When writer Michael Massing inveighed in the New York Times against the super-rich take-over of museums, all that was new in that news was the backlash.
While the recent whipping of museum donors and trustees like the Sackler family, Warren Kanders, Laurence Fink and the late David Koch have made headlines, money has ruled American museums for 150 years. Ten years ago, in a book called Rogues’ Gallery, I wrote about the moguls and the money that made the Metropolitan Museum of Art—and how a few brave souls pushed back against its kowtowing to the rich and powerful. One perhaps unlikely hero of that account was legendary New York City parks commissioner Robert Moses, a 20th-century czar of the city.
Moses famously reshaped the metropolitan area, destroying, transforming, and creating neighborhoods, and literally redrawing the map of New York. A revolutionary often criticized for caring more about big pictures than little people, Moses was an imperial populist whose dreams transformed the city. Less well known—and more surprising—is the way he transformed the Met.
Moses was appointed parks commissioner in 1929 by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, which gave him ex ofﬁcio trustee privileges on the Met’s board. Initially, he almost never attended. He started paying attention in 1939, when the museum’s then-director Herbert Winlock quit due to ill health and the search for a replacement went on and on.
Wags had taken to calling the Met the Necropolitan and said it suffered from hardening of the galleries. The New Yorker sniped that the acting director still wrote with a quill pen and considered theories about the democracy of art to be “so much parlor Socialism.” Moses disdained the old families who’d run the place since its founding. “The arrogance and conceit of those people were phenomenal,” he would later say. “They really felt they were the lords of creation and that nobody had the right even to question what they did.” They were particularly arrogant when it came to efforts by the public or its representatives to exercise any oversight over the museum—which sits on city land and occupies a public building—or its ﬁnances.
The museum’s president, investment banker George Blumenthal, was dictatorial. He occupied a commanding oak armchair at the head of the board table, with the senior trustees (average age 75) closest to him, and younger members like Nelson Rockefeller at the far end. Blumenthal would inform the trustees what he wanted done, expected them to approve, and was rarely disappointed. Discussion was kept to a minimum. It was among those younger board members that Moses found allies, notably Marshall Field, Vanderbilt Webb, and Rockefeller.
Moses began “studying the relationship” and concluded that “the city’s supervision [of museums]… should be tightened rather than loosened.” Realizing that the various local museum boards simply rubber- stamped decisions made by their executive committees, he demanded and won the right to send a representative to the executive meetings at the American Museum of Natural History and, after “a hell of a row,” elbowed his way into the inner council of the Met, too.
Moses soon discovered that he had a real edge over the trustees: due to the Depression, attendance and membership were down; the Met was desperately short of funds (its 1939 deﬁcit would be $75,000) as the city had cut its subsidies and put off repairs and maintenance. Moses seized the opportunity to trade his power to ﬁx things for inﬂuence over the museum’s affairs.
One thing that made the trustees squirm was Moses’ insistence that the museum needed to be more democratic, more entertaining, more popular, more representative of the community, and more responsive to its needs. And he made it clear that the trustees would need to court the general public—not just their own society—if they expected continued ﬁnancial support from the city’s purse. And this wisdom could have been the deciding factor behind the stellar, if belated, choice the trustees ﬁnally made for the museum’s next director.
Though he offered the familiarity of a good family background, Francis Henry Taylor was a breath of fresh air. Changes began even before Taylor moved to New York in the summer of 1940. Rockefeller and his allies agreed they had to immediately commission a future-facing study they’d suggested so it wouldn’t be delayed or canceled by Taylor’s arrival. Moses must have been pleased by this; his 1940 Parks budget included money for museum roof and skylight repair and a new freight elevator, though museum ofﬁcials would remain unhappy with the slow-moving appropriations process. No wonder; after a decade of neglect, the building was simply obsolete.
After he arrived, Taylor impressed Moses by suggesting that the museum needed to do more outreach to the public. Taylor, Moses told an aide, “seems to be an alert, progressive and cooperative fellow. I want to keep the new man in this frame of mind before he gets a chance to settle down and follow in the footsteps of some of his stiff shirt predecessors.”
