“Tom has a natural, unstudied political talent. There's nothing he can't do....He is a thoroughly civilized man. He understands the dynamics of institutional life. In the [Metropolitan] Museum [of Art], he’ll make the mummies dance.”—New York City Mayor John V. Lindsay on Thomas Hoving, quoted in John McPhee, “A Roomful of Hovings,” in The John McPhee Reader (1976)
Longtime supporters of some institutions might praise them as “stable,” but other “s” words would spring to the lips of detractors, such as “staid,” “starchy” and “stultifying.” Thomas Hoving—born on this day in 1931 in New York City—belonged to this latter group.
John Lindsay, who campaigned into Gracie Mansion on the strength of the juicy Murray Kempton quote, “He is fresh, and everyone else is tired,” saw a kindred disrupter in Hoving, who left his job as the mayor’s Parks Commissioner after only a year to take over the Met. Hoving lasted in his new post for a decade, but in many ways his controversial leadership there shaped him even to his death in 2009.
Like many a born plutocrat (his father, Walter, was the formidable head of Bonwit Teller and Tiffany’s), Hoving harbored populist aspirations. At the Parks Department, he sponsored “Happenings” where people could fly kites, paint on canvases, and build castles of plastic foam, and he spearheaded the building of vest-pocket parks throughout the city, including its most poverty-stricken areas. At the Met, he organized crowd-drawing blockbuster exhibits, including the one that absorbed much of his energy toward the end of his tenure, on King Tut.
One of Hoving’s most controversial practices was deaccessioning, or removing an item from the museum, usually through a sale to raise money for new acquisitions or for closing budget gaps. As Hilton Kramer wrote in 2005 for The New Criterion, the practice is not illegal and can even be justified if the item lies outside the mission of the institution, but is often ethically shady because it results in the loss of a property given in good faith. Hoving’s resort to this, involving the sale of important impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings, seemed particularly questionable.
Eventually, the Met board, tiring of Hoving’s high-flying ways and unorthodox manner, forced his ouster. In 1981, he took over Connoisseur, shaking things up there as thoroughly—and, perhaps, more catastrophically—than he had at the Met. Under his leadership, the publication switched its focus to examine the inside world of museums, giving full vent, for instance, to Hoving’s beefs about the Getty. Connoisseur went under in 1991.
His memoirs written after his Met stewardship, King of the Confessors and Making the Mummies Dance (the latter drawn, of course, from Lindsay’s colorful remark), told great stories but at the expense of Hoving’s reputation for probity. The man who could write, “I had always been able to lie convincingly,” did little to persuade longtime critics that his departure from the Met was an awful thing. At the same time, they demonstrated why he felt that leading the Met not only required “a gifted connoisseur, a well-trained scholar, an aesthete, a patient diplomat, a deft fundraiser, an executive, and a conciliator,” but also “part gunslinger, ward heeler, legal fixer, accomplice smuggler, anarchist, and toady.”
McPhee’s profile, written for The New Yorker only a few months after Hoving took over at the Met, is, like another early piece on Bill Bradley, an affectionate look at a fellow Princetonian. It does not overlook its subject’s wild youth (including expulsion from Exeter for slugging a Latin teacher for only giving him an A-). But it also captures his lack of snobbishness and his longstanding cultivation of his powers of observations—honed at first in an unhappy stint at a clothing shop in his youth, where he sized up quickly the apparel and footwear tastes of prostitutes and gays, then later as a low-level curator for the Met in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Hoving was a curious figure who practiced his curiosity to the utmost, especially in his abiding interest in forgeries. His remarks to McPhee on the subject say much about the primary instrument for anyone involved in the study of art:
“Your eye is king. Get in touch with other scholars - everybody you think is expert . . . Learn the history of the piece - where it is from, what collections it has belonged to, all the information surrounding its discovery. Then get the work of art with you and live with it as long as you possibly can. You have to watch it. Watch it…. A work of art will grow the more it is with you. It will grow in stature, and fascinate you more and more. If it is a fake, it will eventually fall apart before your eyes like a piece of plaster."