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Infernal “Heavenly Bodies”: How the Directorless Metropolitan Museum Went Astray

Where’s Max Hollein when we really need him?

Several “what-were-they-thinking?” moments jolted me recently at the Metropolitan Museum, reaffirming my belief in a bedrock principle of museum management: An art museum, particularly a complicated operation like the Met, needs a director who has had substantial curatorial experience and also, preferably, has served elsewhere as a respected director.

The Met’s president, Daniel Weiss, lacks that background but has been running the operation as a CEO-in-search-of-a-director since last June, when Thomas Campbell decamped. Although Weiss has an impressive track record as a college professor, dean and president (with an art history doctorate concentrating on Western Medieval and Byzantine art), he has no museum credentials, other than a stint on the board of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. Preoccupied with the urgent priority of trying to remediate the Met’s financial mess, Weiss may be overextended in trying to oversee the artistic side.

To my mind, Hollein can’t come soon enough. Named as the Met’s director-designate in April, this seasoned museum professional, who is currently director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, is not due to assume his New York post until late summer. But the CEO title is to remain with Weiss, breaking with the professional standards of the Association of Art Museum Directors.

Max Hollein
Photo by Drew Altizer Photography

In the meantime, the Met’s current lack of forceful artistic leadership is sadly evident in two high-profile temporary shows with installations that, to my mind, upstage the art rather than privilege it—Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, to Oct. 8 (much more on that below), and Visitors to Versailles: 1682-1789, to July 29. The latter offers a free Bloomberg-sponsored “binaural [we used to call that ‘stereophonic’] audio experience,” featuring vapid chatter and ambient noises that distract our attention from the splendid garments, paintings and decorative arts we are meant to admire.

The Met’s own description of the “audio experience” gives advance warning of these skewed priorities:

Instead of traditional commentary by experts about specific objects [emphasis added], this audio experience is “hosted” by royalty, ambassadors, architects, travel writers, and tourists—in their own words.

Call me a traditionalist, but I’d prefer hearing from the experts.

Here’s a view of two elaborate costumes, such as those worn by Versailles’ visitors, displayed in the show’s first gallery:

Dress, French, ca. 1770-75
Suit, French, ca. 1780s
Both from the Metropolitan Museum
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

And here’s an excerpt from the you-are-there commentary related to that finery, as delivered by an actor assuming the identity of one Tobias Smollett:

Neither old age nor infirmity will excuse a man from wearing his hat upon his head. Females are still more subject to the caprices of fashion. It is enough to make a man’s heart ache to see his wife surrounded by a multitude of couturieres, milliners, and ladies-in-waiting.

All her negligees must be altered and newly trimmed. She must have new caps, new laces, new shoes, and her hair newly cut.

(You can listen here to the complete audio tour and/or read the transcripts.)

An alert, experienced director, well respected by the professional staff (think Philippe), would have reined in the excesses that privilege presentation over substance at both “Versailles” and “Heavenly Bodies.” And a tech-savvy director (think Max) would exert needed supervision over the Met’s diminished digital presence, which has sustained noticeable degradation since the overhaul and downsizing of the digital staff. Evidence of neglect include the Met’s insufficiently updated app (poorly rated, for good reason, in the App Store), disappearing free online audio guides (which had been available in the app or on the Met’s website), and inconsistent use of exhibition hashtags (not to mention the chronic problem of glitchy wi-fi coverage).

At “Heavenly Bodies,” you trudge through scrums of dazed looking visitors, accompanied by an endlessly repeating loop of numbingly portentous music for a Peter Greenaway film by Michael Nyman. In his exhaustively detailed NY Times review of the show, Jason Farago called this aural intrusion “an intolerable loop of staccato string accompaniment…that will make you wish the Costume Institute would take a Cistercian vow of silence.”

Amen.

You can hear a short excerpt here (click on “PREVIEW”):

Under these inimical circumstances, it’s not only difficult to appreciate the religion-inspired garments on display but, more disturbingly, it’s nearly impossible to commune with the less showy objects from the museum’s superlative permanent collection of Medieval and Byzantine objects, which can’t compete with the Roman circus that’s invaded their domain. A similar marginalization of the permanent collection was inflicted on the Met’s Chinese art galleries by the Costume Institute’s China Through the Looking Glass in 2015, under Campbell.

I understand the impulse to connect the fashions on temporary display with objects from the permanent collection, as in the juxtaposition of Gianni Versace dresses featuring a golden-cross motif…

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

…with the Met’s Byzantine processional cross that the designer said had inspired him:

Processional Cross, Byzantine, ca. 1000-1050
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

But although some visitors, seen below, are making a valiant effort, how well can anyone focus on the Met’s Byzantine objects in the cases lining their corridor-shaped galleries, which are, at times, thoroughly clogged with visitors? What’s more, no one can properly see the fashion designers’ intricate creations, installed high above eye level for dramatic effect and to facilitate visitor flow.

The sprawling installation, in multiple galleries at both the Met Fifth Avenue and the Cloisters, is a neck-craning experience:

Installation design by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, in conjunction with the Met’s Design Department
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Pity the lonely soul in the midst of all the hubbub of the Met’s cavernous Medieval Sculpture Hall, as he attempts to contemplate the un-spangled, un-sequined “heavenly bodies” in this display case for permanent collection objects:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

For a better sense of the visual and sonic distractions that he and other permanent-collection devotees were up against, have a look at what was going on behind him, in my CultureGrrl Video:

Those who do glance at the small, centuries-old objects in the permanent-collection display cases may (or may not) notice that those installations have been subtly infiltrated by contemporary double-agents:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The above case includes medieval ivories and contemporary creations with identically designed labels that offer no visual guidance (unless you read them) as to which objects belong to the permanent installation and which are temporary interlopers from our era. Some visitors may be confused or misled. A museum’s mission is to educate, not obfuscate.

