• U.S.

Art: Custodian of the Attic

15 minute read

(See Cover)

When people lived in houses, not apartments, they generally had attics. Their purpose: a storage place for things so dear to their owners’ hearts that they couldn’t be thrown away. In time, these has-beens turned (some of them) to heirlooms. This is the case for attics.

A civilization’s attics are its museums. Here yesterday’s knickknacks are squirreled away, in the somewhat less haphazard hope that some of them will turn to treasure. The custodians of civilization’s attics must be knowledgeable men, able to tell a hawk from a handsaw, for their yesterday goes back to history’s dawn, and their attic’s room—like their budget —is strictly limited. Peering at relics is an increasingly popular pastime, for mankind is increasingly curious about the past, and its tenacious connection with the present. This is the case for museums.

Last year more people (2,263,336) went to New York’s Metropolitan Museum than to the Yankee Stadium. Twelve years ago, the Met attracted only half that number. The box-office increase is largely credited to the epigrammatical, blunt showman who for twelve years has been the museum’s director: Francis Henry Taylor. Says Taylor: “Showmanship should never show. But if you haven’t got it, you have the kiss of death.”

In his 25-year career, Taylor has come to some other conclusions about his job:

¶ “We in the art museums of America have reached a point where we must make a choice of becoming either temples of learning and understanding … or of remaining merely hanging gardens for the perpetuation of the Babylonian pleasures of estheticism and the secret sins of private archeology.”

¶”The American museum is, after all, neither an abandoned European palace nor a solution for storing and classifying the accumulated national wealth of the past. It is an American phenomenon, developed by the people, for the people . . .”

¶”Instead of trying to interpret our collections, we have deliberately high-hatted the man in the street and called it scholarship . . . The public are . . . frankly bored with museums and their inability to render adequate service. They have had their bellyful of prestige and pink Tennessee marble.”

Sightseer’s Digest. Though the Metropolitan has its share of pink marble, Taylor’s museum high-hats nobody. Last week, as every week, a steady stream of schoolchildren, college students, housewives, tourists and casual visitors trooped up the steps and into the cloakroom to check their coats (no tips allowed).

They could all find something worth looking at: there were seven special exhibits going at once. On the ground floor were a folk costume show and a comprehensive display of “The Weird”—no etchings, drawings and lithographs from the gruesome isth century genii of Albrecht Diirer to the willowy 20th century witches of Charles Addams (“May I borrow a cup of cyanide?”). Upstairs were other shows: the Metropolitan’s 30 famed Rembrandts, a collection of miniature objects, earliest American landscapes, contemporary American watercolors, drawings and prints.

The most arresting exhibit was “Art Treasures of the Metropolitan”—192 of the museum’s most cherished items, culled from the million-odd pieces in the Met’s great attic, bracketing 5,000 years of history. These works were displayed, not in chronological order, but in provocative comparisons: a lean and wiry Greek statue, yth century B.C., near an adipose Titian, Venus and the Lute Player; a set of simple Egyptian jewelry, igth century B.C., beside a pearl-studded cup by Benvenuto Cellini; a 400-year-old Pieter Bruegel the Elder side-by-side with a 65-year-old Cezanne. A visitor could see it all in 20 minutes, or pore over it for 20 days.

Cloisters & Caravaggio. These special shows are only the first ring in the Met’s huge tent. Backing them up are the museum’s eleven departments—from one of the world’s finest collections of arms and armor to a monasterylike treasure house of medieval art, the Cloisters, overlooking the Hudson River; from one of the best collections of Egyptian art outside Cairo to galleries of Western painting matched in the U.S. only by the National Gallery in Washington. The Met owns so much art that nowadays, says Taylor, “we are reaching only for the superlative.” Among recent acquisitions: Caravaggio’s The Musicians, Velasquez’ Don Caspar de Guzman, Van Gogh’s L’Arlesienne, Gauguin’s la Orana Maria.

Francis Henry Taylor was born in Philadelphia in 1903, the son of a well-to-do family. His father was a noted orthopedic surgeon, president of Philadelphia’s College of Physicians; his mother’s family were investment bankers. Taylor had the childhood of a genteel Philadelphia:!: private grammar school, then boarding school (Kent) in Connecticut, and the University of Pennsylvania. His first interest in art was aroused by the Swedenborgian cathedral going up in suburban Bryn Athyn. His brother C. Newbold Taylor, now a Philadelphia banker, presumes to doubt the story that, as a youngster, Francis used to pedal over on his bike to watch the craftsmen work in stone, wood, and glass. Says Newbold, in brotherly fashion: “I never knew my brother to take any exercise he could possibly avoid.”

It was not until after college and a few years abroad that Taylor thought about a career in art. After teaching English at a French school in Chartres in 1924-25, he returned to the U.S., studied medieval art at Princeton, and landed a job as assistant curator at Philadelphia’s museum.

