November 17, 1975 12:00 PM

“This’ll really zap ya!” cried Thomas Hoving (rhymes with roving) as he careened about the latest and grandest acquisition of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art: direct from Egypt, ladeez and gentlemen, the stunning 2,000-year-old Temple of Dendur. Angling his 6’3″ frame into a niche of the temple, Hoving pointed to the 642 sandstone blocks which once graced the banks of the Nile and now are being painstakingly reassembled in a huge hangar-like structure on the museum grounds. Some time in 1977, resident pharaoh Hoving will unveil the temple to the world with suitable fanfare.

Propping a modishly draped arm against a wall of exquisite nude reliefs, the 44-year-old Hoving enthused, “Catch this gateway! Fantastico!” Is he really Princeton ’53, summa cum laude? He pointed to some third-century graffiti. “Early Kilroy!” Do the august Met trustees understand this kind of spiel? (Not always.) The temple itself Hoving insisted, was “Outasight!” His hands carved a parabola describing the $8 million terraced complex and 60-foot high vitrine that will protect the temple from Manhattan’s tainted air. He burbled in impeccable Italian for a few moments, then signed off, “So that’s the temple, buddy. You’ll love it. And everyone in the Big Apple will come and see it.”

In the tweedy and often fusty art world, Thomas P.F. (for Pearsall Field, but some say Publicity Forever) Hoving comes across like Captain Marvel—POW! ZAP!—riding an orange Honda (which he does). Not surprisingly, he has enough detractors to fill the 23 acres of marbled floor that make the Met the largest art museum in the Western Hemisphere. They resent the way pitchman-wheeler-dealer Hoving has seemed to concentrate blithely on “customer traffic” at the expense of scholarship.

Thus, in his decade in the public eye—a year as New York’s parks commissioner under Mayor John Lindsay and nine as the Met’s director—Hoving has been tagged “The Clown Prince of Fun City,” “The Man with the Edifice Complex” and unflatteringly compared to P. T. Barnum and that regal abuser of the public purse, the Sun King Louis XIV. But the irrepressible Hoving learned to endure slings and arrows during his miserable first years as a poker-playing outcast at Princeton, and he takes grim enjoyment in the sobriquets. They spur him on to even greater extravagances, the worth of which he feels are in the eye of the beholder.

Most of the three-and-a-half million beholders who trooped through the Met this past year—a million more than the year before—offer proof of sorts that the son of Tiffany’s chairman of the board has the Midas touch. The museum under Tom Hoving has drawn increasing numbers of young people and last year even turned a modest surplus of $45,500. It is indisputably New York’s premier tourist attraction, ranking only behind the Louvre among the world’s great museums.

The Met’s new-found spirit is a direct reflection of Hoving’s own undergraduate verve. In a commencement address at Bennington College in 1968 Hoving declared himself a “responsible revolutionary,” adding, “I’ll give you Hoving’s Law: Fight, challenge and struggle, but—become the Establishment and beat the Establishment at its own game…changing it by sweet reason and perhaps even honeyed persuasion.” (Presumably, he had learned something since he was expelled from Exeter for slugging his Latin teacher.)

At 35 Hoving became the youngest Met director ever, catapulted into the job upon the death of shy, patient James Rorimer. In 1959 Rorimer had given Hoving, a recent Princeton Ph.D. in art history, his first job at the museum, and now Hoving inherited an impressive but austere grande dame that had fallen behind the times. No new gallery space had been added in 40 years and the bulk of its three-million item collection was in storage. The forbidding corridors of gray medieval armor were enlivened by an occasional sarcophagus. The work pace was as hurried as a Monet picnic. The year Hoving took over, not one special exhibition had been scheduled.

The Hoving revolution got underway at once. To make sure the museum was getting a day’s work for a day’s pay, staffers were asked to sign in. Special shows came twice monthly, ballyhooed by enormous banners at the museum’s entrance, which became a sunlit plaza of jetting fountains where sidewalk musicians and minstrels held forth. Hoving changed the free admissions policy: visitors now are asked to make some sort of donation as they enter. With crowds flocking to international displays like Masterpieces of Tapestry and the sublime gold craftsmanship of From the Land of the Scythians, nearly $1.5 million was added to the Met’s treasury. It is approximately the cost of a new exhibit.

More than half-a-million people thronged the Met in December 1974 to view the Impressionist Epoch with its pride of Renoirs. And while Hoving educated the masses upstairs, he entertained them downstairs with such inspired schmaltz as Romantic and Glamorous Hollywood Design, which included Clark Gable’s bathrobes and Judy Garland’s hats.

Despite appalled scholars’ cries that he has turned the place into an Art-O-Rama for the tourists from Scarsdale and Kankakee—”It’s a cattle truck now,” one gripes—ex-Marine Hoving has plunged ahead. He had invented “Hoving Happenings” when he ran the parks, delighting bicyclers and birdwatchers by closing Central Park to cars on weekends. He experimented with “Happenings” frequently at the Met, including recitals of the classics against a backdrop of Greek sculptures. All the while, he was stoking his eccentric high-octane image by roaring around Manhattan on that ancient orange Honda or, when wife Nancy borrowed the motorcycle for grocery shopping, pedaling his daughter Petrea’s 10-speed bike up Park Avenue.

