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Book review: Michael Gross' 'Rogues' Gallery'*

August 16, 2009 |  4:00 pm

Met Greek Roman Carolyn Cole LAT

A profile of Thomas P. Campbell in a recent issue of the New Yorker limns the Metropolitan Museum of Art's new director in what instantly became the standard portrait when news broke that he got the job last September. He's a scholarly and unassuming curator, not known for being adept at the social razzle-dazzle that generates publicity and philanthropy, and therefore a surprising choice to lead a major American art museum.

The fact that Campbell's 2002 sleeper-exhibition, “Tapestry in the Renaissance: Art and Magnificence,” utterly transformed the place of monumental woven imagery in art's history books, all while drawing more than 200,000 wide-eyed visitors to the museum's darkened galleries, hovers in the background as a genuine if picturesque accomplishment for a director's portfolio, more quaint than indispensable.

Michael Gross' new book about the Met is one example of why we commonly think this way about art museums and what drives them. “Rogues' Gallery: The Secret History of the Moguls and the Money That Made the Metropolitan Museum” (Broadway Books, 545 pp., $29.95) is stuffed with assorted Morgans, Vanderbilts, Rockefellers and their more recent brethren — not to mention “sistren,” such as Brooke Astor, Jayne Wrightsman and Annette de la Renta. But it doesn't provide the kind of deep insight into a major cultural institution one wants from social history.

Nor is it good, gossipy summer beach-reading, alas.

“Rogues' Gallery” is essentially a Met-size compendium of short biographies, including 19th century archaeological adventurer (and huckster) Luigi Palma di Cesnola and 20th century grandee Philippe de Montebello, whose exile in the wilds of Texas, where he headed the art-poor Houston Museum of Fine Arts before launching a 31-year tenure at the helm of the Mighty Met, seems somehow biblical. As the subtitled suggests, the book is more about the moguls and their money than the museum.

Gross' 2005 book, “740 Park” was a soap opera — Fortune called it “apartment porn” — about the super-rich who have lived at one very tony Upper East Side address. (Beverly Hills, Bel Air and the Holmby Hills are the focus of  Gross' next real-estate driven project.) The Park Avenuers intersect with the Met's influential list of benefactors, past and present. The most important was John D. Rockefeller Jr., who — although never formally affiliated with the Met as a trustee — was a patient and determined plutocrat who got the Cloisters, the Met's medieval outpost in northern Manhattan's Fort Tryon Park, built and stocked with treasure.

It's fun to read that donor (and Annette de la Renta's father) Charles Engelhard, the crude mining and precious metals mogul, was the basis for the James Bond villain Auric Goldfinger. (Note, however, that Charlie, blimp-sized thanks to a diet heavy on Coca-Cola and Hershey's Kisses, would have been way too fat to be sucked out the smashed window of a private jet.) It's appalling to read that former U.S. Treasury Secretary C. Douglas Dillon was a serial enabler of the worst excesses of Met director Thomas P.F. Hoving, first as the museum's board president and then as chairman. And it's dull to read the lengthy backgrounds of endless businessmen, party girls, ne'er-do-wells and social climbers, laid out like extended pedigrees of the American Kennel Club.(*Update: An earlier version of this review incorrectly referred to Engelhard as a trustee.)

Balzac putatively claimed that behind every great fortune is a great crime. Gross does not stint on the dicey details of his various players over the Met's 138-year history — of how they came to accumulate their wealth and spend their privilege. He's also very annoyed with the museum's well-known aversion to institutional transparency; cooperation in providing research access and assistance was refused to the author, a fact that opens and closes the book. The "Acknowledgments" section acknowledges that “The Metropolitan Museum of Art has been overtly hostile to this project since its inception.”

Yet Calvin Tomkins' “Merchants and Masterpieces: The Story of the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” an authorized 1970 history (updated in 1989), does a much better job — whatever its omissions — of interpreting the cultural import of a century's worth of social developments.

Gross helpfully corrects the occasional factual error in Tompkins' history. Yet, the structure of his book is confounding. Its six chronological chapters are named for directors, trustees or philanthropists apparently presumed to have been the dominant force in the museum's evolution at the time. But a chapter can go on for 50 pages or more before the ostensible protagonist turns up in earnest. Like a Fifth Avenue “Where's Waldo?,” the effect undermines the player's purported stature.

The final chapter, “Arrivistes: Jane and Annette [de la Renta] Englehard, 1974-2009” is the most interesting, if only because of its (post-Tomkins) Vanity Fair-style currency. But it also generates a discordant note.

After slighting the cultural history of the museum's first century in favor of society portraits, Gross suddenly raises a litany of mounting pressures faced by art institutions in the 21st century — pressures financially exacerbated by what he calls simply the “Panic of 2008,” but what I think of as Reagan-era supply-side chickens coming home to roost. The urgency rings false, because the author has less of a demonstrated stake in the museum's fate than he does in Goldman Sachs'.

-- Christopher Knight

Photo: Greek and Roman galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; credit: Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times


 
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