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Upper-Class Warfare at the Met

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Sam Peabody says that of the six families at 990 Fifth, where he’s president of the board, four support the coalition, one is noncommittal, and one opposes it. “She’s a widow who has promised her husband’s collection to the Met and therefore is being courted,” he confides, declining to give her name.

One of the few buildings that doesn’t support the MMHDC is home to Arthur Sulzberger Sr., chairman emeritus of the New York Times and a Met trustee. However, Estelle Greer, an interior designer and the building’s president, says deference to the former Times publisher has nothing to do with the board’s position.

“I don’t even discuss this with him,” she says of the contretemps, adding that her board needed little encouragement to side with the Met. “She’s a wild creature,” she says of Pat Nicholson. “I wouldn’t get involved with her. First of all, she’s extremely articulate. She loves paper and words. She can bury you in paper. But she doesn’t know what she’s talking about. She’s on this cause. It’s obviously psychologically doing something for her.”

Greer isn’t alone in feeling that way. When the Met came before Community Board 8 a few weeks ago to unveil its plans for the Roman court, Pat Nicholson, the only member of the coalition present, asked so many questions that Chuck Warren, the board’s president, eventually silenced her. “They wanted us to come out and say what the Met is doing is bad,” Warren says. “I don’t think the board necessarily feels that way about this project.”

To the Met’s opponents, the community board, like the Parks Department, is nothing more than a rubber stamp for the Met’s empire-building ambitions. “The community board gave Pat an incredibly hard time,” says Edwin Bobrow, former president of 1025 Fifth’s co-op board. “She was polite but forceful with our position. As soon as she rose to speak, they’d want to shut her up.”

Nicholson has even acquired the home phone numbers, some of them unlisted, of many of the members of the Met’s board, a batting order that includes, in addition to Kissinger and Sulzberger, developer Bruce Ratner, investment banker Steve Rattner, and socialite Annette de la Renta.

“You ask people whoever can give me addresses and phone numbers,” Nicholson explains. “You’d be surprised what you get back—‘I met them here’ and ‘So-and-so knows this one.’ ”

She adds that she resists the temptation to pick up the phone and plead the coalition’s case, mailing them her organization’s literature instead. “Most of these people would have gotten these things by fax,” she says, adding that she hasn’t received any response. “I don’t feel we should intrude on their lives.”

The Met’s board has been noticeably silent throughout the unpleasantness. Calls to board members, including board chairman James R. Houghton, of the Corning Glass family, weren’t returned, though Harold Holzer, the museum’s vice-president for communications, knows of the attempts to reach them within minutes.

De Montebello says he’s discussed the matter with the board, but that’s all he’ll say. “The answer is obviously yes. You know that. We’re a serious institution.”

The Met’s propaganda machine is hardly less active than the coalition’s. The museum appears to have a rather well-developed network of spies who live in the buildings across the street and forward everything from Nicholson’s fund-raising appeals to tenant lists. “We get phone calls and letters: ‘Right on!’ ‘Go for it!,’ ” says David McKinney. “We believe a vast majority of our neighbors are supporters of the Met.”

Sam Peabody says he recently buttonholed a Met trustee, an old boarding-school classmate he encountered at a party. The results were decidedly mixed. “He was, well, quite evasive.”

A Met trustee, who asked to remain anonymous—“The Met, i.e., Philippe, gets very sensitive. [They say,] ‘You should just refer them to us,’ ” he confides—admits he has trouble feeling the coalition’s pain, especially since he doesn’t live on Fifth Avenue himself. “One or two people I know across the street—they protest to me. Naturally, one doesn’t like to hear noise. But, good grief—we’re living in Manhattan. As a matter of fact, we hear all the ambulances going by to Lenox Hill and the police cars running home to get dinner.”

Hoving, whose self-confidence seems only to have grown with the years, says, “In a decade, the museum will bless Pat.”

One might have thought that Peabody and his fellow members of the MMHDC would be feeling somewhat humbled at the moment. On May 14, they went down in defeat when a State Supreme Court judge dismissed, on a technicality, their case challenging the Met’s plans. The judge, Marcy S. Friedman, ruled that the statute of limitations had run out on filing a lawsuit.

