The unofficial motto of the board of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is “give, get, or get out.” A seat on it will run you at least $10 million. The boards of non-profits in Providence should take note of it, as a sort of stellar goal to which they might aspire. This is the mentality of a serious institution–one which, after 138 years, has an endowment worth several billion dollars, a staff of almost 2,000, generates almost $300 million in revenue per year, is visited by over five million people a year, and can actually claim to be “the most encyclopedic, universal art museum in the world” (bar none).
Of course, “The Met,” as everyone knows it, has been at the pinnacle of New York’s socio-cultural scene for generations, counting among its benefactors old families like Morgan, Rockefeller, Astor, and Houghton. Its challenge now, says Michael Gross, who has charted a fine topography of the major players of the Met’s history in Rogues’ Gallery, is to find the right path to its own identity going forward. It is a challenge shared by many institutions with similar missions—how can an organization based on traditional cultural values and aesthetics make itself relevant as those values and aesthetics morph and change beyond recognition?
Gross had to approach writing Rogues’ Gallery as an investigative reporter does with powerful people unwilling to cooperate. Phillipe de Montebello, who was director of the Met when Gross began his inquiries in 2006, said “the museum has no secrets.” And yet, some months before, the curatorial staff had been told not to speak to Gross. “With the stakes so high and money and egos involved so big,” writes Gross, “the Met has always had to operate in the shade, whether it was acquiring art under questionable circumstances, dealing with donors hoping to launder very sketchy reputations, or merely trying to appear above reproach in a world where behind almost every painting is a fortune and behind that a sin or a crime.”
Excavating the Met’s history in six chapters from 1870 to 2009, Gross reveals the personalities and relationships between donors and directors, curators and dealers, and the city of New York and its cultural crown jewel. It is astonishing what people will do for money, power, and social prominence, and we see a great deal of what they will do in Rogues’ Gallery. In the end, Gross wants the Met to succeed—he is not lobbing stones at the cathedral, but rather revealing what the men and women at the pulpit have been up to behind closed doors.