By: Jonathon Keats
By Michael Gross
Broadway Books, $29.95
The defining moment in the career of James Rorimer, the sixth director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, fell on Nov. 9, 1965, when a blackout shut down the northeastern United States. With a loaded gun in hand, Rorimer patrolled his museum from dusk until dawn. He was, in the words of one associate, “a housekeeper extraordinaire,” an administrator safeguarding the past against an uncertain future.
Rorimer’s successor, Thomas Hoving, was the opposite. He acquired the Temple of Dendur, tried to build satellite museums beneath geodesic domes in the Bronx and dumped 14 “routine Monets” to free up funds to buy a Francis Bacon. “To oversimplify only somewhat,” observes investigative journalist Michael Gross, “the Metropolitan Museum has always swung between two poles, two kinds of directors, revolutionaries and reactionaries, change agents and consolidators.” In Rogues’ Gallery Gross exhaustively documents the Met’s mood swings and their consequences since the museum was founded by 27 prominent New Yorkers in 1870.
The ambitions of wealthy patrons guided the Met from the beginning. Even before it found a permanent location, the executive committee announced plans to create “a more or less complete (collection) from the earliest beginnings to the present.” Toward that end, it bought paintings with such voraciousness that it became, in the words of one contemporary observer, “the great hope of every art operator in Europe.”
It also became the great hope of Luigi Palma di Cesnola, a self-made Italian count who had fought in the Civil War, claimed the rank of general and negotiated a consular posting in Cyprus based on purported promises from the late President Lincoln. There he supplemented his income by importing sewing machines, until the British consul alerted him to the island’s considerably more lucrative exporting opportunities. Cesnola was a quick study. He added “archaeologist” to his titles and began stripping Cyprus of ancient artifacts. The Met became one of his clients, and, as the Turks moved to terminate his operations, it also became his best option for future employment. In 1879 he was appointed the museum’s first director.
Cesnola ruled for 25 contentious years. As Gross amply demonstrates, he lied about excavation sites, assembled spurious masterpieces from mismatched artifacts and represented himself as a scholar on grounds as shaky as his claims to nobility. Eventually much of his unexhibitable loot was deaccessioned and his name nearly forgotten. Still, the eccentrically encyclopedic museum we know today owes more to the irrational exuberance that Cesnola and his megalomaniacal trustees set in motion than to the responsible stewardship of later directors.
So how do we judge the recently ended 31-year tenure of Philippe de Montebello? Today the Met is everything its founders dreamed, with more than two million objects representing 5,000 years of civilization. Its collection has been valued at up to $400 billion. Some of it was added under Montebello’s watch, yet Gross is right to characterize him as essentially a “maintenance man.”
Though neither he nor anyone else at the Met would speak to Gross—most likely in the vain hope that they would be spared the sort of embarrassment caused by the author’s previous high-society tell-all, 740 Park—Montebello would likely agree that his legacy is custodial. Nor does Gross mean that appraisal as an insult. His scorn is directed mostly at the pettiness of rich trustees such as Jayne Wrightsman and Annette de la Renta, whose every foible has been uncovered by his team of 12 researchers, apparently without editorial guidance. These tiresome pages will undoubtedly generate scandal in the tabloids and sales at Barnes & Noble, when what is truly scandalous is the Montebello regime’s programmatic conservatism.
Over the past three decades, the museum has become monumentally past-tense. Contemporary art is quarantined under a 50-year rule, and an equivalent guilty-until-proven-innocent policy seems to block institutional innovation. While paying homage to “conservative values such as Montebello’s,” Gross acknowledges that it will not be possible to follow his course indefinitely. The museum “needs regular challenges … to ensure it doesn’t tumble into irrelevance,” he writes. “And it needs money, gobs of it.” Much of that is likely to be new money, impatient in pursuit of the contemporary, money to make Gross fret that novelty will overwhelm the Met’s “well-seasoned wealth and taste.”
Gross can be excused for his boorishness on artistic matters, but it is worth revisiting one episode from the Hoving era, which he misinterprets and which might provide a template for the future. In 1968 Hoving had James Rosenquist’s new F111on loan from Robert Scull. Rather than hanging it in the contemporary galleries, he showed it with Emanuel Leutze’s George Washington Crossing the Delaware, Jacques-Louis David’s Death of Socrates and Nicolas Poussin’s Rape of the Sabine Women. In Gross’ recounting Hoving cautiously presented F111 “not as contemporary art but as a historical painting,” when in reality he was leveraging it to make the entire exhibition radically contemporary. Four decades ago he was pioneering the role of curator as installation artist, and demonstrating that even the most exhausted repository of moribund masterpieces can be reinvigorated by a combination of new work and new ideas.