If the Met wants to relate objects in a temporary exhibition to pieces from its permanent collection, it should either direct visitors to the galleries elsewhere in the museum where those permanent-collection objects are located (preferably with images of them on the label) or insert a few of those correlatives, conspicuously identified as anachronous Met holdings, in the galleries devoted to the temporary exhibition.

I asked Dan Weiss, whom I encountered last week in the Medieval Sculpture Hall, how he could reconcile his background as an art scholar with what has happened in the Met’s spaces that are dedicated to his own field of expertise.

Here’s our interchange:

ROSENBAUM: As a medievalist, how do you feel about the works in this gallery being completely upstaged, for a long period of time, by what else is going on here?

WEISS: I don’t think they’re upstaged. I think it’s very synergistic, because what it invites people to do is to do what the did in the Middle Ages, and that is to take in the whole environment—the architecture, the sculpture, the painting and the costume. And that is the Christian ritual. There’s nothing different about that. It’s just this is a new thing for us.

ROSENBAUM: But when mobs are here and mobs are in the corridor where the Byzantine objects are, if you came here to focus on the permanent collection, it’s hard: It’s distracting, it’s crowded, and some of the objects are actually blocked by the installation.

WEISS: Well, I’m not sure that they’re blocked [see below]. It is true that there are more people in there than there are otherwise but, depending on the time of day one comes, there is the opportunity to see them quietly. And the permanent collection is the permanent collection, so it will be there after this exhibition leaves. [But those who are tourists may not be.] I agree it may not be ideal for everyone, but it invites people to see things differently, and I think that’s a good thing.

We accommodate more than 7 million people a year here, and sometimes that gets a little crowded.

This is the installation gaffe that I had in mind when I asked Dan about objects that were “blocked”:

Gianni Versace, Jacket, 1991-92
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Versace’s beaded and embroidered green silk tulle jacket is depriving visitors of access to this:

Four Byzantine icons, early 1400s, tempera and gold on wood
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Not even an anorexic fashion model could safely squeeze between that glitzy jacket and the brick wall bearing the “exquisite panels [that] represent the height of icon painting during the last decades of Byzantine rule from Constantinople,” as described by their label. You can only glimpse them from afar, at an angle.

On a lighter note, I wondered (but didn’t ask) how Weiss, who has described himself as “a white Jewish guy who grew up on Long Island [and] who is completely areligious,” reacted to the explanation by Timothy Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop of New York, as to why he had agreed to lend his presence and prestige to the opening festivities (including the Met Gala) of this materialistic, profane display.

Here’s what the Archbishop told us during his introductory remarks at the press preview:

In the Catholic imagination, the true, the good and the beautiful are so personal, are so real, that they have a name: Jesus Christ [emphasis added]….In the Catholic imagination, the truth, goodness and beauty of God is reflected all over the place, even in fashion. The world is shot through with his glory and his presence. That’s why I’m here. That’s why the church is here.

Startled to be thus sermonized, I felt as though I had wandered into the wrong pew.

L to R at Met press preview: Andrew Bolton, curator in charge of Met Costume Institute; Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of “Vogue”; Stephen Schwarzman, sponsor with wife Christine; Cardinal Dolan; Donatella Versace, artistic director of sponsor, Versace; Christine Schwarzman; Daniel Weiss
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

An outsider aura followed me to the first gallery (below) of the less crowded continuation of “Heavenly Bodies” at the museum’s Cloisters outpost in upper Manhattan, where I was force-fed a repetitive loop of Schubert’s “Ave Maria!”—unavoidable during the Christmas season, but not something that I wanted to be subjected to, over and over again, at an art museum:

Center: Viktor & Rolf, Ensemble, 2018 (original design: 1999-2000)
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The only “Heavenly Bodies” objects that were accorded their own dedicated space are the jaw-droppingly ornate treasures from the Vatican. These are installed at a great distance (and on a different floor) from the rest of “Heavenly Bodies,” in the Costume Institute’s claustrophobic subterranean galleries, which opened in 2014 and are named for fashion doyenne and Met trustee Anna Wintour.

The most dazzling bling is a nearly three-pound tiara, below, worn by Pope Pius IX. A gift to him from Queen Isabella II of Spain, it glistens with “about 19,000 precious stones, the majority of which are estimated to be diamonds,” according to its label:

Tiara of Pius IX, German & Spanish, 1854, gold metal thread, gold, diamonds, rubies, sapphires, emeralds and pearls
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

I won’t presume to judge the exhibition’s ecclesiastical content, and my knowledge of fashion is fragmentary. I’ll leave it to Cardinal Dolan to judge whether this revealing Valentino evening dress, which “recalls the great cape worn as choir dress by cardinals and bishops” (according to its label), is satire or sacrilege:

Pierpaolo Piccioli for Valentino, Evening Dress, 2017-18
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

But as an arbiter of institutions’ exhibition practices, CultureGrrl decrees that the Costume Institute’s heretical installation be excommunicated for committing museological offenses.

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