Thomas Hoving is still making mummies dance

January 24, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

Thomas Hoving is right back where he loves being -- in the limelight. It's been more than 25 years since he assumed the most important post of his life, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and more than 15 since he left it. But his new memoir of those years, "Making the Mummies Dance," is making headlines.

It has been called gossipy, nasty, inaccurate, disheartening and embarrassing, but it's generating a lot of copy. At 62, and busy writing two more books including a novel, Mr. Hoving is off on a national publicity tour on which he segues from lecture to newspaper interview to radio show, brushing off his critics and getting his own licks in.

Is it true that he attributed a portrait by David to Ingres, as chief New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman claimed in his review of the book? This is a telephone interview, but one doesn't have to see Mr. Hoving to pick up his air of weary disdain for such minutiae. There is a slight sigh. "I probably did. I blew a name on another page. . . . And I had the search committee interviewing me a year after they hired me. There are errors, but I don't think of major significance."

Of the three long pieces on the book that have appeared in the New York Times, Mr. Kimmelman's was the decidedly negative one -- because, Mr. Hoving strongly implies, the critic had an ax to grind. "He should have revealed the fact that I had written an article in Connoisseur magazine [of which Mr. Hoving was editor during the 1980s] strongly criticizing him about a piece that he wrote. . . . Normally, when a reviewer does something like he did to me, he should point out that there has been a difference of opinion."

Mr. Hoving has been repeatedly taken to task for his negative published remarks about colleagues -- "loose cannon," "dunce," "pale-faced bundle of nerves," etc. But, he says, "I don't think I regret [what's in the book] in any way. I don't think [the book is] nasty. There were triumphs and disasters, and I was nastier to myself than anybody else. In some degree, it's a nasty business. It's not all tea and crumpets, and I'm sorry about that, but that's the way it is."

Making the museum popular

By his own account, and others don't disagree, in his tenure as Met director from 1967 to 1977, Mr. Hoving energetically pushed through major changes. They included overseeing renovation and expansion of the museum, championing blockbuster shows and making the place immensely popular.

Even Mr. Kimmelman calls him "probably the most innovative and influential museum official of the postwar period." Today, Mr. Hoving says, characteristically, of all the things he did, "I am proudest that the Metropolitan became the No. 1 tourist attraction of the city of New York." And of those who think that, partly as a result of his example, the American museum has become too much a tourist attraction with too little room for seriousness and scholarship, he says simply:

"They're the same kind of people who didn't want the Met to become more public, who didn't want lots of people and schoolchildren. You say 'school groups' and half the people faint. If [a museum is] not for education and not for schools, with the taxpayers supporting it, what is it for?"

Museums, of course, have changed since Mr. Hoving left them, as he acknowledges. For one thing, collecting is different now. In "Mummies," he writes that in his younger days as a curator of medieval art, "My collecting style was pure piracy and I got a reputation as a shark. . . . My address book of dealers and private collectors, smugglers and fixers, agents, runners, and the peculiar assortment of art hangers-on was longer than anyone else's in the field." As director, he had a work of art smuggled out of Belgium, which was strict about exports of art, and into Switzerland, where the Met could get its hands on it.

Change of attitude

But later during his Met years he attended UNESCO hearings on smuggled art and "recognized that . . . the age of piracy had ended." His tune has completely changed, for now he says, "[Other countries] have their patrimony laws, and we have to deal with these people in a position of equality and respect. We can't have the United States' prime cultural institutions knowingly working with smugglers and people wanted by Interpol. It's not very smart. Private people still do it, but a museum has to know what a private person did or did not do when it accepts a gift."

His position has changed little, however, on another issue -- de-accessioning. During his Met years, he became embroiled in controversy over the sale of a van Gogh and a Henri Rousseau through private art dealers. Louis Lefkowitz, then New York attorney general, conducted an investigation that found no legal wrongdoing but criticized Mr. Hoving for misleading the press and the public about the sales, and subsequently the Metropolitan sold works at public auction.

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