Hoving even turned down a $250,000 18-room duplex and limousine that went with the director’s job. “I value my independence,” he explained. He also disdained the private washroom adjoining his spartan office because, says one aide, he wanted to overhear employee gossip in the staff men’s room.

In 1970, the Met’s centennial, Hoving trumpeted a $65 million master rebuilding and expansion plan. “People laughed when he said it would be completed by the end of the ’70s,” recalls one staffer, but now 80 percent of the program is underway. The construction is necessary if only to accommodate the acquisitions Hoving has made. The most significant of these is the monumental Lehman Collection, which Hoving, using “honey,” cajoled out of financier Robert Lehman before his death by making him honorary chairman of the board. To house the Lehman treasures, Hoving usurped a piece of Central Park, successfully battling the courts and irate New Yorkers. On it sits a sumptuous glass pavilion for El Greco’s St. Jerome and other Lehman Collection items which opened to the public last May. Then there is the Temple of Dendur building, and a new American Bicentennial wing going up as well.

Hoving indeed has made the mummies dance at the Met, but the price tag, some complain, has been prohibitive. He is said to have singlemindedly begged, borrowed or stolen every art treasure of consequence except for the Venus de Milo. Hoving concedes with a wry grin that “those who feel that way may have a damn good point.” But his critics, to whom it is no laughing matter, say that his damn-the-exchequer style has grossly overinflated world art prices.

In his book, The Chase, The Capture: Collecting at the Metropolitan, whose publication accompanies the opening of a new Met exhibition Patterns of Collecting next month, Hoving writes that “the tracking down and winning of a single work of art offers the highest excitement of all—the excitement of a love affair.” Hoving brings to his “affairs” a mastery of French, Italian, Spanish and German (he will scan foreign newspapers for the latest slang to try out while on business abroad); the casual urbanity of Rex Harrison, whom he faintly resembles; and the elegant sleuthing manner of Sherlock Holmes.

There is also the art-politik zest for intrigue of a Kissinger and a high roller’s savvy and nerve (Hoving blew his entire Marine mustering-out pay in Las Vegas). As a junior curator under Rorimer in 1963, he snared a 12th-century Bury St. Edmunds ivory cross (some still doubt its authenticity) that, like the Maltese Falcon, “had become an obsession with me.” While Hoving examined the two-foot-high cross in a Zurich bank vault, its shadowy Yugoslav owner confiscated his Rolleiflex and exited, sneering, “Take all the photos you wish.” Hoving, alone, slipped a tiny Minox from his shirt and calmly clicked away.

In the race to capture Velásquez’ master portrait, Juan de Pareja, Hoving first feigned disinterest, then shocked Christie’s, the famed London auction house, with a secret bid that won the painting for $5.5 million. And acquiring the Temple of Dendur involved a byzantine power struggle between the Johnson White House, the Met, the late Robert Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who initially withdrew her support from the Met when her friends the Paul Mellons claimed the temple for Washington’s National Gallery.

Just as Hoving’s brashness has brought the Met a prestigious inflow of masterpieces, his splurges have depleted the museum’s funds. Thus the museum, 30 percent of whose funds come from taxes, faces a $300,-000-plus deficit in 1975. To help balance the books, Hoving has relied on a “deaccession” policy of selling the Met’s less desirable items. In response, several Met staffers, also upset by Hoving’s “brusque and bullying” attitude, have quit, and one critic suggested that Hoving deaccession himself.

All the critics seemed to zero in last year when the New York Times charged that the Met had illegally obtained a magnificent Greek krater, the Euphronios vase, for which Hoving paid $1 million. The uproar subsided only when Hoving and the Met successfully refuted reports that the vase had been stolen by grave robbers and smuggled out of Italy.

But Hoving’s aggrandizing days are virtually over anyway. Most of the gaps in the Met’s collection, except for contemporary cubist art, have been filled. When the building program is completed, says Hoving, “That’s it. No more room.” Besides, governments have clapped export restrictions on the sale of art, and the Met must now bargain for exchanges with the Soviets, French and others. This has devalued sheer panache. “It used to be laissez-faire and caveat emptor,” Hoving recalls longingly.

Now he will have to confine his risk-taking to Alpine skiing and ocean racing (he runs the foredeck crew on a friend’s boat). He may even have the leisure to speed-read more than his current book-a-day.

But chances are that Tom Hoving will continue to horrify a fair percentage of the art world. As he relaxed recently in his six-and-a-half-room Manhattan flat with its peacock wallpaper arid cluttered kitchen, Hoving watched daughter Petrea, 17, monopolize the phone and Amy, a silky terrier, scramble underfoot. Wife Nancy, who works with drug addicts, padded barefoot around the living room in a raspberry-colored caftan. There is, he acknowledged, something more to stage-manage after all: a new friendship with the Andrew Wyeths will lead to a major Wyeth show at the Met next year. It will, promises Hoving, zap ya.

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