Remembering 3 Critical Moments in Contemporary Art

Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo: Betty Galella

Three art-scene controversies from New York’s archives that are worth revisiting.

1. When the Met almost became a theme park.
In 1977, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s then-director Thomas Hoving and billionaire Walter H. Annenberg were surreptitiously planning for the “Fine Arts Center of the Annenberg School of Communications at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.” In a clear conflict of interest, a recently retired Hoving would have assumed the role of overseeing the new center’s creation. Besides sidestepping public participation and undermining the democratic principles of a public trust, the proposal for the center promised a new “Technotronic Era” at the Met, with “communications devices and ‘superb software’ through which … the Imaginary Museum would come to pass.” Hoving’s Epcot-like vision was eventually foiled, but not without the help of Barbara Goldsmith’s investigative report for New York.  

2. Public funding for scandalous art.
Before subversive art became all but a moot point in the post–Piss Christ late '80s, Pat Buchanan was running ads in 1992 bashing a Bush for being too supportive of the arts. It’s hard to imagine, in this post-post–Piss Christ society of ours, a political spectrum so divided: There was Robert Mapplethorpe, Ronald Reagan, and everyone in between. Read on as then–New York art critic Kay Larson breaks it down.

3. The rise of the power gallery.
It’s a tactic of luxury branding that was once rare and daring but is nowadays as ubiquitous as every Apple Store on the planet: using an aesthetic so minimal as to be sanctified, as if invoking the invisible power of a deity. In the high-end art world, that god is by most accounts Larry Gagosian, who was one of the first to make a point of a Spartan showroom. In an industry where astronomical price tags and sterile exclusivism have become naturalized, it’s worth revisiting Mark Stevens’s 1996 article on the rise of the “power gallery,” published just after the opening of Gagosian Gallery Beverly Hills.