When I became director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it was stodgy, gray, run by elitists. I said, “Hey, let’s kick the thing around.” I wanted to attract young people to the museum. I said, “Make it hospitable. I want them to come. I want them to make dates, pick up girls, pick up boys – either way; I don’t care.” And it happened on the great steps, this huge apron of stairs leading to the museum. I’d thought that could be the place where everybody who didn’t like museums, didn’t know what this big, ugly bank building was, might come. And then they would turn around and say, “What’s that? Let’s check it out.” And they’d go in and they’d say, “Hey, not bad.” We went about it in a very, very calculating way.
The first blockbuster came about after the museum’s centennial in 1970, when we had a series of huge shows. I asked myself, What are we going to do next? I decided to steal an idea from the Council of Europe, an association of European museums that every two years put on a huge art show. They were always borrowing from the Met but never lending to the Met. I said, “Fuck them. From now on, we’re going to be partners.” So we’d say, “No loan until you allow us to have some pieces for the X show.” And they got really pissed off. But then they said, “Well, hey, why not? America does have a lot of shit.”
My favorite show was “Scythian Art,” the art of the wandering tribes of the Ukraine. Because they were on the move all the time, they had nothing big; they had Greek craftsmen make gold jewelry for them. I saw the stuff in the Gold Room in the Hermitage, to which even a Politburo member couldn’t get instant access. You had to wait 50 days if you were allowed in – and then you were given five minutes! I said, “God, this stuff is not to be believed.” I said, “I want this,” and pointed to the great door of the Gold Room. My friends in the Soviet Union said, “Peter the Great passed a law saying it shall never leave.” I said, “It will come back, okay? Come on, guys!” They said, “But what will we have in exchange?”
I said, “Our old masters.” “Oh. Ahhhh! El Greco?” I said, “You want the View of Toledo? You got it.” They had no El Greco in all of the Soviet Union. But then, in the final negotiation, they said, “We’re sorry. The gold Scythian panther – it is too fragile to travel.” I said, “Funny you say that; I called the office this morning before coming here, and the View of Toledo by El Greco – my conservationist says it’s too fragile to come over.” They said, “But this is cover of catalogue.” I said, “So was the panther.” And the guy looked at me and said, “Okay, let’s stop this crap.” And we cut the deal, and we got the panther, they got the El Greco.
I think the critics got mad at these big shows because for the first time in history, we ran advertisements, and like anybody on Broadway, we ran quotes of critics, and of course we always picked out the one that said, “Sensational! Unbelievable!” and left out the word “trash.” It was very controversial, primarily because there was an art-critic clique – still is – which is very conservative, very elitist. They just detest popularization and call it the cheapening of art. But it’s virtually impossible to cheapen a great work of art by popularizing it! No matter how hard I tried to popularize, I never cheapened a great work of art.
Interviewed by Michael Gross