The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Employees: Not available.
Operating Revenues: $241.35 million (2001)
NAIC:1\2\ 10 Museums
The Metropolitan Museum of Art (“The Met”) is the nonprofit organization that is responsible for the operation of one of the world’s largest and most comprehensive art museums, visited by approximately five million people each year. Located in Central Park, the Met’s two-million-square-foot main building is owned by the city of New York, while the collections are held for the benefit of the public by the corporation’s trustees. In addition, the city pays for the museum’s heat, light, and power, as well as funding a portion of the costs of maintenance and security. The corporation is responsible for its share of maintenance and security, plus the costs of acquisitions, conservation, special exhibitions, scholarly publications, and educational programs. The Met also receives an annual grant for basic operating expenses from the New York State Council on the Arts. Moreover, it receives funding through gifts and grants, endowment support, paid admissions, the selling of memberships, as well as ancillary income derived from merchandising, parking garage fees, auditorium admissions, and the museum’s restaurants. Aside from its Central Park location, the Met owns and operates a branch museum, The Cloisters, located in northern Manhattan, one of the sites of the museum’s Department of Medieval Art. Supplementing the Met’s gift shop income are 13 satellite retail operations in the United States (with sales from the shop at Rockefeller Center ranking second to the museum itself) and 11 licensed shops around the world. Aside from the usual souvenirs of tee-shirts and post cards, Met merchandise includes expensive reproductions of the artwork found in the museum.
19th Century Origins
Since its founding on the southern tip of Manhattan, New York City has been very much devoted to the making of money. It also grew to harbor aspirations for culture, or at least the accolades that were accorded a cultural center. A strong theatrical tradition was born during the Colonial period, and by the 1840s four different theaters were presenting opera. The Academy of Music, which opened in 1854, would become the hub of fashionable society. When it came to the appreciation of the fine arts, however, New Yorkers showed little interest. At the opera, at least, the wealthy had a venue where it could appreciate itself. The New York Historical Society, founded in 1804, which collected and displayed a limited amount of art, was as close to an art museum as the city had to offer. The only serious collector of American art in New York at the time was a wholesale grocery merchant named Luman Reed, who exhibited the pictures he purchased on the third floor of his home one day a week. After his death in 1841 his collection formed the basis of the New York Gallery of Fine Arts. This early attempt to create an art museum failed to maintain sufficient funding, however, and closed in 1854. The non-profit American Art Union, established on lower Broadway in 1838, provided a place for artists to display their work and charged the public a nominal admission fee. Following legal problems it closed its doors in 1852, but during its short history was instrumental in establishing New York as the country’s most important marketplace for American Art. In 1859 the Cooper Union was established in New York for the Advancement of Science and Art. It offered a public reading room where collections of arts and artifacts were displayed, destined one day to become part of the Smithsonian Institution. During this period New York boasted a number of museums, as did most large cities, but they were devoted to natural science rather than the display of the fine arts. The popular dime museums of the 19th century, epitomized by P.T. Barnum’s American Museum, also specialized in the exhibition of “curiosities.” The idea of establishing a New York museum dedicated to the fine arts finally came to fruition in the years following the Civil War, prompted in large part by the success of the 1864 Metropolitan Art Fair, a charity auction that benefited the U.S. Sanitary Commission, ancestor of the American Red Cross.
The seeds for a major New York art museum were actually planted in Paris in 1866 during a Fourth of July luncheon at which John Jay, a prominent lawyer and the grandson of the first Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, commented in a post-meal speech that it was “time for the American people to lay the foundations of a National Institution and Gallery of Art.” Among the Americans gathered that day were a number of New Yorkers who responded to Jay’s call and that very night agreed to create such an institution in their native city.
Several were members of the Union League Club, which had been created to support Abraham Lincoln but was also involved in nonpolitical matters. The club referred the idea of a museum to its art committee, which deliberated for three years before recommending the establishment of a metropolitan art museum, provided that it was “free alike from bungling government officials and from the control of a single individual.” A plan for the museum was then developed and legal documents drawn up, so that on January 31, 1870, the Board of Trustees for the new museum was selected, their numbers including merchants, lawyers, city officials, as well as a few practicing artists. On April 13, 1870, the New York Legislature agreed to incorporate the Met, mandating that it serve an educational mission to the public.
The Met’s first president, railroad tycoon John Taylor Johnston, initiated a $250,000 fundraising campaign, but in the first year succeeded in raising only $110,000, the largest donation of $10,000 coming out of his own pocket. After a second year of effort, the Met was still $24,000 short of its goal, while at the same time Philadelphia and Boston were making great strides in funding their own museums. At this point the Met had no art and no place to display it. A permanent home for the Met would be provided by the city in the new Central Park, which many of the trustees considered too remote, preferring instead the present-day site of Bryant Park. City funding also paid for the construction of a building, which was begun in 1874. In the meantime, the Met secured its first collection of art, due to William T. Blodgett, a member of the executive committee, who on his own initiative bought three private collections of Dutch and Flemish paintings at the cost of $116,000. To display these works as well as other gifts and loans, in 1871 the museum leased a temporary home at 681 Fifth Avenue, a townhouse that had previously been the site of Dodworth’s Dancing Academy.