On December 3, the museum asked the Parks Department for a special appropriation of $4.8 million over the next six years; they planned to renovate the entire place. Even though they soon cut that request in half, Robert Moses wasn’t ready to say yes yet.
Moses’s attitude was evident in 1941 after Blumenthal begin looking for two new trustees. All through the preceding year, Moses’ representatives had pushed for the election of a woman to the all-male board, but each time the issue was raised, the discussion was postponed. Finally, Moses pressed and, he later recalled, was “politely informed that it could obviously not elect one until it could elect two, because one would be lonesome,” and it was also hinted that the jolly, informal stag atmosphere would never be the same. He also wanted to elect a trustee conversant with modern art to replace Rockefeller, who’d left for his mother’s modern art museum, since “the dictum of George Blumenthal,” Moses continued drily, “that nothing signiﬁcant has been painted, moulded, or wrought since 1900 is still regarded by some of his associates as a sage observation.”
Blumenthal made it clear that he would not allow the election of a woman. The battle lines were drawn. Moses asked an aide for a list of second- and third-generation trustees as well as a list of the trustees’ addresses, which showed up the group’s lack of diversity—all but one of them lived within a few blocks of each other on Manhattan’s East Side. With that knowledge in hand, Moses drafted an incendiary memo to Mayor La Guardia, excoriating the museum leadership for being stuck in an “aristocratic tradition” that was “withering” and exhorting for change that would put “less emphasis on wealth, old family, and big game hunting, and more on representing great masses of people.” But his eloquence and passion notwithstanding, Moses would soon ﬁnd out just how hard a task he’d set for himself.
A few days later, Moses suggested that George Biddle and Joseph Medill Patterson be elected trustees. Patterson, the founder of the tabloid Daily News, was a member of the upper class, but also a progressive who wanted to reach the lowest common denominator (art, to the News, was comic strips). He “has a very good idea of what people are thinking about in New York,” Moses wrote, while Biddle was not only a living American artist but also a champion of artists and a ﬁrst-name-basis friend of President Roosevelt’s.
Patterson wrote to the museum’s new secretary, “to inquire what sort of job I am being nominated for,” he reported to Moses. “I am told that is a secret, but, nevertheless, I cannot withdraw my name for nomination. This is, therefore, to notify you that in the unlikely event I should be elected, I will not serve.” Incredulous, Moses sent copies of the whole exchange to the president of the City Council, “as an example of the stufﬁness of the Metropolitan Board,” he wrote. He also complained to each of the trustees, who delayed the election and went looking for more candidates.
Ruminating on a brief vacation about “snooty trustees who do not know and care what the public is thinking,” Moses saw an alternative (one it would take the museum decades to see itself ): “to get so large a private endowment that an institution can live without recourse to the public treasure,” he wrote. “Perhaps in such a case the institution can patronize the public and even tell it to go to hell. Even in this case, I don’t think that would be a wise procedure.”
Thirty years later, Moses wrote to the museum’s latest director Thomas Hoving, reminiscing about his days on Blumenthal’s board. “I went to see George once at his Gothic mansion on Park Avenue,” he wrote.
A lovely little French maid in a brief, trim, black uniform and a little white apron was sitting on George’s lap. She jumped up and discreetly melted away. Said George, “You caught me off guard.” George didn’t like me among other things because...I paid his Museum bills. “No, George,” said I, “you remind me of Samuel Johnson, the great lexicographer. In a similar contretemps his indefatigable biographer Boswell said, ‘Dr. Johnson, I am surprised.’ Said the old curmudgeon, never at a loss for the right word, ‘Boswell, you’re astonished, I’m surprised.’ ”
In March of 1944, the trustees moved to ﬁll four more empty board seats. Initially, Moses was sheepish about making suggestions, even asking Van Webb if there was any sense in trying. “Perhaps the club atmosphere must be maintained,” he said with a sigh. But when Webb replied that many of the trustees wanted a more useful and qualiﬁed board, and Moses learned that a museum study had suggested ﬁlling vacancies with representatives of the press, department stores, and religious groups, he renewed his star-crossed nomination of Joseph M. Patterson, added the name of the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Fund’s director, Beardsley Ruml, and once again noted the absence of women on the board, suggesting Anna Huntington, Archer’s wife, and Helen Reid, whose husband, Ogden, owned the New York Herald Tribune. The board again snubbed Moses, electing Arthur Hays Sulzberger, publisher of the New York Times (and the board’s third Jewish trustee), and Walter Gifford, the president of AT&T, instead, proving a prediction Moses had made to Webb: “Art is to continue to be caviar.”
