Metropolitan Museum of Art

views updated May 29 2018


METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART. The founders of the Metropolitan Museum of Art hoped it would fill the need for a national art collection. Some had perceived this need for decades before the Civil War. In the 1860s sectional and industrial conflict intensified the desire of civic leaders to promote unification and class harmony through art. Thus, on 4 July 1866 diplomat John Jay proposed in Paris that New York City establish such a collection. In response the Union League, formed in 1863 to support Lincoln, sought to implement Jay's proposal, leading in 1869 to formation of a Provisional Committee assigned to establish such a museum. This committee, which included Union League members and other leading figures from New York's art world and social elite, elected a board of trustees for the new institution, which was incorporated in 1870 and soon housed in temporary quarters. Although from the beginning its board of trustees always has had a preponderance of businessmen, financiers, and lawyers, among the founders were poet William Cullen Bryant and artists such as Frederic E. Church and John Quincy Adams Ward.

During the Met's early decades, London's South Kensington Museum (later the Victoria and Albert) appealed to those who believed that the quality of American domestic life and manufacturing suffered from an absence of accessible examples of fine craftsmanship for study by artisans and others. However, because of the trustees' aesthetic preferences and their desire to present themselves and the United States as culturally advanced, the Met developed less as a design showcase than as a Louvre-like palace or temple of fine art. Mixed with hopes to use the museum's splendor to deepen faith in the existing social order was the more expansive idea, articulated by lawyer and founder Joseph H. Choate, that "knowledge of art in its higher forms of beauty would tend directly to humanize, to educate and refine a practical and laborious people."

These high expectations were backed by the Met's acquisitions, beginning with 174 European paintings in 1871, and by the efforts and donations of founders such as railroad millionaire John Taylor Johnston, the museum's first president. Yet when the Met moved to the site on the east side of Central Park between Eightieth and Eighty-fourth Streets where it has resided since 1880, it could not claim preeminence even among American museums, although they were few in number and mostly of recent origin. The appointment in 1879 of a paid director, Louis Palma di Cesnola, aided and complicated the quest for credibility. The vast collection of Cypriote antiquities that Cesnola sold to the museum in 1873 later occasioned embarrassing investigations that eventually confirmed the authenticity of most of the objects but revealed some careless reconstructions.

By the time Cesnola died in 1904, the Met had added an entrance on Fifth Avenue to the original one inside the park, and important collections such as the European paintings assembled by Henry G. Marquand. It had also created three curatorial departments, including one for casts and reproductions of art, mainly from antiquity and the Italian Renaissance, that was considered central to its early mission. It had also become rich, aided by a multimillion-dollar bequest from the New Jersey locomotive manufacturer Jacob Rogers.

Under J. P. Morgan's presidency (1904–1913), the museum moved away from an emphasis on individual collections and toward rigorous standards that involved arranging masterpieces in ways that depicted the development of art. In 1905 the museum's prominence and resources persuaded Sir Caspar Purdon Clarke to become director, for which he left a similar post at South Kensington. Edward Robinson resigned as director of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where he had built an especially strong Greek and Roman collection, to become assistant director. In 1910 Robinson became director, serving until 1931, and McKim, Mead and White completed a wing for decorative and medieval arts. Excavations in Egypt initiated by the Museum in 1906 contributed to a collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts that became the most important outside of Cairo. In 1913 the museum received thirteen Rembrandts and major works by Vermeer and others from a bequest of department store owner Benjamin Altman. Despite the new emphasis on integrating individual works into the general collection, they were displayed separately as the Altman collection. Several subsequently donated collections received similar treatment, leading critics such as artist Stuart Davis to conclude that the Met's primary concern remained glorifying the wealthy.

The wealthy responded; donations from the wealthy allowed the museum to establish a Far Eastern Art Department in 1915. Furthermore, perhaps the most valuable collection of all—medieval art acquired by Morgan and later installed in a Pierpont Morgan Wing—came the following year as a gift from his son. In the 1920s publisher Frank A. Munsey's bequest of approximately $10 million secured the Met's position as the wealthiest autonomous

museum. Although the proliferation of American art museums vitiated the idea of a national collection, the Met provided a model for others. In his thirty-five years there beginning in 1905, most of them as secretary, Henry W. Kent created a card catalogue and photographic record of the collections, and established editorial and extension divisions. Curators such as William M. Ivins Jr., who headed the Department of Prints that was established in 1916, also set standards for museum practice.

Installing and Redefining the Canon

The issue of how to deploy the institution's growing power was a contentious one throughout the twentieth century. One consistent goal was building what an 1870 policy committee report called "a more or less complete collection of objects illustrative of the History of Art from the earliest beginnings to the present time." As the twenty-first century began, the first words on the homepage of the Met's Web site were: "5000 years of art." What deserved inclusion, however, was more disputed in 1910 than in 1870, and most intensely in the 1960s and after.

