560 pages, Broadway, ISBN-13: 978-0767924887
Michael Gross has written the definitive book on the history of the Metropolitan Museum of Art – “The Met” – located in Central Park in New York City, a work that was not supported by the Met’s executive committee who were hostile to any “literary” interpretations of the museum’s history since its founding in 1870 from seeing the light of day. I, for one, can’t imagine anyone else doing a better job of the extraordinarily fine and exhaustive research in this iconoclast portrait; to quote the author: “Behind almost every painting is a fortune and behind that a sin or a crime”. You just know that the egos and the mania and the power makers and climbers will be well represented in this history, for although the solid exterior of Richard Morris Hunt’s main building gives the appearance of order, quiet, perfection and harmony, inside there is a fascinating world of great egos, money, power, and hundreds of ghosts, not all of them nice ones.
Gross takes us through the ages, from the post-Civil War moguls who founded the museum to the new tycoons of the present age. It is a vast tale, but one which Gross weaves with his usual clipped style, throwing in colorful tidbits along the way. A magnificent job of reporting and laying it all out there to let the Public decide if they have been well served by the power makers, the curators and the public “servants” up to the present. Gross is at his strongest and his most interesting when he chronicles the interminable tugs of war between the trustees, donors and curators on the one hand and the city authorities on the other over the institution’s core mission: was the museum’s goal simply to make insiders feel self-important, or was it also to create in the public a sense of what great art was and could be? The Met (which has always relied on public funding) has also always wrestled with the degree to which it is willing to bow to a more populist approach, as Gross deftly shows, starting with his survey of the furious debate over whether or not to open the institution’s doors on a Sunday, the only day the hoi polloi had free and on which they could realistically be expected to visit. Gross shows how a similar struggle between serving the public and catering to wealthy donors and trustees has continued to this day, in everything from its admissions policies to the way it displays its works. Frequent (ordinary) Met-goers are likely to finish this feeling somewhat irritated and patronized by the elite who govern the institution.
Rogues’ Gallery: The Secret History of the Moguls and the Money That Made the Metropolitan Museum does a fantastic job of presenting all of the colors that created The Met; the black, the white, and the gray. The Met in all its long years has often given the public an exciting cultural ride. Will this history continue? And at what price?