|I’ve been reading Michael Gross’ new book “Rogues Gallery; The Secret History of the Moguls and the Money that Made the Metropolitan Museum.” I don’t know about the “secret” part. The only way anything is “secret” is if YOU are the only person who knows and you never say anything. We all have those with our day-to-day. However, whenever another humanoid enters the picture, forget the secret part and only hope it looks more MGM than Jonas Mekas.
The book is a history of the institution since its inception in the last third of the 19th century when the city was beginning to feel its oats as a world class operation. The Industrial Revolution was in full throttle; billions had been and were being made off the Civil War, the West was expanding and New York was the center of it. Like the men who had the vision to see that we would need The Central Park, some of these same men, or similar-thinking men, foresaw the usefulness of a museum for the arts and for natural history.
There were women involved also but their voices were often behind the scenes in a variety of ways. Much water went under the bridge before these people could agree on anything, And after that much would be difficult to agree on. But they got there, and they did it. Mr. Gross’ history of the mechanisms and machinations of personality that created the Met is fascinating and a lesson to all of us on many levels about the marriage of human behavior and civic responsibility.
In the first years after it was open to the “public,” it was closed on Sundays. This was back in the day when the work week was six days and Sunday was the only day the working stiff could visit the museum. When this was pointed out to the directors and sponsors by right-thinking people, it was ignored because they didn’t want the hoi-polloi in their little big dream. Until of course, situated on public land, funded by taxpayer money, etc., it got to be impossible. They finally had to let the teeming masses through the doors en masse. On Sundays. Oh, ick.
I’m being facetious about it rather than rant the liberal rant. The point remains the same: the rich boys were not interested in commingling with the poor shmoes of the world. That has not changed although the rich boys and the poor shmoes now often seem one in the same. People like separating themselves once the money is made. The air up there, and all that.
The book is said to be getting chilly receptions in the drawing rooms and libraries of those who are close to the Met or involved in the Met or mentioned or profiled in the book. This is a world which gossips infinitely and often cruelly about one another, all the while socializing intimately and maintaining an almost dogmatic stance of graciousness towards the same. The stories about behavior, about relationships, about fabrications and dissembling are all those they know, although all tucked away in their respective ecritoires while the party proceeds. “Nice is nice to me,” as Lincoln Kirstein once said of the milieu; and that is that it is.
Mr. Gross who is nothing if not perspicacious, also has a nose and a palate for the dish. We like to think of it as gossip and therefore can easily deride its legitimacy. However, much of it, especially people’s personalities, drive all history. So the story of the Met is full of this. And greed and avarice -- those elements which insulate the administrators of the Art World from the rest of us students. It is a very good story and a primer on how things are done to move the machines that make the metropolis.
|"The moment she arrived (at the Met as head of the Costume Institute) she was the editor of Vogue again ... Talk about the opposite of the curatorial mentality! She had an open bottle of scotch on her desk, she lacquered her hair once a week, she had a red smear of a mouth. And that voice! I thought she was a clown, but she was very smart and very wise and just went full out." -- Stuart Silver in Michael Gross' "Rogues Gallery..." Photo: Priscilla Rattazzi.
Many of the people in Gross’ portraiture are not admirable or even likeable much of the time. Those Proustian figures who are drawn by ego and propelled by imagined furies to justify their means are also often found around the more sensitive aspects of the psyche, like art and literature and craftsmanship and artisanship; and if they’re rich (or want to be): museums. Yet they, like the rest of us, are only human after all and responding authentically to their financial power or lack thereof.
The Costume Institute Ball started out, like the Costume Institute itself, a creation of the garment industry, as it was known then – around the time time of the Second World War -- and fashion industry, as it is known now. It was under the direction of Diana Vreeland in the 1970s which turned it into an exclusive society affair heavily supported by the fashion press. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the most prominent woman in New York despite her Garbo-esque traits, attended and added glamour transformed. The ball was very successful, very commercial and very controlled by a small group of men and women who knew what they wanted. And who they wanted. It was the social event of the year in New York.
Today the ball is controlled by a magazine editor of almost mythic proportions, considering all that is around her, Anna Wintour. The ball is now a cavalcade of movie actors and models, a Conde Nast production. Diana Vreeland for Tar-get. However, according to Michael Gross’ history of the Met, the Costume Institute Ball remains everything it was intended to be: an attention-getter for the hoi-polloi and a chance to raid the corporate largesse moved by the obvious: a pretty girl is like a melody.
The last time I went to the Costume Institute Ball was when Princess Diana made an appearance. The ball was already changing face importing international celebrity to jazz things up, madding crowd close behind. Nevertheless, it was a night I will never forget thanks to the brief glimpse and observation of fortune’s child with the end closing in.