It’s time we Met

The antidote to Tuesday blues, and indeed a shamefully extended blog inspiration hiatus? A night of great art and fascinating insights to how it’s curated. Brisbane’s Gallery Of Modern Art tonight hosted a talk by Gary Tinterow, a curator with 25 years’ experience at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Now the Met, if you haven’t been there, is like heaven on earth. Perched in Central Park, with an impressive facade onto Fifth Avenue, it houses acres of amazing art and artefacts from throughout history. I would happily part with my left pinkie to spend a night locked in the Met. I’d walk around in a suit of armour (til it got too heavy, then I’d switch it out for something from the Costume Institute), play the old musical instruments, have a nap spooning a Rodin sculpture and basically just stare at my favourite paintings til I grew cross-eyed. Watching the sun rise over the Temple of Dendur would have to be pretty spectacular, too.

Tinterow’s talk was a meandering stroll through the history of the museum, framed through the evolution of the collection he creates – modern and contemporary art – from 1870 to the present day. As well as being a delicious overview of the art of the past couple hundred years, this was a fascinating insight into how a great museum collection is acquired. And it was peppered with the kind of anecdotes only an experienced curator can collect.

Like the last words of H.O. Havemeyer. He and his second wife Louisine were filthy rich and avid collectors. (There’s a fabulous article about her here from TIME Magazine in 1930) Louisine had a fortunate penchant for French art far advanced to what the Met was showing in the 1920s. Courbet, Manet, Degas and Renoir were among her favourites, and the collection at their amazing house on 66th Street (interiors all designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany, swoon) had a big impact on the tastes of well-to-do New Yorkers. They tried in vain to lead a friend of theirs, Bingham, into amassing his own collection, starting him off by letting him buy some of the works they coveted – like Degas’ famous “The Dance Class”. Bingham never did collect with the Havemeyers’ enthusiasm, much to their chagrin, and on old Havemeyer’s deathbed his last command was to “try to get Bingham’s Degas”.

When you see grand-sounding names plastered over a wing of a museum you don’t tend to think much about these benefactors. How they came to amass such crazy wealth that they could acquire a breath-taking art collection and then leave it to a museum. How curators at that museum might have cultivated those benefactors, perhaps in a decades-long flirtation, a delicate seduction.

There was an eccentric Ms Milton de Groot, who brought with her from Holland an impressive collection. She always intended to leave it to the Met, but until she died she kept it in her modest apartment, where all the museum’s curators at some point were forced to take tea.

A sadder story was that of Scofield Thayer, who I visualise as quite the young dandy in the early 1920s when he ran a literary magazine called The Dial, which published the likes of TS Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Thayer’s pal from Harvard ee cummings. Thayer took off for Europe where he collected artworks to use as illustrations in the magazine. He suffered from what Tinterow described as “sexual anxieties” and ended up on the couch of none other than Dr Freud – who encouraged him to collect the erotic works of Klimt and Schiele. Thayer lost his mind and was institutionalised in the mid/late 1920s; his collection came to the Met, but only after his death in the 80s.

There were a few decades of lean years for bequests, until the Annenbergs donated their collection in the 90s. Publishing magnate Walter Annenberg had been Nixon’s ambassador in London and to the Brits’ delight had redecorated the embassy with his epic collection of French impressionists and post-impressionists. When the Annenbergs returned to the US they had a bunch of museums contest for the right to collection – Tinterow described it as being like a reality TV show competition. Naturally the Met won, and the Annenbergs even helped the museum acquire works above and beyond their collection. Including Van Gogh’s “Wheat Field With Cypresses”, likely his first painting after being allowed to leave the asylum (after the whole ear thing). Tinterow said when they unwrapped the painting at the Met it was so fresh they found traces of pollen on the surface.

Such is the work of the curators of these great museums – stitching together the grand collections of rich benefactors with smaller donations from individuals, working out the narrative of the overall collection, identifying the gaps and then making acquisitions to fill those gaps.

Making these acquisitions highlights the conflict curators face – pulled in one direction by advanced collectors wanted them to push the boundaries, pulled back by often conservative boards of trustees. Tinterow related how the museum purchased Jasper Johns’ amazing “White Flag” for an even more amazing price in the tens of millions of dollars. Decades earlier the same painting had been on loan display, in the 1960s, and was offered to the museum for $15,000 but the trustees declined. “We’re at the mercy”, Tinterow put it, “of the vagaries of taste and the market”.

As well as exhorbitant purchases there are other options for acquiring works. Sometimes a private collector will offer to purchase a piece in shares with the museum and they take turns hanging it – two years in my house, two years in your museum, etc. In recent years Tinterow says the museum has done a number of retrospective exhibitions of ageing but still living modern artists, which often end in acquisitions. “And when we can’t acquire a work, we’ll borrow it,” Tinterow says, citing Damien Hirst’s shark floating in formaldehyde, “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living”, on loan from the Connecticut billionaire who bought it from Charles Saatchi for $8million.

As Tinterow moved into the most recent acquisitions, the idea of participatory art became more common – works that come alive or mean something only when the audience interacts with them. The works currently on show at GOMA are an excellent illustration of this idea, and Tinterow says it’s also a parable for the Met itself. Whether on the grand scale of donating a collection, or the simple act of visiting and marvelling: it is communities and people who love art who bring these institutions to life.

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