Sunday, January 26, 2020

Gillian Wilson (1941-2019)

I can’t rightly remember when I met Gillian Wilson, but it had to be around 1970 when she joined the Metropolitan Museum as a student fellow.  I remember an assured, very opinionated young woman who considered herself a great expert in French 18th century decorative arts. If she was at that time or not, she later proved herself to be just that.

In my time in the biz I found that, particularly in the decorative arts there are cycles of interest so an entire generation may pass without much interest and then the taste comes back.  One individual who continued his interest in Royal French 18th century furniture (FFF, fine French Furniture in auction parlance) from the 1930’s till his death in 1976 was J. Paul Getty.  But there was a long hiatus in his acquisitions.

I believe my uncle, Hans Stiebel, who lived in Paris, got to know Getty in the late 1940’s through an introduction from the French Rothschilds as an expert they respected in the field of French decorative arts.  According to my father, Hans and Getty went on shopping trips together and bought, for instance, the double bureau dos d'âne (two sided desk) from the Duke of ArgyIl in Scotland.  It is by Bernard von Risenburgh known by his signature BVRB and is one of the Getty’s prize pieces in the field.

When we heard that Getty was buying again we got back in touch.  At that time the Getty Villa in Malibu, today devoted to classical antiquities, was the entire J. Paul Getty Museum. In 1971 Gillian made her fateful move to the Getty Museum and she stayed until 2003. She was a formidable force there.

 A savvy “oil man”, the story goes, told Paul Getty not to invest in wells in Libya because the oil fields were going to be nationalized, saving Getty billions.  The “oil man” then bought a venerable art dealer’s practice and became Getty’s sole agent.  That individual then hired a young scholar, Theodore Dell, who was an expert in French furniture and would much later write the catalogues for the Frick Collection in New York.  Ted highly recommended Gillian to the Oil Man, and when introduced to Paul Getty, he and Gillian hit it off.  

Getty always promised to fly from his home, Sutton Place, in Guilford, Surrey England to teach a course at UCLA and visit his museum. He never could get himself to do so and never saw his museum.  Gillian had a model of the Getty Malibu Villa made for him at Sutton Place and would place tiny models of the objects she wished to acquire strategically inside the model.

Gillian died at the end of 2019 and last week I went to Malibu for a celebration of her life.  For me it was old home week.  So many people from my professional past showed up for the event.  They showed slides of many of her acquisitions including a number that had come through our hands.  One of her favorite pieces (and mine) was a Planisphere with all its dials and beautiful marquetry.  Originally, it not only told the time, but its various dials showed the level of scientific knowledge in eighteenth-century France. The only problem with it was that the works were missing.  Gillian was criticized for the acquisition but her rational was that it was a unique and important piece of furniture and the works did not matter since you rarely see working scientific instruments in a museum.

Among the many speakers were the current director of the Getty, Timothy Potts and the former director, John Walsh, known for his expertise in Dutch old master paintings when he had been curator at the Metropolitan Museum. Walsh had kind words but also talked about Gillian’s directness. At the time when Gillian applied to the Met for her fellowship, he was in the position to interview her and he repeated that she told him he had to hire her.  She was no shrinking violet! 

As you probably know, Richard Meier, the starchitect, built the new Getty Center with his signature white tiles looking over Los Angeles. What is less well known is that Gillian got the Getty administration to hire Thierry Despont, a major French architect, just to design her galleries of French Decorative Arts.  From what I heard at the time Gillian was quite tyrannical about what she wanted.  In fact, the story was told at her memorial that she wished to have certain walls painted brown but vetoed all the custom browns that Despont brought to her.  Instead, she brought in a shopping bag and said that was the color she wanted.  It is said that Despont named the color, “shopping bag brown”!  here is Gillian in one of those rooms.

