Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Currently (Slowwwly) Reading: Met Museum "Exposé" Rogues' Gallery

Lately, I've been trying to get through a newish book, Rogues' Gallery: The Secret History of the Money and the Moguls that Made the Metropolitan Museum.

I much anticipated receiving a copy of this book, as one of my interests is art museums and providing adequate public access to them. Also, it sounded damn gossipy. The author, New Yorker Michael Gross, won strong reviews for 740 Park, his book on an exclusive Manhattan apartment building. So who better to dig into the lives of rich museum trustees, I thought.

Well, I must admit that so far reading Rogues' Gallery has actually been a bit of a slog. A little "this happened, then this happened, then this happened" style--more textbook than tell-all.

Nonetheless, I thought I'd reproduce a few tidbits that I found interesting thus far. Consider it Coles Notes Xtra Lite:

--"Private Vices by the dextrous Management of a skillful Politician may be turned into Publick Benefits." -- This quotation from Bernard Mandeville's Fable of the Bees opens the book, and one feels it should perhaps be emblazoned onto the walls of every museum CEO.

--One contentious museum access issue in the Met's early life was the debate to open on Sundays. The museum was already free to all comers four days of the week, but Sunday was the only day of the week most working people had off. In December 1882, a Baltimore collector sent the Met Museum $10,000 ($220,400 in today's terms) to pay for two years' worth of open Sundays that would be free to the public. "Months later, his money was returned." Later, "Charles Dana, the editor and part owner of the New York Sun... offered $30,000 [$662,000 in today's terms] if it would only open on Sundays. His offer, too was spurned." -- >These passages provide a reminder, perhaps, that many museums have been reluctant to increase access, even when funds are specifically offered for same.

--New York's mayor actively campaigned not only to get the museum to open, but to get it accessible to all citizens. When the West Wing of the museum opened in 1888, "Mayor Hewitt... stepped forward to declare the wing open. He pointedly added his hope that "the time will come when on no day, the people shall be excluded." (At the time, two days of the week were open to museum members only, while Sundays, as noted previously, were contentious for any entry at all.) --> Wouldn't it be nice to see Canadian mayors today take a similar stand?

Thassit for now.

Book cover image from


Michael Gross said...

A suggestion from the author: Skip to the Hoving and Engelhard sections, then go back and read the beginning. A spoonfull of sugar helps the medicine go down! That said, you've already noticed what I consider some of the best bits.

Art said...

I saw that at the bookstore and was torn over whether to check it out--I might have to go give it a second glance.

Love the bits about trying to give the museum money to open Sundays.

A.K. said...

Will order this book immediately, and follow the author's suggestions. Always happy to read an author who refers to Mary Poppins, big money and art, all in one stroke. Thanks!

Leah Sandals said...

Hi Michael,

Thanks for the tip! I think I will actually try to read straight trough first -- I tend to be a traditionalist that way.

Art & AK, I look forward to your own reviews!

Michael Gross said...

Well I hope you enjoyed it!