Remembering Thomas Hoving's Decade At The Met During his decade as director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Thomas Hoving is credited with transforming the museum from a somber monolith into a friendly and exciting place. Hoving died Thursday of cancer at his Manhattan home, according to his family. He was 78.
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Remembering Thomas Hoving's Decade At The Met

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Remembering Thomas Hoving's Decade At The Met

Remembering Thomas Hoving's Decade At The Met

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Thomas Hoving, the influential and attention-getting director of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1967 to 1977, died yesterday at his home in Manhattan. He was 78 years old. Hoving's 10-year reign was transformational for the museum. His ambition was to blow the dust off the place and make it into people's cultural paradise. He opened a gift shop and brought in blockbuster shows like "King Tut," which attracted crowds in unprecedented numbers. He expanded the museum and bought new works with money he raised by selling old ones. After leaving the museum, he edited Connoisseur magazine and wrote a memoir in which revealed that when he came to the Met he saw himself as the new guard. When Terry Gross spoke with Thomas Hoving in 1993, he told her he was intent on getting rid of the old guard, particularly the trustees.

Mr. THOMAS HOVING (Former Director, Metropolitan Museum of Art): Well, they talked rather like this, you know, and they didn't like the madding herd, and they didn't like primitive art and they thought that contemporary art would best be perhaps burned - like that. Until I got there, you did not have a department of contemporary painting and sculpture.

GROSS: Why not?

Mr. HOVING: Beats me. And no one was allowed - a living artist was not allowed to show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And the idea that this great encyclopedia, the only one on Earth that has 50 centuries of something, of every civilization, did not have living people. You had to die before you got in there. It seemed to be so stultifying that we did change it and we began to show one-man shows of living artists and it was marvelous.

GROSS: How did you change it?

Mr. HOVING: Simply said, we're going to have a department of contemporary and if you have contemporary the chances are somebody's going to be alive. And one of the shows we did was Francis Bacon and he actually came in and arranged the exhibition himself. And that was stunning to watch what an artist does with his own works - totally different from what an exhibitor or a curator would've done, completely different.

GROSS: One of the first contemporary paintings that you showed at the Met when you were there was James Rosenquist's �F-111.�

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Why was it so controversial?

Mr. HOVING: I can't figure it. Look at it today, it's a huge pop art painting and it's got part of the F-111 jetfighter. It's got a baby doll under a hairdryer and it's got some spaghetti rolling around on the floor. I mean it's one of these kinetic images that Jim Rosenquist did then very well - still does. And I had made the mistake of exhibiting it as a history painting. There used to be in the academies of the 18th and 19th century, categories of painting: portraiture, still life, history painting. And it was a history painting. It was a modern history painting, so I showed it in the same gallery as Jacques-Louis David's "Death of Socrates" and I showed it with a large sketch of Emanuel Leutze's "Washington Crossing the Delaware." And the art critics, one of them accused me of being morally turpitudinous. And I had to go to Webster's, frankly, to find out what turpitudinous meant. It means you have a low, sleazy and disgusting lifestyle or something. And I was morally incorrect because I showed this picture next to Jacques-Louis David. And they got really annoyed because of that. People got very annoyed.

GROSS: Did you like the painting?

Mr. HOVING: I adored the painting. I still do. I tried to get it for the Met. Robert Scull and his wife Ethel owned it and they promised me they would give it. They didn't. They promised me they would give the great Andy Warhol Ethel Scull 36 times and guess what? They walked out. They chintzed.

GROSS: Now why do I think that you are speaking of these people differently now than you spoke of them, or to them, when you were the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art?

Mr. HOVING: Well, when I was facing Nelson Rockefeller I kissed his feet. I suckled his fingers. I said sir. I was a toady. Now occasionally, I would come right to grips with some of these people, although I did, God knows, flatter them and tried to make them very happy, I would tell them you're wrong on this or, you know, we're not going to do that. So I did have a couple of times when - well, more than a couple, when I would get into fracases with potential donors. Well, they tried to throw me out. The board tried to oust me three times for good reason. They should've probably, but they didn't. So it was both. I mean I toadied sometimes and then would hit them in the face the other.

GROSS: Were you ever picky about who you took money from? Would you take it from anybody who'd give it?

Mr. HOVING: No, we were quite, quite selective about it and it - the tobacco -we had one brush with Philip Morris for a collection - treasures of the great Hye Foundation, which are the American Indian things that were up at 158th Street. It's about to go down to the Smithsonian now and there's going to be a big American Indian museum on the mall. It was that collection. It had not been shown. We showed extraordinary pieces from this huge collection. And we got a grant from Philip Morris and I looked at the proofs of the catalog and there the chairman of Philip Morris had written and signed, and he had a paragraph starting off, it said: Because of our deep affection for the reverence that American Indians held for tobacco. So I called him and said hold it...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOVING: �you know, what is this? Because it's a religious - you can't do that. So the guy said, you know, we're going to take our money away. I said take your money away. Well they didn't, but that paragraph was expunged and we never dealt with the cigarette guys anymore.

GROSS: In your book "Making the Mummies Dance," you say that to be effective and to survive as director you had to be part gunslinger, part ward healer, legal fixer, accomplice, smuggler, anarchist and toady. I think we got to the toady part that you were referring to.