One story told which I actually heard told jokingly by Gillian, herself, was that when trying to cajole Getty into parting with his money, which he held onto dearly, for each button she would undo on her blouse she got another $5,000.  Knowing Gillian, and having met Getty a couple of times, it would not surprise me in the least!

Gillian was not spared her foibles.  Most of those stories were about her stubbornness and argumentative nature.  One of my favorite tales came from a good friend of hers, the Getty conservator of decorative arts and sculpture, Arlen Heginbotham, who said that Gillian was good training for him, as he now has a 14 year-old daughter who questions everything he says and argues incessantly.  Gillian was always questioning.  

She was also extremely enthusiastic.  Martin Chapman, who was at the Getty but is currently curator in charge of European Decorative Arts and Sculpture for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco when he was with Gillian leading a group and there seemed to be a bunch of stragglers.  Gillian turns around and yells, “if you don’t keep up you won’t hear what I have to say”.  Martin catches up with Gillian and says, “They are not part of our group”!

There are different kinds of curators.  There are scholars who never wish to take there nose out of an archive or a book, those who specialize in organizing exhibitions and then there are the acquirers, which is what Gillian was best known for.  Not that Gillian did not also publish a number of catalogs and also install them beautifully in her galleries. Without her the J. Paul Getty would not have been the repository of some of the greatest expressions of 17th and 18th century French art that it is today.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Things Change

Continuing a theme, which, I guess, I started last week … how things change.  My British uncle used to say, “you know you’re getting old when the Bobbies (Cops) look like school children”.  By that definition I definitely qualify as old.  Today I am thinking of the Museum world and how things have changed. I have written about “change” before and I guess aside from death and taxes it is always with us!

A while ago I received an email saying I had been a member of the Metropolitan Museum for 50 years.  Did I receive any notice other than that. No.  There are too many people and I presume too many members including all those who are virtual members online.  As I have said before, when my parents had been with a certain New York Bank for 15 years they received flowers as thanks … after 25 years they got nothing.  

Tom Hoving was a brilliant, innovative, but mercurial director.  When he was Parks Commissioner, he opened Central Park to the general public by closing it to traffic over the weekend and being more liberal on what could be done there such as ignoring some rules when it came to barbecues, etc.  He did the same thing when he became director of the Metropolitan Museum.  Suddenly there were banners hanging in front of the Museum to announce exhibitions that were not static and just about scholarship but also theatrical and enjoyable such as “In the Presence of Kings”, where some pieces were even put on turntables.  There were not just esoteric and old master exhibitions, but Block Busters, which meant that one had thematic exhibitions that attracted crowds, the most famous being Tutankhamun. A new curatorial department of 20th century art, that not only showed contemporary art but accessioned works, was just one of Hoving’s innovations.

When the next director, Philippe de Montebello, came in he wanted to eliminate the banners, but they proved so popular that by the time he had been there for 30 years there were 5 banners. and even Native American art was exhibited broadening the horizons for the viewing public.  He carefully balanced scholarly exhibitions with blockbusters. The Metropolitan became more and more popular which is, of course, a good thing, but it also became less of place for meditation and more of an entertainment center.  

The current director at the Met, Max Hollein, continues the innovation with two monumental, politically charged paintings by Native American Artist, Kent Monkman on temporary exhibition in the Great Hall of the Met. 

In addition, Hollein added sculptures by an African artist to the niches on the façade of the Met which had not been filled in years in what will be a rotating program of contemporary sculpture.   All this in order to make this sacred temple more accessible to its growing constituency.

The long-time curator of the Queens Collection in London, Geoffrey de Bellaigue, said years ago that he was no longer qualified for his job.  Why?  Because he did not have an advanced academic degree.  Philippe de Montebello was one of the best directors the Met has ever had, yet, academically, he only held a Master’s Degree.  Still he managed to grow the collection in all areas and balance popular and scholarly exhibitions.