Even before the Met opened its first exhibition, it began merchandising, selling $25 sets of Old Masters engravings. After two years the Met relocated downtown to West 14th Street, an area that was still a fashionable residential neighborhood. The move to the former Douglas Mansion was made necessary in large part by the purchase of the Cesnola Collection of antiquities in 1874, excavated by the American Counsul to Cyprus, and amateur archaeologist, General Luigi Palma di Cesnola. He sold a second collection to the Met in 1876, and three years later was hired to become the museum’s first paid director. His reign would last 25 years.
A New Home in 1880
The Met’s permanent building in Central Park opened in 1880 and was quickly found wanting. Over the next 100 years three master plans would be developed and abandoned for lack of funding, forcing the museum to make do with piecemeal improvements. (In 1888 the exhibition space was doubled by enlarging the southern end of the building; in 1894 a North Wing opened; in 1905 a Fifth Avenue facade was added; then in 1926 the present Fifth Avenue facade and entrance structure were completed.)
Although the Met now had a permanent home and city support for its upkeep, it still lacked the necessary funds to add to its collections and maintain them, as well as fulfill its educational mission. While many wealthy patrons donated art work to the museum, much was of inferior quality and more of a nuisance than a help. The Met made no secret that in most cases it preferred their patron’s money over their art. When the museum received one of its most important bequests, however, it came from an entirely unexpected source. In 1901 New Jersey locomotive manufacturer Jacob S. Rogers, who had only been a supporter of the museum as a $10 per year member, died and left the bulk of his estate to the Met, totaling nearly $5 million. The result was an annual income of close to $200,000 that instantly transformed the institution into the richest museum in the world.
Cesnola died in 1904. The next day a new era began for the Met when famed banker J. Pierpont Morgan was named president of the corporation. With Sir Caspar Purdon Clarke serving as the museum’s director, succeeded by his assistant Edward Robinson in 1910, the Met began to grow into a world-class organization supported by a strong professional staff. The publication of the Metropolitan Museum Bulletin began in 1905, and the Egyptian and Classical Departments were organized, as well as the Department of Decorative Arts. Over time other departments were spun off: Arms and Armor in 1912; Far Eastern Art in 1915; the American Wing in 1924; Near Eastern Art in 1932; and Medieval Art in 1933. Morgan was instrumental in naming other prominent millionaires to vacant board positions, an act that proved crucial as annual operating costs almost doubled to $362,000 during the eight years he served as president before his death in 1913. To make up the Met’s budget deficit, Morgan simply bullied the board into making contributions. Despite his devotion to the museum, however, he left it no money in his will. A large portion of his wealth, which amounted to far less than anyone suspected, was tied up in his art collections. Much of Morgan’s art was sold off to satisfy inheritance tax and other liabilities, and in the end just 40 percent came to the museum, albeit one of the most valuable bequests ever made to the Met.
The mission of The Metropolitan Museum of Art is to collect, preserve, study, exhibit, and stimulate appreciation for and advance knowledge of works of art that collectively represent the broadest spectrum of human achievement at the highest level of quality, all in the service of the public and in accordance with the highest professional standards.
The Met accumulated art at such a pace during the Morgan era that by 1915 the amount of city appropriations to maintain the collections had failed to keep pace, forcing the museum to turn to the public to raise additional funds. Nevertheless, the Met was able to acquire a considerable number of treasures that came available during the turbulence of World War I.
Despite increased funding from the city, the museum’s money woes continued into the 1920s. By the end of the decade it boasted the highest attendance in its history, as well as its largest deficit. With the advent of the Great Depression, followed by the start of World War II, the Met struggled through the 1930s. Attendance fell off steadily as did memberships. City funding was cut from $501,495 in 1930 to $369,592 in 1939, although by the end of the decade it cost more to operate the museum, which now included the Cloisters, the northern Manhattan medieval museum created by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Moreover, 17 years had passed since the last improvement had been made to the main Central Park facilities. The buildings were improperly heated and ventilated, and the galleries poorly lit and maintained. The museum, whose trustees in 1939 averaged 60 years of age, was becoming regarded as stodgy, and other institutions began to challenge the Met’s preeminence. The Museum of Modern Art, for instance, was organized in large part because of the Met’s disinterest in contemporary works.
