Under my byline

Hoping for a Hoving

Posted in Art, Books, Profiles by Rrishi on 19 December 2009

OVERLEAF 60

One of the more distressing news items of the past fortnight was the news that Thomas Hoving had died. Hoving was the revolutionary director of the world-famous Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and ruled that roost for a decade straddling the 1960s and 1970s.

I remembered having read the wonderful book he wrote on his tenure as head of the Met — Making the Mummies Dance (1993) — in my college years. He made art history, curating, and running a major museum sound like the most amazingly heady experience. The way he told it, his job required all the skills of a scholar, socialite, soldier, circus-master, trickster, bureaucrat and spy — more or less the set of skills, it turns out, he spent his youth acquiring.

This I know because after having skimmed the obituaries I located online a copy of Hoving’s memoirs. It’s called Artful Tom, a Memoir, and is available on ArtNet.com. The book is great fun. Hoving’s youth was filled with all sorts of the mad things that upper-class New Yorkers of a certain era did with utter seriousness (he was also a serious smoker, starting in his teens, and died of lung cancer). But it could scarcely be called a misspent youth, because out of all those adventures and that self-willedness grew the certainty that what he wanted was neither a career in the Marines nor a life in business with his father, but to spend time with great art. So, after a long and delirious sojourn in Europe spent absorbing art, food and alcohol, Hoving came back to New York to look for a job in curating.

A former head of the Met grabbed young Hoving before he could be ruined by work in a private gallery. Hoving began at the bottom, albeit as the director’s blue-eyed boy, and he worked his way up, learning the business from the inside. The memoir as well as his Mummies book (and other incidental things he wrote over the years) look at some of the most visible and controversial decisions he took in his time as director.

Hoving liked to shake things up and had a taste for display, hence his pioneering of “blockbuster” exhibitions — such as “The Great Age of Fresco” (1968), “The Impressionist Epoch” (1974) and a showing of the contents of Tutankhamun’s tomb (1975). He also liked to acquire the greatest works at almost any cost — even if they may have been illegally shipped, like the ancient Greek wine mixing bowl he jokily called the “hot pot”, which ultimately had to be returned to Italy. He certainly got footfalls — visitor numbers zoomed during his tenure.

Much of what Hoving did raised hackles and tempers and continues to do so — his outspokenness didn’t help, and art has always been tied to politics — but despite all the doubts he did set a new paradigm for museums around the world. A great museum now has to attract visitors as well as preserve and educate, it must compete for major exhibitions and generate the kind of buzz that defends its reputation around the world.

By those standards, set more than three decades ago, most Indian museums are woefully backward. I spoke with an old friend who does exhibition design around the country and elsewhere, and he told me the surprising fact that state-owned museums face few restraints from official interference or from a lack of investment — although state-funded, they can exercise a fair degree of autonomy, and recently a massive fund was inaugurated under the Ministry of Culture which museums can pitch for if they want to upgrade facilities or mount major exhibitions — rather, the problem is ignorant museum management; so both those advantages are neutralised.

In India, this knowledgeable friend told me, “There is the chance to provoke, if you don’t rock the boat too much.” Even that is a blessing, and meanwhile, one can always keep hoping for a Hoving.

(Here’s a link to a 1993 portrait of Hoving by the American painter Andrew Wyeth. On that page you can read Hoving’s account of how that painting was made. Wyeth, too, died in 2009.)

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