Today every art institution expects the director (and curators) to have a PhD!  Too often someone with that degree is so focused on their specific field that they lose the ability to become generalists, which is a must in order to lead an encyclopedic museum.  Interestingly, Orientalists and Medievalists seem to have the broadest scope, maybe because they have so many media to cover.  Experience, managerial skills and some economics are also part of the job as well as a serious interest and a broad art historical knowledge, not to mention fund raising skills.

A new word has now appeared in our museum lexicon, “Experiential”. It is no longer enough to see the work of art. We want something more … what that is, maybe one of my readers will explain to me.  Maybe, if we insert one Euro the Mona Lisa will sing to us keeping the crowds coming!!!

Will we survive these changes, of course we will, though we will have to accept crowded museums and some exhibits we may not like.  We will just have to attend in the evenings and perhaps not go to every show. The permanent collections will remain and seeing (or experiencing) great works cannot be taken away from us!

Monday, January 13, 2020

Is There A Doctor In The House?

How is your medical care?  If you are in a big city you can probably find a doctor.  Though I bet you cannot get an appointment as quickly as you wish.  I know that in Santa Fe a couple of weeks is quick and in one case I was told the first available with a certain doctor was 8 months and they were serious.  Seems that the doctor also worked in Massachusetts thousands of miles away.  I do not believe that this is better or worse than with the socialized medicine in England and elsewhere.

So, here is a story of once upon a time.  Like most kids growing up in New York my daughter played in our local playground with its slides, swings and jungle gyms.  In those days there were no soft landings on rubber mats but just cement, in fact the first time my youngest son was put on the grass he screamed and crawled off to a cement path!  These playgrounds become communities where children, parents and nannies get to know each other and usually, “what happens in the playground stays in the playground.”

The mothers of my daughter, Cathy, and her playground friend, Jennifer, developed a greater relationship.  In fact, those two little girls who met at the age of 1 year are still friendly today, a half century later.   Here is a photo shows of Cathy  (in front) at her 50th birthday party; her friend from the park, Jennifer, is taking the photo.

The two families began to travel together to the Caribbean, London, Venice.  The little girl’s father was, Dr. Stanley Mirsky (Stan)a general practitioner.  I often thought of asking him to become my regular doctor but then I was scared that he would always be commenting on my health habits when we travelled.

Sue & Stan Mirsky

About a decade later something changed. I had had a lovely lunch with a good-looking woman and an Espresso with desert.  A short while afterwards I felt my heart doing weird flip flops.  Jokingly, I blamed this on the presence of my luncheon companion but most probably it was precipitated by the espresso.  It was my first bout with arterial fibrillation. I had no idea what that was at the time and became frightened.   I checked myself into Lenox Hill Hospital and was just left in a hallway overnight but that is another story.

Even though I had gotten a divorce and situations with former friends were awkward.  I was, upset enough that the next morning I asked my new wife to call Dr. Mirsky and see if he would come to get me out of the hospital. He was there within the hour. He remained our doctor for almost 40 years.  Boy, has medicine changed since then! Here are some examples of the kind of care we once knew.

Dr. Mirsky was always available to his patients if you phoned during the day, the latest you heard from him was the end of that day. I was with him one Sunday when he had a call from a patient asking if he would see this person’s assistant, so he went immediately to his office to see the gentleman. Not wanting to end our social afternoon, he took me along and introduced me as Dr. Stiebel. (I refrained from making a diagnosis!) 

Stan was always there for us. When he diagnosed my wife, Penelope, with pneumonia, he had her go immediately to the emergency room to get a test for a possible infection that might be attacking her recently replaced hip.  When he finished his hospital-rounds close to midnight he discovered her still lying in a hallway.  He got her a room and saw to it the next morning that she finally got the vital test. 

Toward the end of the 20th century house calls had become a thing of the past. But when I called Stan saying I was ill … he came over directly to our brownstone apartment. Our son, who was then quite small, discovered Stan in front of our fireplace and, wide-eyed, asked if he was Santa Claus.

