Taming the Met

In Arts, Magazine by Jack NessmanLeave a Comment

In 1971, the Pentagon Papers leaked across the front page of the New York Times, fueling hostilities between institutions and reporters. Newspapers were out to expose injustice and alarmingly willing to tackle the establishment. A year later, they targeted the Metropolitan Museum of Art, an early object of the Times’ enduring criticism. A museum long detached from the public came under printed fire as its private operations were threatened by scathing exposés on corruption. Rumors once confined to “Culture Gulch” were set free and the public reminded that its tax dollars were being abused. What ensued was a dramatic change in the museum’s image and operations. Print media played an active role in shaping the Met’s public image and policies.

Publications reinforced images of elitism and middle class exclusion by highlighting its democratic failures. The argument had been used against the museum since its founding. An 1881 New York Times article wrote that though the museum was:

founded ostensibly for the freest use of the public [it was more private] than similar institutions in monarchial Europe. Here, where we are forever bragging of freedom, liberty, and the education of the masses through free schools and the ballot, our institutions of higher culture are more retroactive, more “aristocratic” if you will, than those of Europe.

Publications effectively deployed a stirring vocabulary. Words like “freedom,” “liberty,” and “public” rang with patriotism and reminded readers of the museum’s broken promise to democracy. The New York Times printed quotes in which Met trustees denied that the museum even belonged to the public. These alarming declarations were not so hard to believe. The Met closed on Sundays (when most middle class workers were available) and made its decisions behind closed doors. The museum’s elitist practices, always loosely implied, were now clearly articulated in printed criticisms that shocked and alienated Times readers. Joseph J. Akston, in a 1971 Arts Magazine editorial, commented, “Should the destiny of a large public organization be determined by a small group of aristocratic trustees, or should the community have a voice in the decision-making?”

The Times and other publications provided a critical commentary on the Met’s policies. Their widely circulated reviews kept the public informed of the museum’s questionable behavior and solidified the museum’s image as an extension of wealthy interests. The Lehman Wing was the first of several controversial acquisitions and was effectively cited by papers as evidence of private interest. The collection was housed in a separate wing that encroached, perhaps illegally, on Central Park, a public space. The press accused it of blurring the line between public and private interest and catering unreasonably to its wealthy patrons at the expense of the museum’s historical integrity. Times art critic Hilton Kramer wrote, “it violates the whole spirit of modern museology, which aims to separate the art object from the accidents of ownership and let it stand permanently free in its own universe of discourse.”  As the museum continued to accept disjointed donor memorials, the Times remained critical of its policies. Referring to the newly opened Jack and Belle Linsky Collection, Grace Glueck writes, “Not to belittle these rare and beautiful objects, nor the Linsky commitment to the museum, we are entitled to wonder why the powerful Metropolitan continues to take donated collections with the proviso that they be housed in separate galleries.” The review suggested that the “powerful” Met was capable of negotiating cleaner acquisitions, but agreed to unreasonable and damaging conditions because they came from wealthy donors. The Times distanced its readers from the museum by elevating the Met and demonstrating the detachment of its actions from the public. Even mostly positive exhibition reviews were tainted by suggestions that the Met was pandering to the elite. The Linsky review is subtle, but by 1974, the Times could afford subtlety. The Met was on edge.

Only two years prior, the Times, confronted with inner-circle rumors of questionable dealings, had transformed itself into a dangerous investigative body for the Met. In January 1972, Eugene V. Thaw, an Impressionist expert and John Rewald, president of the Art Dealers Association confirmed that the museum was auctioning off several key works including Picasso’s Woman in White, Manet’s Portrait of George Moore and Boy with a Sword, Cezanne’s Colline des Pauvres, and a Gaugin. They contacted Times art critic, John Canaday, igniting a chain of editorials and articles that would illuminate the Met’s secret dealings. “Very Quiet and Very Dangerous” was published in February. The editorial daringly jumped on a rumor, not yet confirmed, in the hopes of preventing further deaccessioning of important pieces. Canaday presented a compelling argument. Since donors were offered additional tax deductions for subsequent resales, the American people were technically paying for the duplicitous dealings. “By any ethical standard, the public owns them. When such works are sold, the seller-museum violates a fiduciary trust.” A print debate was born as Met director Thomas Hoving published his rebuttal, “Very Inaccurate and Very Dangerous.” By offering the Met a printed refutation, the Times demonstrated its willingness to engage in fair debate but also allowed Hoving to shoot himself in the foot. By acknowledging only one error in Canaday’s shocking exposé, he implied that the rest of the facts were entirely true. The debate, however, seemed oddly unnecessary. The Times’ publisher was a member of the Acquisitions Committee, and should have known about the museum’s dealings. Some have suggested that Arthur Sulzberger was elected to the board to prevent media intervention, but it seems that the publisher’s dual involvement never interfered with Times’ criticism. The series of articles, begun by Canaday and eventually taken over by John Hess, had a domino effect, with each confirmed rumor inciting further scrutiny. It soon became apparent that the Met was auctioning off works to undisclosed or untraceable buyers without informing their donors. Forced to justify its unethical practices, the Met opened another can of worms, acknowledging that many of the pieces it had sold were of no value to the museum. Several auctioned off with the museum’s seal of approval were either low quality or fakes. Other controversial sales revealed in the aftermath, including those of van Gogh’s and Rousseau’s, were justified as simple but inevitable mistakes or necessary trades for refining the collection. Donors were angered, and many refused to make future contributions. The Times’ exposé, by inciting the fury of the public and acting quickly, ultimately prevented further deaccessions and saved key works of art set to be placed on the market. It also led the Met Acquisitions Committee to reaffirm and rewrite its policies for greater transparency. Works valued at over $10,000 required donor consent before they could be sold and would, in most cases, be auctioned off publically, so that other museums could claim them before private buyers. The Met was newly limited in its powers of corruption. It was also tainted with scandal. Hess’s articles had hinted at kickbacks, faulty records, and breaches of trust, inciting an investigation by the Attorney General that was dropped but marked the beginning of new government scrutiny.

The Times had always informed public opinion about the private museum, but had for decades dealt with an unresponsive target. The Met operated within an ethically questionable but legally sound framework, which was finally set aflame by the 1972 deaccesion scandal.  Though the Met continues to act with a certain amount of privacy, the corruption that the Times imprinted on it forced it to operate with greater transparency. These changes are positive, as they ensure that the Met’s extensive collection of rare and historically significant works remain, for the most part, within museums where they will be preserved and accessible to the public. The Times has proven a critical but necessary counterbalance to the Met. The unflattering elitist image it often composes only challenges the museum to change for the better. Today, the museum’s doors are open on Sundays, and its Impressionist Masters are safe from backdoor sales. Thanks to the print media, the public museum’s dealings are now more public than ever.




Akston, Joseph J., editorial in Arts Magazine, March, 1971.

Duncan, Carol. Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Glueck, Grace, “Linsky Collection Open At Met,” New York Times, 22 June, 1974. C22.

Gross, Michael. Rogues’ Gallery: The Secret History of the Moguls and Money That Made the Metropolitan Museum. New York: Broadway Books, 2009.

Hess, John L. The Grand Acquisitors. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company: Boston, 1974.

New York Times, 10 July, 1881, p. 6: 4.

The Robert Lehman Collection: A Guide by George Szabó: Curator of the Collection. New        oooooYork: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1975.


Jack NessmanTaming the Met

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