In 1910 modernist painting and sculpture, which challenged prevailing, assumptions about what constituted "art, " presented the most troubling issues. Three years earlier conservative trustees, angered by the purchase of Renoir's Madame Charpentier and Her Children (1878), almost fired Roger Fry, whose brief tenure as curator of painting was turbulent but productive, and assistant Bryson Burroughs, who went on to serve as curator from 1909 to 1934. The Met purchased one Cezanne painting from the controversial 1913 Armory Show, but presented itself as the alternative to modernism's excesses.

Although trustee George A. Hearn established a fund for purchasing American art, like modern art it remained a low priority. The Met mounted an historical survey of American art in conjunction with Hudson-Fulton celebrations in 1909 and growing public interest in American decorative arts encouraged the opening of the American Wing in 1924. However, a few years later the museum turned down Gertrude Whitney's offer of her collection of American art, and it was not until 1949 that it formed the Department of American Paintings and Sculpture. With some exceptions, like the elimination of the galleries of casts, additions supplemented rather than replaced established areas, with canonical European painting and sculpture and Greek and Roman art at the core. The latter became an area of strength under professionals such as Cambridge-educated Gisela A. M. Richter, who served as a curator from 1925 to 1948. In 1921 attendance surpassed one million for first time, leaving the Met second only to the Louvre. In 1929 and later, donations from the H. O. Havemeyer Collection strengthened the Met's holdings in many areas. The collection reflected the influence of Mary Cassatt, who advised Louisine Havemeyer, and nudged trustees toward accepting impressionism and what followed.

Archaeologist Herbert Winlock served as director throughout the 1930s, spending much of his time in Egypt. In 1938, with support from John D. Rockefeller Jr., the museum opened The Cloisters at Fort Tryon Park in upper Manhattan. It was dedicated to medieval art and incorporated architectural elements from that period, many collected by the sculptor George Grey Barnard. From the 1930s to the 1960s the museum sponsored excavations in Iraq and Iran, from which the findings became part of the museum's collection. After World War II an experimental coalition with the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of Art failed in part because the Met had less enthusiasm for American and modern art than did the other museums. Yet leading modernists, aware of the canonical status conferred by a presence in the Met, enriched the collections with bequests in 1946 by Gertrude Stein of Picasso's iconic portrait of her and by Alfred Stieglitz of several hundred photographs. In 1928 Stieglitz had given the Met the first photographs admitted into its collection, but not until 1992 did the museum create a separate department for photography, which had previously been grouped with prints. The museum created its first department dedicated to contemporary art in 1967. The opening in 1987 of the Lila Acheson Wallace Wing, funded by the co-founder of Reader's Digest, gave twentieth-century art a more prominent position within the museum.

Expanding the Audience

In 1961 the Met attracted five million visitors, helped by publicity related to purchase of Rembrandt's Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer (1653) for a record price of $2.3 million. Equally important were the efforts of Francis Henry Taylor, director from 1940 to 1954, to make the Met attractive to a more diverse constituency. These efforts were maintained by James Rorimer, who had supervised the building of The Cloisters and who served as director from 1955 to 1966. They were taken to a new level by Thomas Hoving. A medievalist like Rorimer, Hoving had left the Met to serve briefly as New York City Parks Commissioner before returning as director from 1967 to 1977. He favored dramatic exhibitions, acquisitions, and building projects. Some, such as the acquisition of investment banker Robert Lehman's collection and the construction for it of one of several wings designed by Kevin Roche, John Dinkeloo and Associates, augmented the traditional core. Others broadened the Met's purview. The Met's century of neglect of work later grouped in the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas had led it to turn down Nelson Rockefeller's 1939 offer to finance an archaeological expedition to Mexico. In 1969, after the civil rights movement and Cold War concerns had redefined cultural significance, the museum accepted Rockefeller's gift of 3,300 works of non-Western art and supporting material, including a library.

Founders such as art historian George Fiske Comfort had imagined a museum that would innovate both in curatorial practices and in outward-looking activities such as programs for schoolchildren that would serve widely the city's population. Dependence on generous public funding, initially supported by William M. "Boss" Tweed just before his 1871 indictment, also encouraged democratic rhetoric. Often city contributions for operating expenses and construction accounted for over one-half of the Met's revenues. In the 1880s the museum had set up city schools for training in the crafts, but closed these in 1892. In 1897, when Cesnola defended the refusal of admission to a plumber in overalls because the Met was a "closed corporation" that set its own standards, critics declared this typical of the way it violated its charter requirement to furnish "popular instruction."