I always pictured Stan retiring to a small office in the hospital where all the other doctors would come to talk about their patients and help them with their diagnoses.  Sadly Stan passed away in 2011, otherwise we might be commuting to New York for medical care.

Dr. Stanley Mirsky

Sunday, January 5, 2020

The Holidays

Welcome to another decade in this still relatively new Millennium.  

I am sure that most people feel, both that they wish that celebration, family and friends were not over and at the same time relieved that they can relax again into their usual routines.  As we look back, however, we realize how good it was.

We went to California to be with our son, Hunter, his wife Mallory and, of course, our granddaughter, Boroughs, who will be 3 months old tomorrow.   Hunter and Mal gave us a “Nixplay Seed”, never heard of it before? Neither had I.  It is described as a Wi-Fi Cloud Frame.  Since they do not believe in introducing their daughter on Social Media at her tender age, this amazing invention allows them to send photos automatically to a screen that shows them at selected intervals.  Hunter got his siblings the same so we can all keep up.

After an overnight in Pasadena Hunter packed us into his car, engineering space for suitcases, baby gear and gifts, for the drive to Mallory’s parents’ home in Temecula where her family members were gathering from as far as Idaho to celebrate Christmas. 

There is a Yiddish word with no English translation “mishpocheh” which means family and often distant family, but everyone has a twist on that and my parents used it to describe the relationship with one’s children’s in-laws.  Our “mishpocheh” received us so warmly, including us in games, gingerbread house decorating and most of all cooking up all sorts of homemade delicacies.   Besides the actual Christmas tree, every room of the house was decked for holidays with Mallory’s mother’s collection of ornaments. The only Jewish person in the group was yours truly but they insisted we light the Menorah candles since Chanukah fell this year right over Christmas. On Christmas morning we were greeted by the entire family in newly gifted matching pajamas and night shirts.

Often gifts don’t work out as well one hoped at the time of acquisition, but one has to appreciate all the thought that went into thinking of them.  When you hit it right, however, there is nothing more satisfying to both sides.  The in-laws wanted us to take home a souvenir of Temecula which is not only known for its vineyards but also for its olive orchards, so they presented us with a selection of olive oils and dips to share at our annual New Years’ party in Santa Fe. It provided a conversation piece enjoyed by all our guests.

My daughter, Cathy, has a knack for gift-giving. For Penelope she found on Etsy a beautifully glazed fruit bowl from a ceramicist in North Carolina that recalls the Studio Craft Movement which Penelope championed in the 1970’s as a curator at the Metropolitan Museum. Since Cathy knows I love wood products I got a computer mouse and fountain pen out of wood made by a German craftsman in Nordheim who offers to make anything you want out of the wood of your choice! 

My tech-savvy older son, Daniel, gave me an Apple Pencil which I have read and talked about. I am looking forward to learning all its tricks. So far, I have tried drawing (never properly learned how) and annotating documents.  I wanted to buy my wife a CD of the book, “Time and Again” by Jack Finney which we had read to the kids when they were young but couldn’t find it. Dan had the great idea to buy her a subscription to where you can choose a book a month to play on your computer or phone.  I make use of my subscription in the car every day on my short commute to my office and also at the gym.

As you know from my previous two Missives, Penelope and I, gave ourselves big art gifts earlier in the month.  Penelope, however, found for me a lined sweater that adapts to the weather where you are. It is ideal in the different temperatures we can experience in a day out here, which can vary by 40 degrees in 24 hours.  At The Peruvian Connection, a favorite store of Penelope’s, I found a shawl that she seems to love.

Getting back to the celebrations the tree had 3 times as many presents under it after the whole family was assembled in Temecula. The Christmas dinner was celebrated with a delicious rib roast and who do you think everyone was looking at lying in the corner of the dining room?

The individuals you interact with are the best part of these holidays. Relieved as you may be when the season is over, within a short time you can’t wait until next year to repeat the experience.