Mr. HOVING: Right.

GROSS: Let's get to the part of your job description that you describe as accomplice smuggler.

Mr. HOVING: Well, in the days before 1971 in the art business, there were no rules. There was no UNESCO Treaty trying to stop the outrageous flow of smuggled treasures from Turkey, Greece, Italy. You bought an antiquity because it was beautiful and you didn't have to have papers for provenance, whether it came from this or that collection. Everybody knew it was dug up three months before. The mud was virtually still fresh on the stuff and it cost, whatever it cost you said great and buy it. Then it became apparent in 1970, when UNESCO was beginning to draft its treaty that many nations have signed - America has -that the old era of looking the other way or laughing about it was gone.

And so, I, as director, became part of the drafting team on UNESCO treaty because I knew, A, it's over. So, don't try to keep the past alive. Now you got to be respectful of what did this thing have as a history? And we began to do that rather sharply and the Met's dealings with known hot pieces began to diminish sharply after about 1971. And they don't do it at all today. Virtually no museum does. Well, a few in the United States still do.

GROSS: You said that you've used subterfuge in buying works and one example you give is when you were buying the Velazquez's painting you organized what you described as a disinformation campaign. You say we spread rumors around, like the disinformation section of the KGB.

Mr. HOVING: And probably we did a better job. There are several copies of the great painting, �Juan de Pareja.� There's one at the Hispanic Society in New York, which is definitely a copy of about 50, 100 years later. We put out rumors that this was the real one and the one coming up for auction must have been one of the copies. And people believed it because you're looking at a painting for five millions bucks, you don't want any doubts.

GROSS: How did you spread that rumor?

Mr. HOVING: Oh, we just told various people that I know - go to nothing but cocktail parties and dinner parties and tell their host and hostess what they know. And we saw to what they knew and the words spread like wild fire, wild fire.

GROSS: Now what is the morality of spreading lies about art?

Mr. HOVING: Well, it's part of the business. It has no morality whatsoever. It just happens to be a technique that since it wasn't published it was rumors, it was an opinion. So what? You know, it was part - it's smoke-screening.

GROSS: One of the things that you are pretty famous for in the art world is being one of the forces behind the blockbuster show. You didn't invent the blockbuster show but you certainly popularized it and you were one of the people kind of responsible for its spread. Is that the - popularity�

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOVING: We, one, focused it. The whole point of blockbusters at the Met was to bring the public something they could never see on their own or have a very hard time seeing. I mean, it's not everybody who can get on a plane and go to the Hermitage for a long weekend or go to Cairo for two days and come back after seeing King Tut.

So, we wanted to bring to people things that, one, they could not see. Two, they didn't even know as art, for example, Scythian art. These are the nomad tribes of the Ukraine who populated that part of what was then the Soviet Union during the sixth and fifth century B.C. And not a single one of their glorious works of art had ever been seen outside the Soviet Union because Peter the Great had passed a law saying it should not be moved or sold or let out.

So, nobody knew about it and it's art that is equivalent to the greatest Greek and the Hellenistic Art. And we showed that, not - we did not do paintings from the Hermitage because we have Rembrandts, we have Poussins, we have all that. And we decided to exchange our old masters for something that nobody even knew about.

So, part of it was to bring to people through a temporary exhibition things you could never have in the permanent collection. That was the main reason. We also marketed these shows pretty well. We were the first once that ever ran ads. We were the first ones that ever had radio and television ads and people talking about it. We were also the first ever to have a corporation fund one of these things. And they then picked up advertising campaigns and that had a further impact upon the word getting out. So, in a sense we took what existed - great art shows had been for sometime - and simply put them into the contemporary mode and it worked wonders. I think there were some lovely ones and there were some awful ones. I think right now the age of the blockbuster is a dinosaur. I think it's dead. And I think they should be given the last rites.

GROSS: Why do think it's dead now?

Mr. HOVING: Well, they're not really blockbusters anymore. They say they are. There will be a great show of Caravaggio in which there are three Caravaggios and the rest are followers. And you can't afford - the point is that art prices have risen to such ridiculously astronomical heights that nobody can afford the cost of insurance and other things to bring the works of you name it into one place anymore. It's virtually impossible to do.

And even the Matisse show, that may be the last of these hugely expensive things because people are unwilling to lend anymore. And it's too costly. I mean, that show is what, 68 million bucks - a thing like that. That's amazing -68 million bucks, my goodness. So, I think probably there are other things that can be done instead of the standard blockbuster. They're getting boring.

GROSS: Thomas Hoving, one last question: The health of the art world.

Mr. HOVING: Hmm.

GROSS: What's your assessment?

Mr. HOVING: Well, if they can get over the political and religious right attack on all art, not just the couple of performance artists or so, but all art. If they can get over this period of creeping iconoclasm and do it courageously, I think things would be fine. So, I think, it's generally healthy but they've got to solve this censorship thing. Our greatest exportable product in America today is our freedom of our arts.

BIANCULLI: Thomas Hoving speaking to Terry Gross in 1993. The former director of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art died yesterday at age 78. By the way, Ethel Scull eventually donated Warhol's Ethel Scull 36 Times to the Met, shared with the Whitney Museum.

Coming up, film critic David Edelstein on the new movie adaptation of �The Lovely Bones.� This is FRESH AIR.

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