The Executive Director: Thomas Hoving and the Rise of the Museum-biz

“Running the Met was no different from running General Motors…the museum was just a business with all its excitement–and drudgery.”

In theory, and in practice, museums bring histories of art and society to audiences that might not otherwise know them. They underwrite thorough and important scholarship, and are committed to providing a space for knowledge outside the precincts of academia, strictly defined. They are civic institutions of education, experimentation, and expression.

But, let’s state the obvious: museums are also businesses, and have been for quite some time. They raise revenue, manage assets, administer salaries, and organize programming and services. They have administrators and boards, large donors and micro-revenue (membership, ticket sales, etc.). They operate concessions, from bookstores to cafes to parking lots to cinematheques. And, as Andrea Fraser’s “1% Art” points out, for a variety of historical reasons, in the US they often operate at the behest and under the direct patronage of wealthy individuals who may or may not have their own personal and political agendas in mind.

Thomas Hoving, who ran the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from 1966-1977, was among the first museum directors to recognize the potential of this new (museum) world order. Hoving reimagined the museum as an experiential hub–a place for blockbuster shows and postcard shops as well as for connoisseurship, conservation and scholarship–setting a template for museums and their directors that’s become the norm in the past 40-odd years.

In 1993, he published his autobiography, Making the Mummies Dance. A gossipy self-mythologization, the book stridently chronicles Hoving’s understandings of the inner workings of museums from donors to boards to curators to deaccessioning and tax loopholes. In the new reality of museums as business, Hoving emerges as the self-proclaimed victor, the Director-as-Executive.

Photo: Kestutis Zapkus, Lucy Lippard, Jean Toche and other members of the Art Workers Coalition break up a trustees’ meeting at the Met, January 12, 1971. Zapkus holds a container of cockroaches, which he then released onto the table. Photo by Jan van Raay.