While Christie’s last week was triumphantly totaling up some $131.6 million in sales from the estate of the consummate Chinese art connoisseur, collector and dealer, Robert Ellsworth, the Metropolitan Museum’s Asian Art Department chairman, Maxwell “Mike” Hearn, was quietly anticipating some Ellsworth worth for his own institution.
“It’s a new golden age,” Hearn told me excitedly during our brief chat last week in the museum’s Astor Court, just before the Met’s press announcement of the public phase of its $70-million fundraising campaign to enhance his department’s staff, programs, collections and facilities.
The Met has already raised some $31.5 million towards its goal, led by $15 million for new curatorial and conservations staff and programming from trustee emeritus Oscar Tang.
Hearn compared the newly announced gifts of nearly 1,300 Asian works from Florence and Herbert Irving; and more than 300 Japanese and Korean masterworks bequeathed by Mary Griggs Burke (along with a $12.5 million endowment) with the windfalls from Gilded Age benefactors who had jump-started the Asian collection during the Met’s formative years.
When I asked him whether the new arrivals would also include some pieces from Robert Ellsworth‘s holdings, Hearn revealed a coup that had not yet been publicly announced: Several highly important paintings from the late dealer/collector’s residence, retained for his personal delectation, would soon have a new home at the Met (after lawyers had hammered out final details). They are, Hearn told me, “the cream of his collection.”
During his lifetime, Ellsworth had donated numerous works to the Met, including modern Chinese paintings, as well as this late Ming or early Qing three-drawer altar coffer and candlesticks, which was installed just behind the podium from which Hearn spoke…
…and this Ming Dynasty “Qin” (seven-stringed zither):
The planned upgrade to the Asian department’s facilities was announced less than a week after the news of the Met’s most sweeping capital project since the 2011 opening of its new Islamic art galleries and the 2012 opening of its completed new American Wing—the redesign by British architect David Chipperfield of the Southwest Wing for modern and contemporary art.
According to the Met’s press release, the Chipperfield project will also “potentially” include the redesign of adjacent galleries for art from Africa, Oceania and the Americas, as well as “additional operational spaces”
The Met said that its architectural selection was based on “three criteria: vision, experience, and compatibility. David Chipperfield’s global architectural experience and sensibility, along with his commitment to the collaborative aspect of creating architecture, make him a perfect partner on this milestone project.”
He was widely praised for his 2013 addition to the St. Louis Art Museum, which I got to see only from the outside, while its galleries were still undergoing installation.
The exterior favorably impressed me, as I had stated in an interview during my St. Louis sojourn with Stefene Russell of St. Louis Magazine.
I told her:
It contrasts. It doesn’t try to imitate the Cass Gilbert building, which I think is a good thing; you don’t want to slavishly imitate that. It’s very different, and yet I think it is respectful….
The architect did something that was clearly of today….Chipperfield is not doing a “look-at-me” kind of building….It’s trying to stay respectfully in the background, and yet provide something new….I like that approach.
Similarly, architecture critic James Russell recently described Chipperfield as “an architect with a strong but respectful esthetic—a rare combination these days.”
I also liked his more under-the-radar Figge Art Museum in Davenport, IA, which “was designed to be flooded,” as its then director, Sean O’Harrow, humorously but truthfully told me. “The parking garage is intended to contain the overflow,” of the Mississippi River, Sean explained.
Chipperfield also happens to belong to a group that seems to have had an inside track for several important appointments under Met director Tom Campbell—Brits or Americans transplanted to Great Britain. Also in that category was the late London-based, American-born architect, Rick Mather, whose 2010 expansion for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts I had favorably reviewed for the Wall Street Journal.
I wonder if Mather, before his untimely death, had been in the running for what is now the Chipperfield assignment. He had seemed to me overqualified for the lowly task of designing benches for the Met’s recently concluded re-do of its entrance plaza. But plans for a grander future role would help explain this modest Met debut.
Yesterday, I asked the museum if my hunch about Mather was right.
“We don’t comment on this kind of thing,” responded Harold Holzer, the Met’s senior vice president for public affairs. “We have made our selection and our announcement.”