (2005).