I see Thomas Hoving the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from 1967 to 1977 has died (SMH 29th December 2009). I still consider his book about those years at the Met (“Making the Mummies Dance”) to be the best yarn about life at the top of a great museum, particularly as it was written at a time when the Met was flush with money for acquisitions and also coining the term blockbuster exhibitions. It reads like a good detective novel as Hoving jets around Europe tracking down acquisitions and exhibitions with all the related intrigue.
Interestingly he indulged in a fair bit of deacquisitioning (see my previous blogs on this here and here) to fund these, no doubt in the days before the Met had a policy on such being largely at his personal whim. As the SMH Obituary points out he almost lost his job in the process, selling off important modern paintings to fund the purchase of a Velazquez painting.
It’s got me thinking about the role of directors of museums – should they be showmen or scholars? Hoving was a showman, as was largely his recently retired successor Philippe de Montebello. However his successor is an English scholar and sculpture specialist Thomas Campbell. Michael Brand, the Australian director of the Getty is in the same mould of scholar, now overseeing a 25% reduction in the Getty’s operations - not of his own making I hasten to add. Across the Atlantic, the new director of the National Gallery, Nicholas Penny is a scholar, who succeeded a more publicity conscious (if not actual showman) director Charles Saumarez Smith.
In Australia we see a slightly different type of director in the form of bureaucrat – for instance Dawn Casey at the Powerhouse Museum, Frank Howarth at the Australian Museum and Craddock Morton at the National Museum – all public servants in government departments in former lives. But we also have the showman in the form of the odd sock wearing Edmund Capon at the AGNSW (though he is an Asian scholar of some note), and the scholars with Christopher Menz at the Art Gallery of SA, and Stefano Carboni at the Art Gallery of WA.
Carboni incidentally just to take us back to where we started, came from the Met where he was curator of Islamic Art.
Showman or scholar (or bureaucrat)? Not sure what makes a great director, but probably a mix of all three. What is clear is that great museum/gallery directors are very few and far between.
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