Slow steps toward broader access included, beginning in 1891, opening on Sundays despite conservative opposition on religious grounds. Like many institutions, in the 1930s the Met responded to economic and international crises with demonstrations of its Americanism, including an exhibition of 290 paintings called Life in America. After Pearl Harbor, fifteen-hundred works by American artists were featured in the Artists for Victory Show. The trustees added three women to their board in 1952. Two years later they added Dorothy Shaver, president of Lord and Taylor, who had guided the 1946 merger of the Met and the Costume Institute. White males remained dominant on the board, however, and in 1989 a poster by the Guerilla Girls—a feminist group formed in 1985 in New York to challenge the underrepresentation of women in collections and exhibitions—asked "Do women have to be naked to get into the Metropolitan Museum of Art?" and reported that "less than five percent of artists in the Modern Arts section are women, but 85 percent of the nudes are female."

The Guerilla Girls poster typified an era of cultural conflict initiated by the 1969 photographic and sound exhibition, Harlem on My Mind: The Culture Capital of Black America, 1900–1968. Detractors considered the exhibition an outsider's take on Harlem, organized around demeaning stereotypes and omitting work by painters and sculptors from the community. Defenders celebrated the unprecedented number of African American visitors that it attracted and the attention it gave to Harlem photographers, notably James Van DerZee. Remarks by a Harlem teenager in her essay in the exhibition catalogue also sparked a controversy over whether or not the catalogue was anti-Semitic. The show revealed that although a seat on the museum's board was prized by New York City's social elite, in many communities the Met had little credibility.

Hoving's successor, Philippe de Montebello, led the Met into the twenty-first century, trying to make the collection more accessible through, for example, video productions and the Internet. He also facilitated the use of the museum to create a favorable public image for large corporations, whose donations were becoming increasingly essential. Traditionalists approved of his observation, in response to a 2001 gift from the Annenberg Foundation of $20 million to purchase European art, that "it goes right to the heart of what this museum is about: acquisition." Yet none could predict precisely the impact that the Met's unsurpassed collection would have on the increasing number of virtual as well as actual visitors who selectively experienced it, sometimes responding in ways different from those that could have been imagined by collectors and curators. Such was the case in the days after the World Trade Center's destruction in September 2001, when the painter Helen Marden found comfort in coming to the Met's Islamic galleries "to see the good that people do." The issues of who these visitors were, what type of art they encountered and in what context, and how they looked at it, continued to matter.


Dubin, Steven C. Displays of Power: Memory and Amnesia in the American Museum. New York: New York University Press, 1999. Includes a chapter on the Harlem on My Mind exhibition.

Duncan, Carol. Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Harris, Neil. Cultural Excursions: Marketing Appetites and Cultural Tastes in Modern America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Hibbard, Howard. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: Harper and Row, 1980.

Hoving, Thomas. Making the Mummies Dance: Inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993. The controversial director's controversial account of his tenure.

Lerman, Leo. The Museum: One Hundred Years and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: Viking, 1969.

Tomkins, Calvin. Merchants and Masterpieces: The Story of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: Dutton, 1970.

Wallach, Alan. Exhibiting Contradictions: Essays on the Art Museum in the United States. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998. Includes an historical account of the collection of casts and reproductions.

George H.RoederJr.

See alsoArt: Painting, Photography, Sculpture ; Museums .

Metropolitan Museum of Art

views updated May 21 2018

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Among the largest, richest, most famous and most comprehensive art museums in the world, the New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art boasts collections spanning virtually all periods and cultures. The millions who pass through its handsome and expertly arranged galleries each year—paying a voluntary sum for admission—to view both the permanent collection and the special exhibitions are testament to the museum's democratic founding ideal that art exists not just for the cultured few but the benefit of the many. Chartered in 1870, opened in 1872, and moved in 1880 to its present handsome building in New York City's Central Park, the Metropolitan had burgeoned, by the 1990s, into a complex of over 17 acres; its medieval branch, The Cloisters, opened in Fort Tryon Park in 1938. Besides paintings and sculptures, outstanding treasures include collections of arms and armor, costumes, musical instruments, Tiffany glass, baseball cards, and an entire Egyptian temple.

—Craig Bunch

Further Reading:

Hoving, Thomas. Making the Mummies Dance: Inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1993.

Tomkins, Calvin. Merchants and Masterpieces: The Story of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, E. P. Dutton, 1970.

Metropolitan Museum of Art

views updated Jun 11 2018

Metropolitan Museum of Art US art museum, New York City. Founded in 1870, the museum has a large and diverse permanent art collection, including numerous Egyptian, Greek, and Roman works. Much of the medieval collection is in a separate complex, The Cloisters. In addition to European sculpture, there are more than 4600 European paintings ranging from the 15th century to the present, as well as many US paintings and sculptures. The Oriental art collection numbers 30,000 pieces.

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Metropolitan Museum of Art