To rejuvenate the Met and lead it into a new era, the trustees named Francis Henry Taylor to become the museum’s new director in the fall of 1939. Taylor, who had introduced exciting new ideas while serving as the director of the Worcester Museum, was devoted to the goal of getting as many people as possible to attend the Met. He abolished the turnstiles and instituted free admission for every day of the week, thus ending 70 years of Monday and Friday pay days. Much of Taylor’s plans for construction and rehabilitation, however, were interrupted by the United States’ entry into World War II. A large portion of the museum’s most treasured items, in fact, were stored in a Pennsylvania mansion during the first three years of the war, a precaution against German air raids. Following the war Taylor began to organize a series of exhibitions that attracted people who had never before visited an art museum. The American people in the post-war years began to visit all museums in record numbers, resulting in greater news coverage for exhibits, which fueled even greater interest. By 1950 attendance at the Met’s main museum reached 2 million, double the 1940 total.
Postwar Fundraising Challenges
One of Taylor’s innovations was the opening of a restaurant in the Met, an idea that at the time occasioned scorn. Fund-raising, however, proved not to be Taylor’s strong suit. A 75th anniversary drive only netted a disappointing $1 million, one-fifth of its stated goal. The city agreed to help fund the costs of construction and rehabilitation of the museum buildings, but at only half of the total cost and none of the costs of installation. Moreover, it would budget no more than $1 million in a single year. Much needed renovations to the Met, as a result, had to be staggered. Finally in January 1954 remodeling was completed, and the Met featured six new period rooms and 95 renovated galleries. Despite this success, Taylor resigned as director of the Met by the end of the year, choosing to return to the Worcester Museum.
The Met was able to continue its acquisition of art through endowment funds earmarked for that purpose, and it was also able to take advantage of the liberal tax laws of the day that encouraged patrons to donate works to the museum in exchange for generous tax breaks. Raising money to air condition the galleries and fund much-needed construction, however, was difficult for director James Rorimer. The size of the Met collections had grown so large by now that only a small portion of it could be displayed.
Rorimer was replaced by Thomas Hoving, who was pivotal in transforming the Met into a business. He too created a master building plan for the Met, centered around its centennial celebration, but unlike his predecessors he was able to scrape together enough public and private money to achieve the goal, as well as to overcome strong opposition to the Met encroaching on Central Park land. He was so determined that he even threatened to take the Met’s collections across the Hudson River to a new home in New Jersey. It was Hoving’s search for income streams that resulted in the Met’s parking garage, which became a important moneymaker for the museum. While construction of the master plan began he modernized the Met’s merchandising, in particular growing a mail-order business, franchising sheets and other soft goods, as well as selling reproductions of choice clothing.
The first major part of the master plan to be completed was the Lehman Wing, which opened in 1975. Two years later Hoving resigned and would not see other phases completed, including the Sackler Wing in 1978, the American Wing in 1980, the Michael C Rockefeller Wing in 1982, the Lila Acheson Wallace Wing in 1987, the Tisch Galleries in 1988, and the Henry R. Kravis Wing and Carroll and Milton Pétrie European Sculpture Court in 1990.
- The museum is incorporated.
- The first exhibition is presented in temporary quarters.
- The Central Park facility opens.
- J.P. Morgan becomes president of corporation.
- The Cloisters, a branch of the museum, opens.
- Annual attendance at the main museum reaches 2 million.
- A master plan for a major rebuilding project is announced.
- The Lehman Wing becomes first part of master plan to be completed.
- The major part of the master plan is completed, doubling the museum in size.
With the completion of the 1970 master plan, the Met was now a massive facility with resources that rivaled or surpassed anything available elsewhere in the world. It was also an institution that required a constant flow of money, which was supplied by its well-run business operations. Fundraising reached a new magnitude in the mid-1990s when a booming economy resulted in unprecedented levels of donations to all of the arts. In 1995 the Met launched a $300 million capital campaign. The response was so strong that two years later the museum more than doubled its goal. By the end of the decade the Met had an annual budget in excess of $200 million, which it was more than capable of meeting through its different lines of funding, endowments, and income. The terrorist attack that struck New York on September 11, 2001, had an adverse impact on museum attendance, as it had on other city institutions dependent on tourism. Moreover, the Met would now incur increased security costs. Although cutbacks were clearly in order, and the museum faced its most difficult period in many years, there was little doubt that it would remain a strong and healthy institution, capable of fulfilling the mission set forth by its founders so many years ago.
Cox, Meg, “At The Metropolitan Museum, Artwork Is to Be Seen, Bought—and Manufactured,” Wall Street Journal, July 10, 1985, p. 1.
Hibbard, Howard, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: Harper & Row, 1980, 592 p.
Hoving, Thomas, Making the Mummies Dance: Inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993, 447 p.
Lerman, Leo, The Museum: One Hundred Years and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: Viking Press, 1969, 400 p.
Rosenbaum, Lee, “Museum Confronts an Altered Landscape,” Wall Street Journal, October 11, 2001, p. A19.
Souccar, Miriam Kreinin, “Darkening Picture,” Crain’s New York Business, November 4, 2001, p. 3.
Tomkins, Calvin, Merchants and Masterpieces: The Story of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: H. Holt, 1989, 415 p.