December 27, 2019


How Robert Moses Democratized the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Michael Gross,  Dec. 27, 2019, Daily Beast)

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." 

Robert Caro, of course, charts how progressive the builder was earlier in his career.

Posted by at December 27, 2019 5:53 PM