On this day, when the NY Times has published a compilation of Notable Deaths, one of the artworld’s most noteworthy losses—James (“Jamie”) Houghton, 86—has been consigned to the classified obits:
The long recital (in the above clip) of his interests and accomplishments (including “danc[ing] a mean two-step” and singing “Broadway show tunes”) barely mentions his leading role at the Metropolitan Museum, where Houghton served as chairman, with great distinction, for 13 years (1998-2011), through good times (the 2007 celebratory opening of the new Greek and Roman Galleries) and bum times (the global fiscal crisis of in 2009).
While the Times is (presumably) playing catch-up, here’s how the Met (in a press release announcing the appointment of Daniel Brodsky as Houghton’s successor) had described Houghton’s contributions:
Outgoing Chairman James R. Houghton, who was elected to that post on November 10, 1998, first became a Trustee of the Metropolitan Museum in 1982, and from 1984 to1998 was Vice Chairman of the Board, as well as a member of the Executive Committee and Finance Committee. Mr. Houghton was elected a Museum Fellow for Life in 1994, and became a Museum Benefactor in 1996. A former chairman of both the Business Council of New York State and the Harvard Corporation, he also served for 10 years on the New York State Council on the Arts. In his business career, Mr. Houghton was Chairman of Corning Glass, and has served over the years as a director of such corporations as Exxon, The Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, and J. P. Morgan.
I was about to compose my own appreciation of Houghton, but who better to take on that necessary task than his longtime partner in managing the museum—Philippe de Montebello, whose stewardship (from 1977 to 2008) seems all the more remarkable with the passage of time.
Here’s what Philippe emailed to me when I asked for his thoughts:
He was an exemplary chairman.
His first comment to me was: “I don’t ever want to be surprised.” He was generous, a great listener, adept at bringing people together, and decisive when necessary. He liked reports to be direct and short.
He was universally liked, I think. A true gentleman. My boss and my friend.
Back in 2007, when I had the temerity to ask about de Montebello’s possibly impending retirement, I received this firm retort from Houghton:
He’s healthy, so we’ll keep him going. You know, he’s exactly my age and we were classmates at Harvard!
Actually, I didn’t know that. I guess that helps to explain some of their rapport and mutual respect.
More fun facts (with a whiff of nepotism): Houghton’s cousin, Arthur, had been Met chairman from 1969-72. And the Houghton Dynasty at the Met continues with the 2016 appointment of Jamie’s niece, Quincy Houghton, to the post of associate (now deputy) director for exhibitions: