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Jayne Wrightsman’s “No Loans” Edict for Gifts & Bequests to the Metropolitan Museum

Today’s announcement by the Metropolitan Museum about the “exceptional bequest” by trustee emerita Jayne Wrightsman (who died in April at 99) omits mention of a crucial way in which this windfall of some 375 objects, along with “substantial [but unspecified] additional funding,” is indeed “exceptional”: Under the conditions imposed by Wrightsman, the Met is hamstrung as to how it can deploy those acquisitions.

Jayne Wrightsman, left, at Met’s 2008 loan show from Victoria and Albert Museum of Medieval and Renaissance Treasures (with Dragon Aquamanile, Mosan, ca. 1120)
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Wrightsman was, by all accounts, an exemplary trustee, as attested to (on the museum’s tribute page) by former Met director Philippe de Montebello, current European paintings chairman Keith Christiansen, curator emeritus of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts James Draper, and former curator in charge of the Costume Institute Harold Koda, among others. But she attached an onerous restriction to her generous gifts.

When I clicked on “Exhibition History” for several of the Wrightsman gifts and bequests, during my search on the Met Collection website, I was startled by this pronouncement:

THIS WORK MAY NOT BE LENT, BY TERMS OF ITS ACQUISITION BY THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART.

So let’s say that you’re a curator at a major museum and you’d like to borrow the celebrated “Antoine Laurent Lavoisier and His Wife” (an earlier gift, not part of the bequest) for a Jacques Louis David retrospective:

Jacques Louis David, “Antoine Laurent Lavoisier and His Wife,” 1788, Metropolitan Museum
Purchase, Mr. & Mrs. Charles Wrightsman Gift, in honor of Everett Fahy

Forget about it! If you click here, then click on “Exhibition History” and scroll down, you’ll hit the brick wall:

THIS WORK MAY NOT BE LENT, BY TERMS OF ITS ACQUISITION BY THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART.

This triggered traumatic flashbacks to an article I wrote on June 26, 1991 for the Wall Street Journal (can’t find a link) about another major gift to the Met that was encumbered by similar baggage—the Walter Annenberg Collection.

In “Free the Annenberg 53” (my editor’s cheeky headline), I disapprovingly noted this:

The Annenberg works may never be lent to another museum for any exhibition or other worthwhile purpose.

There were additional strictures, which do not apply to the Wrightsman trove: Annenberg’s works had to remain on display in their own separate area, which was (and still is) carved out of the 19th-century European galleries. They were allowed to move only for inclusion in special exhibitions within the Met itself.

In answer to my query, a Met spokesperson told me this about the Wrightsman restrictions:

The terms of the bequest stipulate that the works may not be lent out. The same applied to works she gave in her lifetime, although it’s worth noting that on occasion she did agree that some works could travel. [Presumably, such permission can no longer be sought, unless her heirs have authority to give it.]

The bequest also stipulated that of the 375 total objects, the 22 paintings should remain on view [reminiscent of Annenberg’s display requirement], but there are no restrictions on where they can be installed, or specifications for what other works they can be displayed alongside.

The museum was happy to agree to the terms of such a transformative and generous gift. 

The spokesperson added that “the bulk of the funds the museum received in the bequest are held in an endowment that will generate investment returns over time.”

The Met has several times acceded to the creation of single-collector enclaves, which cause the flow and logic of its galleries to be disrupted by individuals’ fiefdoms (i.e., Altman, Linsky, Lehman, Gelman)—a strategy that may win coveted collections but lose the coherence of installations.

Such concessions to donor vanity conflict with a museum’s scholarly mission. It’s fine to mount a temporary show that highlights important new gifts, but after that, decisions about displays should rest with the curators.

We recently got a sense of what we’ve been missing at the Met when the renovation of its galleries for old masters forced the temporary relocation of works that are ordinarily segregated from each other by donor decree. As I wrote here, works from the Lehman, Linsky and Altman collections, usually restricted to their own separate territories, are now able to cordially commingle with related works from the rest of the Met’s collection in a two-year temporary display—In Praise of Painting: Rethinking Art of the Dutch Golden Age at The Met.

Rembrandt, Self-Portrait, 1660, Benjamin Altman Bequest, temporarily relocated to Lehman Wing for In Praise of Painting: Rethinking Art of the Dutch Golden Age at The Met
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

While they probably must honor the rash promises to donors that were made by previous directors, the Met’s current leaders should assert curatorial authority over the fates of future accessions.

While they’re at it, they should reconsider another dubious practice of previous administrations—privileging the NY Times over the rest of the scribe tribe. Today’s announcement of the Wrightsman bequest hit my inbox about an hour after the NY Times had published the news online.

It’s time to say “Time’s up” for “Times First.”

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