His colleagues remember him as a curious, European-looking figure in short black coat and striped pants. But they also remember that he had the chief responsibility for a major museum project: importing an entire French Romanesque cloister dating back to 1086, and rebuilding it stone by stone in Philadelphia.

European museum men are impressed by the quality and scope of the Met’s collections. Says Georges Salles, director of the Louvre: “The Metropolitan compares favorably with anything we have in the Old World. Enfin . . . everything! It is banal to call such an array magnificent.” No other museum has an endowment ($62 million) to equal the Met’s. This year the Met had to spend some $2,700,000 for operating expenses, but still had a husky $600,000 available for acquisitions.

Last week the museum bookstore was offering the public a list of 400 art books, reproductions of ancient jewelry, casts of everything from a 3,000-year-old terracotta Greek ox ($2.75) to a shimmering Aphrodite ($37.50). A pet Taylor project is a monthly set of 24 color reproductions for $1.25; more than 4,000,000 sets have been sold since 1948. Other sidelines: traveling shows, lectures five days a week, a loan policy that sent 1,840 treasures to 120 schools, colleges and smaller museums last year.

Scholar & Showman. It takes a peculiar combination of scholar, executive and showman to run a venture like the Metropolitan. Francis Taylor seems to have the combination. Says a friend: “He has the administrative ability of Eisenhower and the scheming patience of Machiavelli, and he bears a striking resemblance to Rodin’s bust of Louis XVI.” Moreover, and more important, he can work in harness with such diverse types as learned curators and unlearned but connoisseur trustees.

At 49, he is a bulky, overweight (5 ft. 11 in., 200 Ibs. plus) man with a saturnine eye and a well-established reputation for earthy humor. Taylor’s friend, the famed old art critic Bernard Berenson, tells a story of Taylor in a New York elevator when a young woman passenger was pinched by the elevator boy. She shrieked. “I am pleased to note,” said Taylor instantly and impassively, “that there is at least something still done by hand here in the U.S.”

At meetings, Taylor often sits folded in thought, as silent as Buddha. Then he will burst into speech at machine-gun tempo. He can rage like a Shakespearean actor over an underling’s blunder, yet he is also known for his gentle patience with misfits. He is widely regarded as a conservative, an enemy of much modern art, but he will cogently defend its vigor and experimentalism. Though he knows and likes his job as only a professional can, he has been heard to growl: “God, how I hate art!”

Invited to Sit Down. When Taylor took over the Metropolitan in 1940, the great museum needed a shakeup. The golden age of the great benefactors, like J. P. Morgan and Jacob Rogers, had filled it with treasures, but many trifles had accumulated as well, and the public was more familiar with its exterior than its inside. “My job,” says Taylor, “was to try, without causing any palace revolutions, to look to the future rather than the past.”

Taylor was just 37 and full of ideas. “We were whisked into hundreds of new policies at once,” recalls one curator. He called for floods of reports from each department, questionnaires went out asking each curator “to state his value to the museum.” Out went the subwaylike turnstiles at the entrance; in came books of recommended reading for the staff, and exhibits galore.

From the first, Taylor wouldn’t take much argument from his 650-man staff, and still doesn’t. “You might as well poke a bear with a sore tooth,” says one curator. From the time he walked into the museum at 9:15 a.m. until he went home at 7 p.m.. he kept an eye on everything that went on, often roaming the galleries to see what the public was looking at. He still adheres to that daily schedule.

Before the current “Treasures” show, the building superintendent reported that a partition could not be taken down in time for the opening. Taylor smiled a ferocious smile. “If that partition isn’t down in time,” he said softly, “I’m going to lie down on the floor, kick my feet, and scream.” The partition came down in time.

One of the things the staff likes best is Taylor’s policy on acquisitions. The curator makes his recommendations to Taylor, who almost always approves. Then the curator is invited to state his case at a dinner with the nine-man Purchasing Committee of the trustees, headed by Manhattan Lawyer and Met President Roland Redmond. Other interested trustees, e.g., Steelman Irving Olds on American decorative arts, Lawyer Elihu Root Jr. on American painting, also attend. “In the old days,” says a curator, “you were called in once in a while to speak your piece, but I don’t remember ever being asked to sit down.”

The trustees like the new regime too. Taylor is the only director in the museum’s history to be honored with election to the board. The trustees still make the policy decisions, but Taylor’s hands have not been shackled: more than a fourth of the objects in the “Treasures” show are purchases of the past twelve years.

Eyewash & Travel. The combination of high art, high politics, and high finances in Francis Taylor’s job would be enough to crush some men. After a dozen years of it, Taylor appears urbanely calm, but he has a habit of biting his fingernails. “I don’t relax.” he says, “I just collapse. It’s pretty much of a rat race.”

At least once a year Taylor likes to go abroad on scouting trips. It is virtually the only vacation he gets, though it is largely a busman’s holiday. “A museum director goes to Europe to get his eyes rinsed out,” he says. “He’s got to. Everything here in the U.S. has been through the dealers. You’ve got to go abroad and see things as they were—see paintings that are still on the church walls.”

