Whatever happened to Michael Gross’s “Rogue’s Gallery”? The bestselling author and socialite released the huge history of the Metropolitan Museum of Art during the peak of the busy May auction season. But despite some attention from the New York Post’s Page Six and a couple of reviews, it has gotten so little buzz that some people are actually endorsing Gross’s conspiracy theory. He argues that trustees at the Met have been able to kill the unflattering book. Gross told one newspaper “people like that throw their weight around.”
Having read it, the explanation is much simpler: The book’s a slow slog, and Gross doesn’t get the art world at all, particularly its very high threshold for outrage when it comes to scurrilous doings. Like the policemen in Rick’s Place, Gross finds “Gambling, gambling in Casablanca!” arguing that there’s evil aplenty going on behind the limestone walls on Fifth Avenue. We say: if the Met is a rogue’s gallery, bring on the rogues.
“Rogue’s Gallery: The Secret History of the Moguls and the Money that Made the Metropolitan Museum,” feeds into the idea that institutions like the Met have somehow taken the low road to get where they are today. Donors like Annette de la Renta have given millions only to fuel their own social ambitions, he says, Diana Vreeland started the Costume Institute just to save her own job, and J. Pierpont Morgan raided Europe for art so much that “no painting was safe.” If so, a hearty “Thank you” to them all.
Since when do we need our art lovers to be angels? The first director of the Met is known to have been as much a carnie as a collector. He called himself General Cesnola because he claimed Lincoln was just about to promote him to that position on the eve of his assassination. Maybe Cesnola did loot all of Cyprus when he worked as U.S. ambassador there to build the museum’s first superstar collection, as Gross claims. But then why did Cyprus laud the Met’s Cypriot Galleries so loudly when they recently re-opened?
Of course you can make the case that treasures like the Lydian Horde don’t belong in the U.S. So what’s the Mona Lisa doing in France? Why hasn’t global art-thief Napoleon been posthumously indicted? In recent years, critics have derided nearly the Met’s whole collection as variously stolen, tomb-raided or smuggled. And, by implication, not rightly ours or America’s. That kind of knee-jerk political correctness has had museums from the Met to the Modern to the Getty to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts yanking art and objects out of cases and off walls whenever ‘source’ nations or distant owners request them. During his reign, Philippe de Montebello famously returned the Euphronius Krater, one of the finest Greek artifacts in existence, along with the art objects that had been in the Met’s collection for decades, to nations like Italy and Turkey.
Maybe it was the right move — but was it even the Met’s call? Putting museum directors in charge of global property wars is like turning a child custody dispute over to the babysitter. These tussles are for the state department and U.S. courts — if it’s even our place to enforce other nation’s export laws years later.
The Met and museums in general have indeed become known, and perhaps tarnished, by their increasingly close ties to the art market, vicious internal power plays and conflict-of-interest deals with corporate sponsors. But critics of the institutions seem to long for a golden standard, or golden age, of disinterested art-loving where the collecting of valuable things was done in a holy bubble. Nonsense.
The job of a museum is not to be an ethical touchstone, but to try to amass and study great objects, to keep the doors open as cheaply and with as few backroom deals as possible — and perhaps even to station the museum director on the steps with an Uzzi to protect what’s inside.