Sunday, August 23, 2020

Thomas Hoving Redux

I am taking a week or two off and therefore repeating an old missive with a couple of corrections and additions.  Since I started on a theme some weeks back I thought my repeat would be about another great client and Director of a great museum ...

Thomas P. F. Hoving (1931-2009) 

In my opinion, Tom Hoving was a genius.  Now there are different kinds of genius but maybe if I tell a little bit about him, you will get my meaning.  Tom was the son of Walter Hoving, the head of Tiffany’s.  It is said he was something of a “cut-up” as a boy, being thrown out of various schools, but this seems to not be that unusual for above-average students who are probably bored by the routine and teachers who did not inspire them.

At Princeton University, however, he excelled and got all his degrees there ending with a doctorate in Art History in 1959.  He went then to the Metropolitan Museum as a Fellow in the department of medieval art working at the Cloisters.  By 1965 he was running the department.  He was called upon by then New York Mayor John V. Lindsay to become Parks Commissioner in 1966.  He only stayed in that position for 14 months before returning to the Metropolitan as Director.  However, in that time he transformed Central Park.  When I went with my children a few years later to show them the secret places I rode my bike when I was young they were no longer secret.  There were people everywhere.  They came from the East Side, Harlem and Spanish Harlem all sharing this wonderful oasis in the center of Manhattan.

Ralph Blumenthal who was writing for the New York Times during that time wrote on December 11, 2009, after Tom’s death, “Remembering Hoving’s Service as Parks Commissioner”  “More than anyone, he put the actual fun in Fun City.  He was a natural showman and, as I quickly discovered, he didn’t much mind having his own Times reporter around to showcase his zany brilliance and flamboyance. Not for nothing did he joke that his middle initials stood for “Publicity Forever.”  Sure he used the press. But he was great copy and got one eager young reporter lots of space in the paper. He did not know the meaning of “no comment.’”  I am personally sure that if Tom were again at the helm of the Metropolitan he would put the present administration to shame as far as social media is concerned.  Unfortunately, it did not exist during his tenure (1967-1977).

When he first came to the Metropolitan he decided he had to learn the market and started by visiting the galleries in New York that had medieval and early Renaissance art.  In the transcript of Rosenberg & Stiebel’s 1989 film “Affairs of Art” I found how it all started with my family gallery.  He said the following:  “Some of the gallery owners I visited threw me out. They thought I could not be true.  I was too young and too disheveled to be truly a curatorial type….. I  approached Rosenberg & Stiebel with a sense of trepidation because I had heard that this was THE most elegant and the most sophisticated dealer of medieval art and I was allowed to see everything, and this was a unique experience because the other dealers I’d visited did not allow me to see everything ...”  “I learned right off one thing about Rosenberg & Stiebel, that the attitude of the establishment was such that they were partners with curators …”  So Tom became a good client on the basis of that first impression.

In 1972 I became a member of an art association in New York and they immediately made me an officer.  This association was a member of an international organization of associations, which had done exhibitions in museums abroad but never in the United States.  Now they wanted an international dealer’s exhibition at the Met.  Still being in my 20’s I had the temerity to say, “My father knows Tom Hoving” (how na├»ve can one be!)  My colleagues jumped on it and so began a saga in which I was able to bring 300 works of art to the Metropolitan in an exhibition called, “The Grand Gallery” during the 1974-75 season.  Being nice to a novice medieval curator paid off in the long run!

Hoving was credited with being the originator of the ”blockbuster exhibition”.  His first was  “In The Presence of Kings” (1967) where they used turntables and red velvet to show off the art.  It was absolutely scandalous at the time but I loved it and so did many others as they started to pile into the Met.  Hoving was taking the first step toward the modern-day museum where some institutions number their attendance in the millions.

Philippe de Montebello, his successor at the Met was quoted as saying, “People criticized him for his excesses, but you have to remember that it is not the timorous who climb life’s peaks. He has left us with a changed museum world.”

If you want to learn more about Tom Hoving in his own words pick up one of the books he has authored, I counted close to 20 on Amazon and we have 8 in our library.  Probably the most fun and the one quoted the most often is “Making the Mummies Dance” and second in line is “Art for Dummies”.  One of the endorsements for the latter from dealers and museum directors says “As an art history student at Columbia University in the early 60’s, I often went to the Metropolitan Museum to be alone among the masterpieces.  That solitude ended when Tom Hoving became director.  Suddenly the place was hopping; art was no longer just for the elite.  Tom stripped away the veil of intimidation of a museum and with this book he has now done the same for everyone who ever considered learning about and collecting art."- Gerald G. Stiebel, Rosenberg & Stiebel Gallery (1999). 

A couple of weeks ago I posted a clip from a 1989 film we made to celebrate our gallery’s 50 years in the United States.  As mentioned Tom was kind enough to also do an interview for the film so here it is in its entirety.

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