The irony firmly in place this warm Memorial Day places the philanthropist Mayor of New York in the supporting league of a major arts institution that is clearly in crisis. Michael Bloomberg and the company he founded are major patrons of the Metropolitan Museum of Art - and the Met is letting them down, wasting their money, and giving the city itself a cultural black eye.
On Memorial Day, we took the family to the Met with several agendas: everyone wanted to see the wonderful collection of American art, the boys eagerly awaited the George Washington paintings, our daughter looked forward to Grant Wood, my wife wanted to see the Japanese scrolls and bask in the quiet of the Astor Court, my older son anticipated the arms and armor collection, and the little guy just wanted to see "William," the ancient Egyptian hippo that has become so symbolic (and marketable) to children.
All were closed. Every one of the exhibits. Closed. Roped off. Shut tight.
They shouldn't have bothered. We trudged around, looking for our favorites, only to encounter ropes and locked doors and grim-faced guards in blue suits. Yet here's what you read if you look up the "Met Holiday Mondays" on the museum's site:
"More than 200,000 people have visited the Museum on a Met Holiday Monday in the three years since the program was inaugurated, and we have been gratified by their positive and enthusiastic response," commented Emily K. Rafferty, President of the Metropolitan Museum. "Met Holiday Mondays add seven extra viewing days to the year and, in turn, these represent seven additional opportunities to visit the Met and enjoy our outstanding permanent collection as well as our roster of superb special exhibitions. We look forward to another year of welcoming the public to experience great art."
I'm sure Emily Rafferty was nowhere near Fifth Avenue today, or surely she would have taken the situation in hand and moved the appropriate employees to open those crucial galleries. I'm sure that the famed director of the Met, Guy Philippe Henri Lannes de Montebello, wasn't on Fifth today, either. He certainly would have understood the horrific symbolism of closing the American wing's historic paintings - on Memorial Day! He would have moved personnel from the museum's shops (fully-staffed with employees, we noticed) to the museum's galleries.
Surely, Emily Rafferty wouldn't have allowed her museum to be such terrible and public failure on a major American holiday - and with money provided by one of her most important benefactors.
Surely, she wouldn't have kept me from some of my favorite paintings. Not that American art is particularly important to the Metropolitan Museum. It's an also-ran, over in the corner, despite its phenomenal collection. And its American paintings galleries are often the quickest to close when there aren't enough security personnel to go around. Yes, this is a personal complaint - I love many of the paintings in the American wing; they represent the kind of cultural synthesis in the visual arts that blues and jazz and rock and roll represent to musical history. They're vitally important the progression of the visual arts, and they take a second row to no other culture. I'll admit it's galling to find, say, the Rockefeller galleries on primitive art wide open and well-staffed while the American paintings are shuttered away.
No art museum in any other major world capital would be as dismissive of its own culture.
On Memorial Day, we were prevented from viewing Washington Crossing the Delaware, by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze. Sure it's a work of nationalistic myth, an idealized view of a founding military moment. But if not today, when? Same goes for the collection of Gilbert Stuarts, the Charles Wilson Peales, the John Singleton Copleys, the John Trumbulls.
Less patriotic but more interesting in the artistic if not the historical sense are the 19th century works: the brilliantly-lighted landscapes of Thomas Cole and Frederic Church, the visual stories of George Caleb Bingham and Martin Johnson Heade, the deeply human paintings of Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins, and the telling portraits of Mary Cassatt, James Whistler, and John Singer Sargent.
They were to have made up our own American "Memorial Day Parade," as I'd planned it. No. I filed a complaint with a polite docent at the information desk, who agreed that closing off the finest in American art was a shame and directed me to the modern wing, where he assured me that some fine 20th century American works were on view. If only he'd been right. The European paintings were open, but the singular galleries centered around American paintings from 1900-1945 - an incredibly fertile period in American art - were closed. Not enough security personnel, I was told. So we only got a glimpse across a long and empty room at an Edward Hopper. And we were barred from the Grant Woods.
Yes, the Frank Stella retrospective was open (I'm not a fan, though some of the constructions were interesting) and we did see the Warhols - where we did finally see a massive, nationalistic icon. Sure, it was Chairman Mao, but it's a memorable work indeed.
My question now is for the corporate philanthropy staff at Bloomberg LP: do you know your company's brand is being damaged by the incredibly poor experience you're funding at the Met?
My other question is for Philippe de Montebello and Emily Rafferty: what kind of museum are you running?
Oh, and where did you spend Memorial Day?