Deaths elsewhere

December 13, 2009|By Los Angeles Times

THOMAS HOVING, 78

Former Met Museum director

Thomas Hoving, a controversial fixture of the art world who turned New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art into a hot spot during his decade as its director, helping to pioneer the blockbuster exhibitions that have transformed once-staid institutions into popular destinations, died Thursday at his New York home. The cause of death was lung cancer, said his wife, Nancy Hoving.

Known as a passionate self-promoter who rejoiced in flouting museum conventions, Mr. Hoving prided himself on blowing cobwebs out of the Fifth Avenue institution. He took charge of the Met at age 35 and presided over a tumultuous period, from 1967 to 1977, when the museum was often in the news for making showy gestures, receiving large donations, landing major art acquisitions and expanding its facilities.

Determined to broaden the audience for visual art, Hoving played a leading role in bringing the first tour of Egyptian treasures from the tomb of Tutankhamen to America in the 1970s.

A charismatic but complicated character who was well-schooled in art, Mr. Hoving was admired as a visionary and reviled as a huckster willing to sell out to big donors or cheapen the experience of art with flashy tactics. In one frequently criticized deal, investment banker Robert Lehman gave the Met $7 million to re-create his New York apartment, including his art collection, inside the museum. The complex of galleries opened in 1975 and continues to function as a shrine to the collector.

But Mr. Hoving oversaw a decade of vigorous development, when the museum opened new galleries for Islamic art, remodeled its Egyptian wing and launched an ambitious expansion that has enlarged showcases for American, African and Oceanic art. The museum's collections also grew enormously on his watch, although one spectacular purchase - a 2,500-year-old vase by the Greek master painter Euphronios, acquired in 1972 for $1 million - turned out to have been illegally exported. In 2006, the museum agreed to return it to Italy in exchange for loans of other ancient objects.

Born in New York in 1931, Thomas Pearsall Field Hoving was the son of merchandiser Walter Hoving. Educated at Princeton University, he began his career at the Met as a curatorial assistant in 1959 and became head of the department of medieval art and the Cloisters in 1965.

He veered off track in 1966, briefly serving as parks commissioner for New York Mayor John V. Lindsay. But in 1967, soon after the unexpected death of the Met's director, James Rorimer, Mr. Hoving became his successor. He left the Met a decade later, intending to lead a new branch of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School of Communications, but the plan failed to materialize. Mr. Hoving spent the rest of his life writing and pursuing art-related projects.

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