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Upper-Class Warfare at the Met

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Met director Philippe de Montebello on his terrace.  

To hear De Montebello tell it, the greatest change visible from the outside when the renovation is complete will be a reduction of the size of the banners advertising the Met’s latest exhibitions. “You would see the great new classical façade is gleaming,” the director says. “As you know, we are cleaning it now. You would see that great respect has been paid to the architecture with the redesign and the reconfiguration. We’re no longer going to have the banners which we now furl and unfurl on the façade, that are huge and that cover totally the glass arches that let light into the Great Hall. Obviously, you have to announce and give a sense that one is not an inactive institution. But they will be smaller and be dispersed within the architecture. On the inside, I would hope there would be substantial changes.”

De Montebello’s $150 million improvement plan is hardly unambitious. It includes lifting the roof off what was, until June 2003, the Met’s cafeteria, to create a two-tiered court for the museum’s Roman-sculpture collection, much of it currently in storage. Adjacent galleries will display a new Hellenistic Treasury, the Cubiculum from Boscoreale (a bedroom from an ancient Roman villa), and the Met’s celebrated Etruscan chariot, which is being renovated at the moment. The Ruth and Harold D. Uris Center for Education is also up for more than a splash of fresh paint, with new orientation areas, lockers, an art studio, an art study room, and a state-of-the-art 300-seat auditorium.

Further improvements include new galleries for the nineteenth-century, modern-art, and photography departments—the Met recently announced plans to give MoMA a run for its money by expanding its modern- and contemporary-art departments—new offices, renovations to the Islamic-art galleries, and, up the line, reshuffling the American Wing. Only then, De Montebello believes, will the Met be fulfilling its mission as the world’s most, and perhaps only, encyclopedic museum, where the day-tripper can go from Hellenism to Damien Hirst in a single afternoon. Actually, he already believes it’s fulfilling that mission nicely. “We are the world’s greatest encyclopedic museum, by a wide margin,” he says.

Sam Peabody wants to make absolutely clear that he appreciates his proximity to Monet’s Water Lilies and the Met’s incomparable collection of Oceania. He’s even broken bread with De Montebello, though before the current ugliness. They met through a cousin of Peabody’s. “He’s a very cultured guy, a bright guy, an interesting guy—good company.

“I think it would have been helpful if he’d wanted to listen,” Peabody continues. “My impression is that he doesn’t want to be part of this. That’s why he has David there.”

He even likes David McKinney, the Met’s snow-white-haired president and De Montebello’s designated front man, whom Peabody called to protest when he was awoken this winter in the middle of a snowstorm. “They got out their snowplows at 2:15 in the morning,” Peabody complains. “You could hear them for an hour and a half. I called Dave McKinney the next day—he lives up the street, at 993—and he looked into it. He said they had no say in the subject. They were obligated to clear the place for people catching buses, which doesn’t make much sense to me.”

He and his wife also recently lent the Met one of their Childe Hassams, A City Fairyland, for its current exhibition. (Peabody says he didn’t try to exact concessions from the curatorial staff on behalf of the coalition in exchange for the painting. “The left hand does not know what the right hand is doing,” he says of the museum.)

Susan Aberbach, an art dealer and the coalition’s secretary, bristles at Stern’s suggestion that it’s waging a social vendetta against the trustees. “I don’t even think the board is aware of what their executives are doing,” she says, noting that her family donated a major painting by the Belgian Surrealist Paul Delvaux to the museum. “I don’t even know if these people attend board meetings. I don’t even know who they are—and that’s not the issue. The issue is the sanctity of our homes.”

Pat Nicholson, the MMHDC’s supreme commander, whose apartment at 1016 Fifth overlooks the museum, certainly isn’t the stereotypical social climber. “Pat’s an Irish girl from the projects,” says Ed Hayes, the lawyer who represented the coalition in its early days. “She’d be perfectly happy as a sergeant in the Police Department. That’s what God intended her to do. I don’t know where she went wrong and ended up on Fifth Avenue.”

Where Pat Nicholson went wrong was in marrying her boss, Ronald Nicholson, a real-estate developer and horse breeder, who says he sometimes awakens at 4 a.m. to find his better half pounding away at her computer on MMHDC business. “I told their lawyer not to get into a fight with my wife,” he says of the Met. “She’s the best-organized person in the whole world. It took Eisenhower a year to plan D-Day. She could have done it on a long weekend.”

Pat Nicholson’s particular bugaboo is the mechanical equipment atop the museum, the air-handling systems that keep all those Vermeers and Van Goghs new-looking, and of which she has a bird’s-eye view from her bedroom window. The equipment also apparently produces copious amounts of vapor at certain times of the year that cloud her windows and obscure her views. She has documented these mists, through both video and still photography.

“Nobody would be in it the way I’m in it to protect their views,” she claims. “For 150 years, they’ve never put themselves in a place where they’ve had to be accountable. Void the lease. Start from scratch, and let the citizens of this city have a voice in what [the Met] should be like in the 21st century, not the trustees.

“I played park ball all my life,” Nicholson continues, while sitting in her spotless white living room with a couple of champagne bottles in a bucket and a large LeRoy Neiman horse-racing scene; the noise from the Met, of crowds and buses and break-dancers, floats over at full throttle. “If you cheat, your mother and father know about it. I respond immediately to injustice. As a property owner, I felt the Met handing us something as a fait accompli was completely unacceptable. Nobody should be able to have what they want just because they want to have it. Somebody has to discipline the Met.”

The MMHDC claims to represent 600 families, but that includes everybody who lives in the nine buildings facing the Met whose boards have contributed, whether individual tenants side with the museum or the opposition. “I just think it’s wrong that a few people living on the top floors are causing this ruckus,” says Richard Walter, a fellow owner at 1016 Fifth and a supporter of the museum. “People in the back of the building don’t care.”

Pat Nicholson says that about 140 contributors have actually reached into their own pockets to support the struggle. “There are eight or so families in the $10,000-to-$20,000 range, and another 25 families in the $1,000-to-$7,500 range,” she says. The average contribution is around $500.

Shauna Denkensohn, an officer of the coalition and a resident at 1025 Fifth Avenue—that’s the building with the Fifth Avenue address and impressive canopy even though it’s around the corner—insists that Pat Nicholson isn’t an army of one. “It’s a large group of concerned, active citizens,” she claims. “The Met is acting like a developer. We love art; we oppose the slashing and digging in granite. I’ve been going since I was a little girl. My mother is an artist. My son grew up thinking the Temple of Dendur is an indoor playground.

“I’ve seen it go from this wonderful cultural institution,” she goes on. “You go to an exhibit, and it’s three rooms of art and two of sales. It’s become a money machine. I think somebody calls it Bloomingdale’s North.”

De Montebello heartily disagrees. “I would be surprised if even 3 percent of the space of the museum is devoted to shops,” he says, though he concedes that the museum store off the Great Hall is an important source of revenue. “It allows us to show art and maintain excellence. And everybody will tell you we are the finest art bookshop in town. So it isn’t just curios. This pietistic attitude toward merchandising is silly.”


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