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The Met’s New Greek and Roman Galleries–Part I

Leon Levy and Shelby White Court, Pre-Ribbon Cutting
Shelby White (left) Chatting with Philippe de Montebello

It was one of those quintessentially celebratory New York moments: Gov. Spitzer and Mayor Bloomberg (not to mention the famously beleaguered benefactor, Shelby White) were on hand Monday morning to cut the ribbon for what is undeniably one of the Metropolitan Museum’s most spectacular spaces—the new galleries for Hellenistic, Roman, South Italian and Etruscan art, opening to the public tomorrow.

The breathtaking two-story atrium provides the grand finale to the museum’s renewed and reinstalled classical art galleries, which, all told, were 15 years and $220 million in the making.

My first glimpse of the new Leon Levy and Shelby White Court came Monday, pre-ribbon cutting, when the space was peopled only by its ancient denizens. I gasped at the beauty of the ambiance, the installation and, especially, the quality of the combined natural and artificial light that seemed to bring the inanimate statues to life. The Met’s designers have dazzlingly evoked the elegant environs of a Roman villa, without creating a jarringly fake space for real art, as so often happens when museums dabble in cheap atmospherics.

That said, this is not, to my mind, the most spectacular part of the Met’s classical art collection. There is, therefore, a disconnect between this grand space and the quality of what’s in it, relative to the more consistent high quality of earlier works in the less spectacular spaces leading up to the Levy and White Court. The parts of the Met’s Greek and Roman collection that I return to again and again are the holdings from earlier periods—the prehistoric Cycladic pieces and, of course, the sculptures, reliefs and ceramics from the high classical period, 5th century B.C.

The just-opened galleries pick up the chronological story with Hellenistic, Roman and South Italian art. The time frame is roughly from Alexander the Great to Constantine the Great (336 B.C. to 337 A.D.), although the new display also encompasses the museum’s Etruscan holdings, extending further back in time (including the celebrated 6th century B.C. chariot).

In this case, architecture is destiny: The last part of the Met’s classical chronology naturally falls to the southern end of the Met’s vast building, with its grand space pre-ordained by the original McKim, Mead and White layout. The sheer vastness and almost bewildering multiplicity of the collections on display here insure that there will be works of lesser quality competing for attention with such masterpieces as the Badminton Sarcophagus, resplendent with high-relief carvings of Dionysus and sundry bacchanalians.

One of the Met’s PR blockers effectively (and physically, with a gentle push) ran interference between me and collector/benefactor Shelby White (pictured above chatting with director Philippe de Montebello before the ribbon-cutting) who, as a sometime journalist herself, must have known that the press would be pressing. (Some $20 million for the Met’s classical galleries came from White and her late husband, Levy.) I did, however, manage to ask White about the status of negotiations over some works in her collection (not at the Met) that have been claimed by Italy. She cheerfully replied that her discussions with Italy are “continuing.”

As I said today in my New York Public Radio (93.9 FM; 820 AM) commentary about the new galleries (airing tomorrow on Morning Edition; audio link to come), I’m not among those who demonize White for her past antiquities-buying transgressions. Her acquisitions of works lacking clean provenance have been more high-profile than those of her collecting colleagues (including others whose collections are now owned by the Met) largely because of her outsized munificence towards exhibitions and scholarship. I think she deserves some points for that.

COMING SOON: CultureGrrl’s mischievous display of classical art that’s IN the Met, but not OF it.

an ArtsJournal blog