Let me cut to the chase before embarking on a long digression: At this writing, the Metropolitan Museum is safe and so am I.
That said, for a brief time during my visit there Monday afternoon, I feared for my life. Admittedly, I tend to panic when being evacuated due to a bomb scare. (I’ve read The Goldfinch and seen the movie.)
As luck (or lack thereof) would have it, I chose Monday to venture into a museum for the first time since the start of the pandemic: A very close friend of mine, who had recently lost her husband (also my close friend), wanted to visit a museum with me, and I thought it was about time for me to start getting back into the swing of things.
For my triumphant return as a fully vaccinated art writer, I chose the Metropolitan Museum, hoping to see (among other things) the Alice Neel show, after having already recently enjoyed a preview of the smaller Neel survey at David Zwirner Gallery, elucidated by ex-MOCA curator Helen Molesworth (who was recently awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellowship for general nonfiction).
Notwithstanding Blake Gopnik‘s March 31 NY Times piece about how uncrowded the Met’s galleries were, my resolve to see the Neel show quickly dissipated when I saw the waiting queue (lining the left wall, in the photo below) extending from the entrance to the Tisch Galleries to the end of this long corridor, and then some:
I did manage to see the dangling blue Big Bird in the Roof Garden—an ungainly mashup by Alex Da Corte, whose appropriation of Joseph Beuys‘ monumental sculpture, “Lightning with Stag in Its Glare,” which I had seen five years ago at MASS MoCA (on longterm loan from the Philadelphia Museum), had struck me as an off-limits violation of Beuys’ stark sensibility, as I had tweeted here:
— Lee Rosenbaum (@CultureGrrl) August 16, 2016
Similarly tacky, debasing the delicate engineering and subtle movements that are hallmarks of Alexander Calder‘s standing mobiles, was Da Corte’s ridiculous riff in his clunky Met-commissioned work (viewed by me against a perfect blue backdrop):
On view until Oct. 31, this piece includes Da Corte’s imitation of Calder’s actual hallmark:
According to Will Heinrich‘s favorable NY Times review of this knock-off, “The museum received informal permission for the project from the Calder Foundation and Sesame Street.” Hmmm… One wonders what Alexander Rower, Grover and Elmo now think about the finished product. To me, it’s a mildly amusing joke, too slight to support the weight of the Met’s ponderous conceptual baggage. And it raises a more pressing question: Are the guards (and visiting parents) prepared to stop the target audience—young children—from sticking their heads through those tempting holes in the base? (I’m thinking of my frisky grandkids.)
My Met visit also included a look at the new skylights in the European paintings galleries, where my reaction was similar to my impression of the Getty Museum’s skylighted galleries when I had viewed and reviewed its then new Los Angeles facility for the May 1998 issue of Art in America magazine (no easily available link): The natural light (subtly supplemented by artificial lighting) cast a soft glow. There were no reflections from the glare of bright spotlights that sometimes obscure one’s views of paintings at museums (including at the Met).
That said, the level of illumination sometimes seemed insufficient, as in the corner of this gallery:
As I wandered through the reinstalled galleries, the painting below stopped me short, bringing to mind the controversial (now vanished) work that I had ruminated about in my prior post. Who needs Leonardo‘s “Salvator Mundi” when we’ve got Dürer‘s—in the same pose and painted at about the same time (albeit unfinished)? It “can be appreciated both as a painting and a drawing,” in the words of the Met’s label, which tries to make the best of an imperfect situation:
Next up: the Rockefeller Wing at the south end of the museum: I was curious to see if the planned re-do of the galleries for Africa, Oceania and the Americas was now underway. To get there, we passed by the museum’s main lobby, which gave me my first inkling that something was amiss: Although the Neel show was crowded and the European paintings galleries were well attended, the usually thronged entrance hall was eerily empty (as were its walls, from which Kent Monkman‘s monumental murals had recently been de-installed, as scheduled). While remarking on the unusual emptiness to my friend, I attributed it to anemic pandemic attendance.
At least someone had managed to unload some cash in the museum shop:
On to the Rockefeller Wing, where, after observing that a portion of the galleries had been closed “for complete renovation” (as the sign said), I checked to see if the Met’s Benin plaques and sculptures were on display in the still-open section, notwithstanding recent repatriations to Nigeria of such works by other museums. The Met had recently declined to comment for this Smithsonian Magazine article about other museums’ repatriations of Benin “bronzes” (actually, mostly brass).
The Met’s were still on view, including this highlight:
Now it was time for a snack at the recently reopened American Wing cafe…or maybe not: A guard told us we couldn’t go back in that direction, because the lobby had been closed. Only when I asked if we could get to the cafe another way did he inform us that there was, at that moment, a bomb scare(!?!).
Okay, we’re outta here! We scrambled downstairs towards the lower-lobby entrance to Met’s garage (where we had both parked), when who should we bump into (almost literally) but Sharon Cott, the Met’s veteran Senior Vice President, Secretary, and General Counsel? Ordinarily, I might have taken advantage of this random encounter by pestering her with questions about deaccessions, repatriations and other legal matters of the moment. But now, all we wanted to know was this:
Is it safe for us to go to the garage?!?
Yes, she assured us. With that, we fled to our separate cars, only to have the path blocked by a policeman and a strip of yellow crime-scene tape, stretching across Fifth Avenue:
With a sudden blare of sirens and glare of flashing lights happening behind us, the policeman urgently waved me forward, even though it might mean breaking through the tape. Fine with me: I’m off to New Jersey, while hands-free phoning both my husband and son (who knew this was to be my first day back at the Met), assuring them that if they heard anything about an explosion, I wasn’t in the midst of it. As I later learned, the reality of the situation (assuming that this was the full story) was not so dramatic. In answer to my query, Ken Weine, the Met’s chief communications officer, told me this: “A suspicious package was found at the bus stop in front of the museum; NYPD [NY Police Department] closed Fifth Avenue’s adjacent blocks, and upon review by the bomb squad, NYPD issued the all-clear.”
Here’s what the NY Post wrote (with photo and video) about “the suspicious package, located at 82nd Street and Fifth Avenue, …cleared by the NYPD ESU [Emergency Service Unit] Bomb Squad, [which] turned out to be a suitcase with clothing.”
After I calmed down from what I had thought might be a narrow escape, this hit my inbox: an annoying reminder that nowadays you can’t go anywhere or buy anything without being asked to complete a survey.
Unlike an interminable survey (that I gave up on) which was recently sent to me by the NY Philharmonic (where I’m a longtime subscriber), the Met’s questionnaire was mercifully brief. But it wasn’t really about my “overall experience” (in a word: “fraught”). They wanted to know what informational resources I had used to plan my trip and to enhance my experience on site.
It’s understandable that the Met didn’t want to cause visitors to panic. But my friend and I had no idea that there was any reason (let alone urgency) for us to exit the building until I badgered the guard for another way to get to the American Wing, causing him to drop the word, “BOMB.” If the Met has a protocol for addressing potentially dangerous situations, I’m not sure it was adequate (or properly followed) during Monday’s lackadaisical evacuation.
Although I’ve claimed to have “a nose for news,” this was not the kind of news I meant!
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