Art historian Michael Gross called him a “perennial thorn in the side of the museum mafia”. Philippe de Montebello called him “exhilarating” and “brilliant”. Others called him a “shark”. He was Thomas Hoving, the brash, ambitious, visionary director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Every year at this time our society reflects on all those who passed away during the previous twelve months. And 2009, sadly, brought us many a notable death: Michael Jackson, Ted Kennedy, Andrew Wyeth, John Updike, etc. But for anyone who loves art, art history, and museums, Thomas Hoving’s passing belongs right up there at the top. The controversial former Met Museum director died of lung cancer on December 10th. He was 78 years old.
Hoving’s tenure lasted from 1967 to 1977, and during those ten years, the museum was transformed from a staid and stuffy institution into a vibrant and stimulating one. A native New Yorker, Hoving was a true maverick (you hear that Sarah?), an iconoclast who shook up the priggish, uppity fine art establishment with his populist philosophy, risk-taking attitude, and questionable methods of acquisitions. Hoving made no secret of his willingness to do anything to obtain valuable works of art, spend huge sums of money, and defined his approach as “piracy”. He even boasted of his hefty “black book” of art dealers, smugglers, and “fixers”.
His critics saw him as an unscrupulous hustler, a cowboy who refused to fall in line with the starchy, formal, “proper” mentality of the fine arts world. To that I say, good for you Thomas! His driving motivation was to open the art world to everybody, not just the exclusive, elite class of art aficionados. Even his decision to drape flowing banners on the Museum’s exterior facade, to announce current special exhibitions, was met with scorn by the snobs who considered it “vulgar”. They need to fuck off. I love those banners
Whether New Yorkers are aware of it or not, Thomas Hoving is almost single-handedly responsible for the Met Museum of today; a compelling, relevant, extraordinary place, teeming with visitors and brimming with some of the most magnificent, awe-inspiring works of art ever created. It is thanks to Thomas Hoving that the Met is now home to extensive collections of Islamic, African, and Pacific art and artifacts. It is thanks to Hoving (and his behind the scenes wrangling) that the wildly successful King Tut exhibit came to the Met, and which my parents took me to see. It is thanks to Thomas Hoving that the Cloisters has become one of the greatest collections of medieval art in the world. The list goes on and on.
A man of boundless energy and determination, Thomas Hoving’s biography is fascinating, rollicking, and marked with both triumphs and controversies. You can learn more in this New York Times obituary, and also at The Independent. Both are excellent reads.
He was impulsive. He was obsessive. He was brazen and egotistical. He was, above all else, truly passionate about great art. When he came to the Met, his goal was to resuscitate the quiet, aloof, stagnating old landmark, and breathe new life into it, throw its doors wide open to the city, and “make the mummies dance”. And boy did he. In his own words, Thomas Hoving proclaimed, “Great art should be shown with great excitement”. I couldn’t agree more. RIP Thomas.
Here’s Thomas Hoving discussing “New York’s Fanciest Hookers” :