By Michael Gross, Broadway Books/Random House, New York, N.Y. 545 pages, $29.95
‘If we tell you we won’t cooperate, will you go away?” Philippe de Montebello asked New York Times bestselling author Michael Gross in 2006. Three years, and no cooperation later, Gross published “Rogue’s Gallery.”
With 4.6 million visitors a year, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has touched the lives of almost every New Yorker and influenced museums throughout the world. It is, bar none, the world’s greatest encyclopedic museum. Members of New York’s legal, political and social elites have participated in the creation, growth and developments of the Met.
As a publicly supported institution, we would expect transparency from the museum. But as Gross chronicles, from its very inception, the Met’s vision was to be a secretive playhouse (and later a tax write-off) for New York’s social elites.
The great unwashed masses were to play almost no role in the Met’s ascension into its current status, and indeed were treated with hostility and disdain by generations of trustees and administrators. Generations of populist New York City politicians tried to do battle with the patrician Met—and with a few notable exceptions—lost.
At a Fourth of July gathering in Paris in 1866, John Jay, a lawyer and a founder of the modern Republican Party, suggested that America needed an art museum. His fellow members of the Union League Club’s art committee got to work. Out of modesty, the American artists stepped out of the loop and let the businessmen and lawyers take over, and “for the next hundred years neither living nor American artists would feel welcome there.”
The Met’s first major leader was Luigi Palma di Cesnola, who came to be reviled throughout the world as a major looter of artifacts from Cyprus. J.P. Morgan was the next great figure, followed by John D. Rockefeller Jr. Robert Moses and Thomas P.F. Hoving dominate subsequent chapters. The book culminates with a chapter titled “Arrivistes: Jane and Annette Engelhard 1974-2009″.
Why Robert Moses? I asked Gross.
“He was a major influence and I organized chapters based on historical records that I could get access to. There are many other stories to be told, but it would take a team of lawyers to get at the records—if a journalist even could get at them.”
As the opening pages of “Rogue’s Gallery” recount, Gross had not reckoned with an institution so secretive and disciplined in its silence that its general counsel has its oral history at the Smithsonian locked down under a confidentiality agreement.
According to Gross, when an elderly curator started showing him parts of the oral history, the meeting was interrupted by counsel. And until this day, the Met’s oral history remains under lock and key.
Michael Gross is an acclaimed cultural journalist and an incisive, skilled, gossip-driven chronicler of the fashion and society worlds, most recently having penned the New York Times best-seller “740 Park Avenue: The Story of the World’s Richest Apartment Building” (2005). As he proved in “740 Park Avenue,” he is fearlessly able to breach walls of secrecy and to nail down a story where no one wants to talk.
As we move through the breathless behind-the-scenes narrative, we see the Met as we now know it take shape. Battles are fought over naming galleries, restrictions on donations are ignored by the latest generation of trustees, and the new donor holding the next great treasure is courted assiduously by an institution driven with a lust for acquisition that may have no rival in human history.
“Rogue’s Gallery” sheds light on just why the Met does not want light to shine behind the scenes. It is a compelling portrait of New York as we know it.
Peopled with outsized egos, often with doctored credentials, amassing wealth and treasures in strange and sometimes criminal ways, the Met is a quintessentially New York institution.
If the old saw that “behind every great fortune lies a great crime” is true, the massive number of fortunes that went into building the Met’s collection would put Compstat into a meltdown.
Read “Rogue’s Gallery,” revisit the Met, an institution that is a reflection of New York—the city we love, the city that always surprises us.