BY Brian Sholis in Frieze | 08 MAY 09

Rogues’ Gallery

Michael Gross’s new history of the Metropolitan Museum

BY Brian Sholis in Frieze | 08 MAY 09

In September 2007, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art opened ‘The Age of Rembrandt’, an exhibition presenting the museum’s entire collection of Dutch paintings made between 1600 and 1800. Included alongside Rembrandt were such acknowledged masters as Frans Hals, Jacob van Ruisdael, Gerard ter Borch and Johannes Vermeer (of whose 35 known paintings the museum owns five). But rather than arrange the canvases by date of creation or by genre, the curator somewhat controversially chose to display the paintings in the order in which they entered the museum’s collection. The first gallery featured part of the fabled ’1871 Purchase’, made the year after the museum’s founding, and subsequent galleries highlighted individual bequests, such as the one made by Benjamin Altman in 1913. Donors’ names, in block letters, hovered high on the wall above many of the works.

Michael Gross’s Rogues’ Gallery: The Secret History of the Moguls and the Money That Made the Metropolitan Museum, published this week by Broadway, follows a similar logic. Rather than pay close attention to the merits of individual exhibitions or examine the public’s perception of the institution, Gross revels in the internecine squabbling among Met directors, board members, curators and New York City officials over the growth, acquisitions and public orientation of the museum. The book, akin to a 500-page Vanity Fair article, is an unabashedly unofficial history – Gross makes much of being denied official access to the museum’s archives and its employees, as Calvin Tomkins enjoyed for his history Merchants and Masterpieces (1970). Nonetheless, in its own way, Rogues’ Gallery is synoptic, ranging from the Met’s early days as ‘a firetrap with shellacked floors and walls covered with red billiard cloth’ to the questions facing the institution today as it adjusts to a new director, Thomas P. Campbell, after being led for 30 years by Philippe de Montebello. It quickly becomes clear that Gross’s large cast of characters is not only squabbling over the institution itself; many are also jockeying for position among New York’s social elite. Indeed, Gross’s last book, 740 Park (2005), which looked inside the eponymous Manhattan co-op building, gives him a very particular take on the goings-on less than a mile away at 1000 Fifth Avenue. He believes we live in ‘a world where behind almost every painting is a fortune and behind that a sin or a crime’, and, whether a reader feels Gross is animated by reportorial skepticism or something more akin to antipathy, there’s no doubt he’s out to find dirt.

Gross wields considerable journalistic skills in that effort, easily debunking Montebello’s disingenuous (if entirely unexceptional) assertion, reprinted on the book’s dust jacket, that ‘The museum has no secrets’. From the trumped-up war-hero claims and dodgy antiquities excavations of Luigi Palma di Cesnola, appointed the museum’s first director in 1879, to the soap opera–like marital intrigues and inheritance disputations that accompanied many of the greatest donations and gifts of art to the institution in the past half-century, Gross is a meticulous storyteller, and Rogues’ Gallery is an entertaining romp. Each of his six chapters focuses on a different key figure or figures, from Cesnola to J. Pierpont Morgan, John D. Rockefeller Jr., Robert Moses, Thomas Hoving, and Jane and Annette Engelhard (the latter known today as Annette de la Renta). Within this framework, Gross ranges widely – each chapter includes dozens of players.

Moses, in particular, is an inspired lens through which to view the museum at midcentury. Granted an ex-officio board seat as Commissioner of Parks, the power broker used the city’s annual appropriation of funds to cover the Met’s operating costs as a lever to try, among other efforts, seating a woman on the boys’-club board. Also strong is Gross’s patient reconstruction of the quasi-familial relationship between the elderly Rockefeller and the young medieval curator (and later museum director) James Rorimer. ‘Junior’ and Rorimer spent decades slowly piecing together the land, building and collection that make up The Cloisters, all the while swatting away a pesky (if talented) artist, George Grey Barnard, who owned neighbouring land, was at work on a commission for Junior’s family estate, and was involved in the export of French treasures. Likewise, those who have followed newspaper accounts of the recent disputes over the Met’s antiquities, including the Euphronios krater, will learn something new.

For an art-world audience, Gross is most fascinating when he keeps within the museum’s orbit. When he floats out into the realm of high-society gossip, anonymously quoting the former lovers or neighbours of his protagonists, one’s interest wanes – yet it seems this is precisely when Gross himself becomes most intrigued by his material. The story picks up noticeably once he is able to gab with still-living subjects (or with those willing to dish about them). Hoving, who was director of the museum from 1967 to 1977 and who has published his own memoir, Making the Mummies Dance (1994), is an inveterate talker and one of Gross’s obvious favorites. (Montebello, who is Hoving’s temperamental opposite and who denied Gross the access he wanted, is treated distinctly uncharitably.) One result of these authorial preferences are the long stretches in the second half of the book in which well-known but marginal-to-the-story figures like Kirk Douglas and Katharine Hepburn make cameos, or others in which the reader encounters passages such as this: ‘Late in 1954, Leigh got a Mexican divorce from her husband, the son of the gossip columnist Suzy, and immediately married Portago. It didn’t last, in large part because he was still married to Carroll, so after he got Leigh pregnant, he hightailed it to Paris and reconciled with his first (and legally only) wife.’ While I haven’t included full names, sentences like these are somewhat bewildering even in context.

The larger tension underlying the myriad instances of backbiting and legal wrangling recounted in Rogues’ Gallery is between institutional elitism and democratic impulses. Should the Met emphasize conservative values, upholding aesthetic and institutional tradition even in the face of charges of exclusivity? Or should the doors be thrown open to the masses and the collection admit relatively new (and as yet unconsecrated) artworks by living artists? One virtue of Tomkins’s earlier book, largely missing from Gross’s study, is the extent to which the museum’s late-19th-century founders were vexed by this very question, and the emphasis they thus placed on the museum’s educational mission. After reading Rogues’ Gallery, it’s fair to think that, thanks to the efforts of Francis Henry Taylor, director of the museum from 1940 to 1955, and Hoving, the museum will never return to the insulated stance of its earliest decades. The difficulty, of course, is preventing the slide into exhibitions of Star Wars memorabilia. Montebello reconciled populist tendencies with scholarly standards, honouring obligations to both the art-world community and the public. While Gross’s chronicle of competing egos and the millions of dollars they control doesn’t capture the essence of the institution’s public value, it nonetheless renders vivid just how difficult it must be to maintain that balance.

is curator of photography at the Cincinnati Art Museum, USA.