Pinky says: On Museum Directors

The Nelson Atkins Museum in Kansas City has a new director, Julian Zugazagoitia.  Julian has begun his tenure with great style and energy.  He is the proverbial new broom introducing new ways of looking at art and thinking about it.  He has also given much thought to utilizing unused space in the museum such as the lobby of the Bloch Building.  How might he compare to one of the most influential museum directors ever known, Thomas Hoving?  As director of the Metropolitan Museum in New York from l967 to l977, Hoving introduced the world to blockbuster exhibitions that brought people who had never entertained the idea of attendance at cultural shindigs into American museums.  But of course, I am speaking only of the positive characteristics that Hoving possessed.

By Hoving’s own admission, he had the ability to disguise his worst traits.  He described himself as cold, driven, hypocritical and impulsive.  Moreover he felt that to be effective and to survive, he had to be part gunslinger, legal fixer, accomplice smuggler, anarchist and toady.  In short, he fancied himself as a marauder in the high toned restrictive museum world.  He literally changed the direction and purpose of museums.  “Whatʼs to relish nowadays?  The sense of excitement, joy, life which envelops a successful exhibition, the enormous increase in young people both in the galleries and the crowds of them that spill out onto the great steps and the plaza of the Metropolitan; the feeling that one must be doing something right despite the laments of the nitpickers.”  Hoving was a perennial thorn in the side of the museum Mafia.  In the public imagination, museum directors should be donnish and discreet, impeccable, tasteful and thoroughly proper.

During his years at the Met, he transformed it from a staid, stuffy institution into a vibrant and stimulating one.  Thomas Pearsall Field Hoving was a native New Yorker.  His father was the head of Tiffany’s, and Tom grew up surrounded by New Yorkʼs upper social strata.  These early experiences would be invaluable in his later dealings with the Metʼs donors and trustees.  All of his education took place at Princeton where he acquired a B.A, M.F.A, and Ph.D before coming to the Met to work as curator in the medieval department.  He was tall, slender and aristocratic and he specialized in the grand gesture.  His first coup was the acquisition of the Bury St. Edmunds Cross, discovering the hiding place of this 12th century masterpiece and negotiating its purchase for $500,000.  He had followed a labyrinthine trail and uncovered through meticulous detective work the bank vault in Zurich where he examined what he eventually identified as the cross.  His lust to acquire it overcame all shame.  “I am being devoured by this cross.  I want it, I need it,” he once pleaded with a dealer who knew of its whereabouts.

He assumed the directorship of the Met at the age of 35 after the sudden death of James Rorimer, and presided over the massive expansion and renovation of the museum, successfully adding many important collections to its holdings.   Hyperactive and never taking no for an answer, he traveled the world ceaselessly, cultivating contacts and making acquisitions, the more headline catching the better.  The Met bought Velasquezʼs portrait of his slave Juan de Pareja for the then shocking record price of $5.5 million.  First however, Hoving had spent 3 hours looking at the painting and was able to satisfy himself that under a thick ugly 20th century varnish lay a 17th century masterpiece.  His distinctive approach to expanding the Metʼs collections was to pursue a smaller number of what he termed world-class pieces rather than purchasing more comprehensive holdings of relatively modest works.  He also spearheaded a number of building projects and renovations of the Met itself, from a controversial expansion of its galleries into Central Park to the construction of its underground parking garage.

Hoving was an unapologetic showman and hustler, with boundless energy and an unceasing craving for attention.  He was the youngest director of the Met in its history.  He swept like a gale through the Metʼs fusty corridors.  He enlarged its collections, adding galleries for Islamic, African, and Pacific art, and brash contemporary art as well.  He had banners draped outside to advertise popular attractions, and promote the blockbuster special exhibitions that he largely pioneered but which then became staples of museums around the world.  The Met became more popular, more trendy; though its crustier aficionados would say distinctly more vulgar.  He was the moving spirit behind the Tutankhamun show that was the climax of his endeavors.  In four months, 1.3 million people came to see it, bringing an extra $100 million of tourism revenue to the city.  ʻKing Tutʼ also sealed the emergence of the museum store as a shopping destination in its own right, another innovation on Hovingʼs part.  In his memoirs, he made no secret of his willingness to do anything to obtain valuable works of art, including spending huge sums of money.  He defined his approach as piracy and was boastful of his hefty black book of art dealers, smugglers, and fixers.  His driving motivation was to open the art world to everybody, not just the exclusive elites of art.  Although he was impulsive, obsessive, brazen and egoistical, he was above all truly passionate about art.  He breathed new life into the Met, threw its doors wide open and “made the mummies dance”.  After his departure, the Met and every other major museum would never be the same.  Hoving died in December of 2009, leaving behind a legacy of more than 30 years of innovation.

Just how much will his presence and contributions to art affect young directors like Julian Zugazagoitia?  These are not the days for thinking in expansionist terms.  Certainly, we have a world class building to hand to him but we do not have the money nor is there the availability of world-class art for purchase today.  We must wait to see what his plans are for the Nelson.  Julian has a wonderful pleasing approach to his job; he has the showmanship combined with a genial personality that Hoving lacked.  And he has a desire to make museum going an important part of living in Kansas City.  I personally think heʼs up to the challenge!

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