Former Met museum director Thomas Hoving dies

AP News
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Posted: Dec 11, 2009 9:08 AM

Thomas Hoving, whose charismatic but controversial leadership of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art is summed up in his autobiography, "Making the Mummies Dance," has died. He was 78.

Hoving died of lung cancer Thursday at his Manhattan home, his family said.

As the Met's director from 1967 to 1977, he turned an institution he said was "dying" into a happening museum with blockbuster exhibits. The treasures from Egyptian King Tutankhamun's tomb was the most popular exhibit in the museum's history, drawing more than 1 million visitors in New York, plus 5.6 million more at five other American museums.

But Hoving also raised dust in other ways, paying $5.5 million for a Velazquez masterpiece while selling works by Van Gogh and others to help pay for it. And he had no qualms about letting people sit and snack on the museum's front staircase, which he had enlarged.

Hoving's philosophy was: anything to make people notice great art.

A brash star in a sometimes staid profession, he was a "perennial thorn in the side of the museum mafia," author and art historian Michael Gross wrote in his book "Rogues Gallery."

"I'm a goner," Hoving told Gross in July, after being diagnosed with cancer in late spring. "But I have no regrets. I've had a terrific life."

In addition to his years at the Met, the native New Yorker was also a scholar, an art curator, the city's parks commissioner and a best-selling author.

When he took over the Met at 35 as its youngest director ever, he created a department for contemporary works, displaying American artists such as Jackson Pollock, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol.

He filled whole galleries with Islamic art and expanded the Egyptian wing with the addition of the Temple of Dendur. The ancient place of worship was saved from being submerged by the construction of Egypt's Aswan Dam and transported to the edge of Central Park, where it's visible from afar _ illuminated behind glass walls.

The Met also acquired vast collections of artifacts from Africa, the Pacific and Latin America _ treated with the same respect as traditional European masters.

Hoving was also the first to hang huge banners over Fifth Avenue to announce new exhibits. Some accused him of commercializing an elite institution, while others praised him for democratizing it.

Hoving "really wanted to open up the museum, to make it a more dynamic, welcoming institution," said former Met director Philippe de Montebello, whom Hoving had groomed as his successor.

"I loved working for Tom," de Montebello said Thursday in a telephone interview. "He was exhilarating, scintillating, brilliant."

The well-heeled son of the Swedish-born head of Tiffany's, Hoving graduated from Princeton University, earning a Ph.D. in art before landing a job at the Met in 1959. He worked in the medieval department, leaving in 1966 to become Mayor John Lindsay's parks commissioner.

But Hoving will be most remembered for the pricey, world-class art he brought to New York _ including pieces like the so-called Euphronios krater, one of the finest ancient Greek vases in existence. It was purchased for $1 million in 1972 from an art dealer later accused of acquiring looted artifacts. The vase was returned to Italy last year.

In many ways, with his bold risk-taking, Hoving "transformed the museum world," de Montebello said.