Gifford, Moses complained, was more of the same, just another corporate ofﬁcer. And Sulzberger, though a friend, lacked the “ingenuity, force and support” Patterson would have lent to the board, and “has a pedestrian mind… and will simply be another fellow who goes along.” Webb wrote back that he was disappointed, too, but thought Sulzberger at least to be a good choice (he was right; it would be years before the Times was critical of the museum). Moses copied the whole exchange and forwarded it to Taylor, then dropped Webb one last word on the subject.
If asked for recommendations in the future, he wrote, “I shall offer the social register.”
Yet, Moses kept at the museum, restating his desire for a female trustee and suggesting that it might also beneﬁt from adding a broadcast executive to the board as well as someone “distinguished in the ﬁeld of modern art, but a conservative and not a crackpot.” The trustees appeared to have reconciled with Moses as well, and elected the candidate Moses suggested for the latter slot, the copper heir and political progressive Sam A. Lewisohn, a modern art collector, author, relative of Robert Lehman’s by marriage, and the board’s fourth Jewish trustee. Sadly, he would only live another 16 months, but in that time he helped nudge the museum a bit further out of the prison of classicism.
The ﬁrst women trustees were ﬁnally elected in March 1952: Mrs. Ogden Reid; Mrs. Sheldon Whitehouse, the granddaughter of a founder of the Central Paciﬁc Railroad; and the second Mrs. Vincent Astor, Minnie Cushing (trustee Roland Redmond was Vincent Astor’s divorce lawyer). Also elected that year were Arthur Amory Houghton Jr., the president of Steuben Glass; and Chester Dale, a collector who’d already favored the National Gallery with many gifts. Dorothy Shaver, the retailer behind the Costume Institute, would shortly join the board, too. And it wasn’t just the board that was being renovated. Galleries were closing for repair and reopening; Taylor had taken the Greek and Roman court, which was then seen as out of fashion, and hired the decorator Dorothy Draper to design a new restaurant that would soon be dubbed both the Dorotheum and Café Borgia for its poisonous food. A new auditorium, paid for by the estate of Grace Rainey Rogers, a coal and coke heiress, was in the works, too. And Moses was cooperating, insisting on limiting contractors to ones who were unquestionably competent rather than allowing open bidding because, he told the Board of Estimate, “every conceivable kind of hazard to irreplaceable objects is involved.”
Robert Moses resigned as parks commissioner in 1960 to become president of the 1964 New York World’s Fair. As Moses had been a trustee, his departure was noted in a review of the signiﬁcant events of 1959 and 1960 in the museum’s Bulletin—the sort of recognition he’d long demanded and often been denied.
Populism remained part of the Museum’s mix—for a time. In 1967, a former curator named Thomas Hoving, then serving as Mayor John V. Lindsay’s Parks Commissioner, was named the new director and launched a whirlwind of initiatives that brought in crowds, stirred up controversy and, as he put it in the title of his memoirs, made the Met’s mummies dance. But when Hoving left a decade later, the money in the boardroom re-asserted itself. Soon enough, the often arrogant and conceited lords of a new society made the Met their private party palace again, engraving their names on its walls and doorways, and using their money to buy renown and enhance reputations. This time, no Moses has come down from the mountain to challenge their reign. Instead, it is rising up from the streets, forcing at least a few rogues out of the Met’s hallowed galleries. Others will certainly replace them. But the contradictory Robert Moses was one of a kind.
Adapted from “Rogues’ Gallery: The Secret Story of the Lust, Lies, Greed, and Betrayals That Made the Metropolitan Museum of Art” by Michael Gross. Copyright © 2009, 2010 by Idee Fixe Ltd. Published by Broadway Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All Rights Reserved.