On a chilly winter day, early in 2006, I sat in the office of Philippe de Montebello, then director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (he would announce his retirement two years later). Montebello is generally considered, even by his most fervent admirers, a little arrogant, a touch on the pompous side, and his mid-Atlantic Voice of God (well-known from his Acoustiguide tours of exhibitions) does nothing to dispel the impression of a healthy self-regard. So I was nervous; I was there to discuss my plan to write an unauthorized book about the museum and to ask for his support, or, at least, his neutrality.
He wasn’t happy to see me.
Ever since its founding, the Metropolitan has bred arrogance, hauteur, hubris, vanity and even madness in those who live in proximity to its multitude of treasures and who have come to feel not just protective but possessive of them. “Being involved with it made you special to the outside world,” says Stuart Silver, for years the museum’s chief exhibition designer. “It was a narcotic. You were high all the time.”
The Metropolitan is more than a mere drug, though. It is a huge alchemical experiment, turning the worst of man’s attributes—extravagance, lust, gluttony, acquisitiveness, envy, avarice, greed, egotism and pride—into the very best, transmuting deadly sins into priceless treasure. So the museum must be seen as something separate from the often imperfect individuals who created it, who sustained it and who run it today, something greater than the sum of their myriad flaws.
Without taking anything away from The Louvre or the Orsay in Paris, Madrid’s Prado, St. Petersburg’s Hermitage, The British Museum (which has no pictures), Britain’s National Gallery (which has only pictures and sculpture), the Vatican in Rome, the Uffizi in Florence, Vienna’s Kunsthistoriches Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, Berlin’s Pergamon, Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, the Smithsonian Institute and its National Gallery of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Getty in Malibu or other vital New York museums like the Whitney, the Guggenheim, and the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan is simply (and at the same time not at all simply) the most encyclopedic, universal art museum in the world.
In Montebello’s office that day, he’d been slumped sullenly in his chair as I made my pitch, but straightened up as I finished. “You are laboring under a misimpression,” he told me. “The museum has no secrets.”
From its inception, oversized personalities have dominated the Metropolitan; many loom large in American history, too. John Jay, grandson of the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, first conceived of it. William Cullen Bryant, the orator, poet, journalist, publisher and club man was one of the most eloquent advocates of the museum’s creation. In recent times, its board heads have been some of America’s most powerful men: in the 1930s, George Blumenthal, who headed Lazard Frères; in the 1960s, C. Douglas Dillon, John F. Kennedy’s Secretary of the Treasury; in the 1970s, Robert Lehman, the head of Lehman Brothers and in the 1980s, Arthur Ochs “Punch” Sulzberger, the chairman of The New York Times
Some of these characters defined distinct eras in the museum’s colorful history. Luigi Palma di Cesnola, named the first director by the mostly self-made founders, was an Italian count, a Civil War veteran given to inflating his rank, an American diplomat and an amateur archaeologist, some of whose finds from Cyprus remain treasures in the museum’s collections today; his excesses mark it still. J. Pierpont Morgan is credited with turning the Met from a semi-private clubhouse for the trustees into a professional operation.
Following Morgan and dominating throughout the mid-20th century, though never serving as a trustee or officer, John D. Rockefeller Jr. was quietly its greatest benefactor and his relationship with James Rorimer, the sixth director, was a model for the symbiosis between the rich and the scholarly that made the Met blossom even more after Morgan. Hoving, a scholar but also a showman like Cesnola, was appointed by a board of trustees led by a group of gun-slinging veterans of John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier administration; he re-invented the Met, and in the process redefined all museums during his mere ten years as director, beginning in 1966.
Ever since the beginning, the Met has been a political, cultural and social spectacle, especially when all three come together in the cauldron of fundraising. Then the fun really begins. You can get a seat on the board by wielding power (like Henry Kissinger, who was recruited to lend geopolitical savvy), or waving your family bloodline or corporate flag (among the Met’s brand-name trustee dynasties have been Morgans, Astors, Whitneys, Rockefellers, Annenbergs, Houghtons and various representatives of the Lazard Frères investment bank) or possessing a useful skill (like any number of financiers, developers and the media titans Reid, Luce, and Sulzberger). But money counts most of all: a commitment to donate six figure sums every year, or to twist the arms of other potential givers. “Give, get, or get out,” is the rule.
Back in Philippe de Montebello’s office, I wound up my pitch for the museum’s cooperation… and left the room shortly after with the distinct feeling that I was on my own. For I already knew that a curtain of secrecy had been hung over the museum long before Montebello’s time. With the stakes so high and the money and egos involved so big, the Met has always had to operate in the shade, whether it was acquiring art under questionable circumstances, dealing with donors hoping to launder very sketchy reputations, or merely trying to appear above reproach in a world where behind almost every painting is a fortune and behind that, a sin or a crime. The Metropolitan Museum is a storehouse of human memory. But it appeared, that day at least, it would just as soon its own be erased.
Excerpted from Rogues' Gallery by Michael Gross. Copyright © 2010 by Michael Gross. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.