Thomas Hoving, who ran the Metropolitan Museum of Art from the mid-‘60s to the mid-‘70s, died yesterday. Hoving re-imagined, rebuilt, rejuvenated, and re-branded the Met, adding several new wings and new departments. In the process, he revolutionized most major museums in the U.S., introducing the blockbuster traveling exhibit and putting the focus on attracting the general public rather than just the elite.
But among all of the art controversy and politics, buried in one short paragraph in the full page obituary in today’s New York Times, is I think the reason for his success and survival at the Met. It reads:
“Despite his braggadocio, Mr. Hoving, the son of a Fifth Avenue merchandising tycoon, proved to be an able administrator and budgeteer. Even during the city’s financial crisis, when many other cultural institutions were in the red, the museum was usually able to balance its books, and its merchandising operation grew tremendously in his years, eventually contributing more than $1 million in annual income.”
Several years ago, I took one of those weeklong “Executive Education” intensives at Harvard Business School (one for public broadcasting executives). The Met under Hoving was an accounting case study. When Hoving took over the Met was running large annual deficits and he reorganized operations, demanding that they start making money. We were given financial statements and asked how long the museum could keep losing money at its current rate – the answer was over 100 years, given the size of its endowment and quasi-endowments. Hoving told the trustees the Met was “moribund, gray, and dieing” and they were living on their savings. Along with revolutionizing the art side, he revolutionized the business.
Hoving’s business sense and ability to make money insulated him from being ousted for the many controversial initiatives, acquisitions, and PR stunts he undertook. He was able to back up his talk with actions and satisfy the business leaders and donors the Met depended on, and they backed his success.
There are important lessons here for anyone wanting to expand support for the arts, or for that matter undertake any bold leadership initiatives.