However, they are appealing—the MMHDC expects a ruling on the appeal in the fall and a decision by the end of the year—and are hopeful that if they win their appeal (they’re arguing that the clock on the case should have started running later), Judge Friedman will rule in their favor the second time around. Friedman, in her decision, acknowledged that the MMHDC had raised “a serious issue” about the environmental-review process, which occurred when the Parks Department okayed the museum’s 2000 master plan.

Nicholson claims that if the coalition wins its appeal, the Met may be forced to halt its plan for the new Roman gallery, the Leon Levy and Shelby White Roman Court (a crane will be assembled inside the museum in the next few weeks).

An April 2004 stipulation, in Judge Friedman’s court, effectively gives the coalition much of what it’s been fighting for. The Met agreed to cancel the removal of the fountains and the excavation. The Met plays down the stipulation. “We affirmed that we weren’t going to do what we weren’t going to do,” says Met outside counsel Michael Gerrard—it had canceled the plan for the fountains in 2002. “By the way,” adds David McKinney, “we also stipulated we wouldn’t do any blasting. We’d also stipulated we wouldn’t do weapons of mass destruction.”

The stipulation leaves ambiguity as to whether the Met may take up its plans in the future, and it hardly seems to have appeased the coalition, which has vowed to press on. While the most obvious explanation for why it’s doing so is that it can—it collected $500,000 to wage the first phase of its campaign—the neighbors also seem to believe that De Montebello won’t be stopped until they put a silver bullet through him. “They’ve canceled their plans, for who knows how long,” Peabody says. “We also wanted a stronger statement from the courts.”

David McKinney admits the Met might have been more sensitive in the way it rolled out De Montebello’s master plan. “I think we have become much more communicative with the community board in the immediate neighborhood,” he says. “We’ve made lots of changes related to traffic. We’re much more sensitive to after-hours work, to noise, the roof.”

It’s hard not to speculate that Hoving’s disagreement with De Montebello over his expansion plan is a symptom of an Oedipal conflict. De Montebello, after all, was brought in with a mission of calming the chaos created by his mentor. By remaking the museum, he’s erasing Hoving’s legacy, staking his own claim to be the museum’s most important director. There are many who agree with him.

While acknowledging that Thomas Hoving did fine things for the Met, Ashton Hawkins, the Met’s executive vice-president and chief counsel who served under both men, believes De Montebello to be the superior director. “He believed in and built up the curatorial staff, and always considered it the strongest part of the museum,” Hawkins says. “Philippe works much more by consensus and careful planning. That makes him a more effective leader.”

However, others say that it’s precisely De Montebello’s curatorial disposition that denies the museum the brilliance it achieved under Hoving. “He’s basically a curator as director,” says Jay Cantor, an art historian who cut his teeth working with Hoving. “Philippe has done a wonderful job sprucing up the museum’s gallery installations and expanding available exhibition space. He is a traditionalist, with deep roots in connoisseurship. As exhibition opportunities diminish because of difficulties securing loans, a more imaginative approach, as well as better ways of engaging the public and the insights of museum professionals, may be in order.

“In some ways, the Metropolitan Museum and the Metropolitan Opera are similar,” Cantor continues. “They are both major cultural institutions that bring enormous resources into the presentation of a largely traditional repertoire.”

Pat Nicholson recently sent out a new fund-raising letter to pay for the coalition’s appeal. The suggested contribution is $2,000 for families whose apartments face the park, $500 for those who don’t, and $1,000 for townhouse owners around the corner. “If we even have to advance money and have to get people to support it on the backside, that’s what we’ll have to do,” she vows.

Meanwhile, a tense truce prevails on Fifth Avenue. Shauna Denkensohn says she still visits the Met, but not as frequently as she once did. And she refuses to pay, much to the chagrin of the hapless museum cashiers. “They said, ‘There’s a fee,’ ” she recalls of one visit. “I said, ‘No there isn’t. Call the manager.’ The supervisor didn’t even know. I said, ‘If you want me to go home, I have a copy of the lease from the 1880s.’ I know other people who have had the exact same problem. I was going in for Friday-night cocktails and music.”

Nicholson no longer sets foot in the museum. “We used to be sustaining members,” she says. “I used to go over and have brunch. It’s a terrific deal. They have a great weekend brunch. But I gave up my membership.”


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