Art Iconoclast Storms the Barricades Thomas Hoving, Former Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Muses over His Tenure

By David Holmstrom, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, January 2, 1993 | Go to article overview

Art Iconoclast Storms the Barricades Thomas Hoving, Former Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Muses over His Tenure


David Holmstrom, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


AS a young man working in a men's clothing store one summer, Tom Hoving's job was to quickly judge the suit size of the gentlemen entering the store; a 39 regular, or a 38 regular-portly, or a 42 extra-long. Mr. Hoving would then politely direct the man to the appropriate part of the store.

Now, as Hoving opens the door of his hotel room, he is a 44 or 46 long, trim as a palm tree, booming with energy, bright-eyed, and wearing a crisp, white shirt with no tie.

As the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for the decade beginning in 1967, Hoving virtually ripped off the musty, conservative male suit the old museum was wearing and slipped it into something androgynous with streaks of color and daring flashes of skin. He blasted the staid image of museums and launched a revolution that still echoes in the exciting ways most museums validate art in exhibitions and activities today.

Hoving's new book, "Making the Mummies Dance" (Simon & Schuster, 1993, 447 pp. $25), is a rapid-fire, tell-all account of how he did it. He exposes the greed, occasional fun, and clandestine maneuvering behind closed doors that twisted the perceptions of the extremely wealthy who plotted as museum trustees to get art at all costs.

"I wanted to write about the inside of the museum culture," says Hoving, "and show the rough side. The engine is greed. I was full of greed as a collector, but I don't have a chip on my shoulder, and I'm not getting back at anybody."

During an interview, Hoving explained himself and his Met experience with plenty of references to pop culture and fine arts, while sometimes playfully imitating mobsters or British effetes. He coined words like "pharaohnessa," meaning someone like a contessa - only richer. He laughed a lot. As a 44 or 46 long, Hoving's enthusiasm for art and life flaps like a banner in the wind. The following are excerpts from the interview.

Do enormously wealthy people revere art for itself, or for what art can do for them?

Seventy-five percent of them want to know what art will do for them. They want people to walk in their house and say, "he's rich," because there is a 6-foot-by-4-foot Gauguin over the fireplace. There is no jockeying for position as to who is wealthier; the host is. Some had agents hired to stroke the art market to find works of art to show {that the clients} were not only rich, but also had character. Thank goodness my sanity was kept by the other 25 percent who had this passion for art.

Paul Mellon, one of the best trustees in the history of museums always said, "I am an art communist. I am rich enough to get anything, and I immediately give it to the people."

You started the idea of a museum store selling reproductions, and now museum stores are everywhere, including satellite museums. …

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