Art Iconoclast Storms the Barricades

Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, muses over his tenure

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

AS a young man working in a men's clothing store one summer, Tom Hoving's job was to quickly judge the suit size of the gentlemen entering the store; a 39 regular, or a 38 regular-portly, or a 42 extra-long. Mr. Hoving would then politely direct the man to the appropriate part of the store.

Now, as Hoving opens the door of his hotel room, he is a 44 or 46 long, trim as a palm tree, booming with energy, bright-eyed, and wearing a crisp, white shirt with no tie.

As the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for the decade beginning in 1967, Hoving virtually ripped off the musty, conservative male suit the old museum was wearing and slipped it into something androgynous with streaks of color and daring flashes of skin. He blasted the staid image of museums and launched a revolution that still echoes in the exciting ways most museums validate art in exhibitions and activities today.

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Hoving's new book, "Making the Mummies Dance" (Simon & Schuster, 1993, 447 pp. $25), is a rapid-fire, tell-all account of how he did it. He exposes the greed, occasional fun, and clandestine maneuvering behind closed doors that twisted the perceptions of the extremely wealthy who plotted as museum trustees to get art at all costs.

"I wanted to write about the inside of the museum culture," says Hoving, "and show the rough side. The engine is greed. I was full of greed as a collector, but I don't have a chip on my shoulder, and I'm not getting back at anybody."

During an interview, Hoving explained himself and his Met experience with plenty of references to pop culture and fine arts, while sometimes playfully imitating mobsters or British effetes. He coined words like "pharaohnessa," meaning someone like a contessa - only richer. He laughed a lot. As a 44 or 46 long, Hoving's enthusiasm for art and life flaps like a banner in the wind. The following are excerpts from the interview.

Do enormously wealthy people revere art for itself, or for what art can do for them?

Seventy-five percent of them want to know what art will do for them. They want people to walk in their house and say, "he's rich," because there is a 6-foot-by-4-foot Gauguin over the fireplace. There is no jockeying for position as to who is wealthier; the host is. Some had agents hired to stroke the art market to find works of art to show [that the clients] were not only rich, but also had character. Thank goodness my sanity was kept by the other 25 percent who had this passion for art.

Paul Mellon, one of the best trustees in the history of museums always said, "I am an art communist. I am rich enough to get anything, and I immediately give it to the people."

You started the idea of a museum store selling reproductions, and now museum stores are everywhere, including satellite museums. What will be the next development?

The visual arts. You record every work of art in the world on compact discs, which is digital and doesn't deteriorate, and you use that bank of visual material and send it around by fiber optics or cable on high definition TV. Unfortunately the time is coming very shortly when we can't collect anymore because it is too expensive. Why, for instance, would the Boston Museum of Fine Arts want to collect more? It's got so much stuff anyway, what does it need? And it's illegal to collect what you really want,

Greek and Roman stuff ripped out of Turkey. It's going to be too expensive to send all this stuff around from museum to museum, so, unfortunately, we'll have to go to visual presentations.

Won't this add up to less of an experience for the public?

I'm not so sure. All of us with PhDs got started off in a dark room looking at slides of [art objects], and we got to know Giotto [the Italian painter and architect] pretty well that way, and then we went and actually saw the Arena Chapel [frescos]. I must admit that an elaborately published book on Albrecht Durer [the German engraver and painter] ain't like going to Munich.... One of my professors at Princeton once said, "damn the originals." I asked him why. "They change all my theories," he said.

One of your big, controversial shows was the 1969 "Harlem on My Mind," which was a forthright presentation about blacks, including antisemitic remarks in the catalogue. Nearly everybody criticized the show. Given the severe problems of blacks in inner cities today, could you do a frank exhibit about blacks now?

You couldn't. I was so crushed by the reaction then that I lost all courage and never did another sociological show. I should have done another because I think there is a role for it from time to time. What I would have done, say during the Iran-Iraq war, was put on an exhibition of contemporary painters of the Arab world. The sister of Jordan's King Hussein has been doing incredible shows....We have to start coming to grips with understanding the Arab world, to know they are not all clones of Saddam H ussein, or our enemies. Our [relations] won't get any easier if we don't.

In the art world today, what excites you?

The craft movement, which in my opinion is the fine-arts movement of the late 20th century. Fifty years from now people will say, "oops, crafts were really the fine arts of the time." Five years ago the Louvre put on a show called "Magicians of the Earth," which gathered work from so-called crafts-people from all over the world and mixed them with contemporary artists and painters. There was no competition at all; these guys from Patagonia and the Eskimos whipped all the high priced, fancy painters and s culptors right off the map.

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