He knows practically every important museum man in Paris, London and Rome, and keeps in touch with them. In Paris and Rome he also keeps in touch with his favorite restaurants. “Monsieur Taylor,” says one of his French museum friends, “eats what is good, what is best. He is a true gourmet!” Other European gallery men, who have found themselves competing with the Met for masterpieces, pay their respects to Francis Taylor in different terms. Says one: “He’s really an old-time politician, like all you Americans. All he thinks of is to make his museum five times as big.”

Cezanne & Headlines. Taylor’s big chance came in 1931, at the height of the Depression. He had married three years before (a Watertown, N.Y. girl named Pamela Coyne) and was moodily telling himself that he wasn’t getting ahead fast enough. Up in Worcester, Mass., the art museum had $750,000 to put up a new building and wanted a young man with bright ideas to run it. Worcester’s trustees found their young man in 27-year-old Curator Taylor.

In the museum’s annual report for 1933, Director Taylor explained what he was trying to do: “[The museum] has ceased to be a mere gathering place for a few persons of special knowledge, and has become an important factor in the life of the city . . . The people of Worcester are going through deep waters, [and] the museum can help them to weather the storm.” One of Taylor’s first actions was to tell the city about its museum. Then he started buying the kind of master pieces the public would like—a 6-ft. Egyptian bas-relief, a 4th century B.C. Greek statue of an old man, a wooden head from China, a beautiful Cezanne. And then he set out to lure the public in to see them.

He expanded the free art classes for public-school children, set up traveling shows for not-too-distant boarding schools —Andover, Exeter, St. Paul’s and Groton. He bought records for musicales at the museum, engaged orchestras traveling between Boston and New York for cut-rate Sunday concerts. Worcester was one of the first U.S. museums to exhibit foreign films. Some staid Worcesterites thought it “too cheapening for words,” but a lot of the unstaid began to come in for a look. At first, some of them came just for the movies. When a staffer gloated over the fact that 1,000 people had come to see a movie, Taylor sighed: “Yes, but how many looked at the paintings?”

The museum put on big exhibits of Dutch, Flemish and medieval art, experimented with new ways of displaying art. Once Taylor had visitors wandering through a darkened maze of dramatically lighted objects, listening to a recorded lecture; another time, for a Dark Ages show, he borrowed from a dealer the Great Chalice of Antioch. Without ever committing himself or the museum, he drew the attention of the press to speculation in a recent book as to whether the cup might not be the Holy Grail itself* People flocked to the Worcester Museum, and papers as far away as the Pacific Coast carried such headlines as:


By the time Taylor left Worcester for Manhattan, attendance had jumped from 47,000 a year to 147,000.

Occupied Minds. One of the inevitable criticisms of a museum like the Metropolitan is that it favors the past at the expense of the present. Such charges leave Taylor unmoved. Says he: “There’s only one standard of value. It’s either art or it’s not art. There’s no special virtue in something because it’s been done by somebody you’ve shaken hands with. There are things being created today that are great —but great because of manifest genius. Not because they were created today.”

It all goes back to the purpose of a museum. “Art,” says Taylor, “is the intimate record of the creative vision . . . Nothing can convey the dignity of man so wonderfully as a great work of art; no lesson in citizenship can teach so well the inherent nobility of the human being.” He has seen a full day cut from the U.S. work week in his time—from 48 to 40 hours a week. “I think the problem of keeping the adult mind occupied is probably the greatest challenge we face.”

Last week he was busy meeting the challenge with a building program. One-third of the Metropolitan was closed off and behind the partitions a $14 million alteration was under way. By next year, Stage I will be complete. The museum will have 24 new and 64 remodeled galleries, each comfortably air-conditioned and better lit than before.

Over the next several years, Taylor hopes to remodel the entire museum, including a new main entrance and Escalators to reduce “museum fatigue.” He has plans to meld his eleven departments into five—Ancient Art, Oriental Art, Picture Galleries, European Decorative Arts, American Art. He has experimented with TV broadcasts of art in order to be ready when color TV arrives. He is even considering tiny radio headsets so people can tune in on gallery lectures without disturbing others. “The museum is one of the few places where the population can escape from the impositions of an age starved for spiritual values.”

There will also—and in Stage I—be a fine new restaurant, a new auditorium with TV studios, more & better storage space, an enlarged Junior Museum for children, lounges and rest rooms on each floor.

In the old days, they say, a Texan once wandered into the Met, and remarked with uneasy awe: “Doggone, it sure would hold a lot of hay.” Whatever the Texan might feel now about Francis Taylor’s big attic, he would probably have to admit that what it holds ain’t hay.

-In a 1952 bestseller, The Silver Chalice, by Thomas Costain, the speculation is repeated (TIME, July 28).

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com