Thursday, April 11, 2013

Schadenfreude on Display: The Huntington Hartford Gallery of Modern Art, Part 1

An Introduction

            I really don’t remember the exact date when I first heard of the Huntington Hartford Gallery of Modern Art in New York City.  It was probably while I was an art student, when I was learning about many aspects (successful and unsuccessful) of art history as well as the art world.  As soon as I learned of its existence, I also learned of its closure.  Whoever told me about it (one of my art professors, no doubt) said something like “there was an art museum in that building (referring to the Gallery’s Columbus Circle headquarters) but now it’s closed”.  The idea of a failed art museum intrigued me then, and still does to this day.  Art museums are seen as sort of never-ending cultural benchmarks.  They are tasked with recording history and educating the public, and through government support and admission fees they operate for generations.  Sure, commercial galleries that sell art come and go, but they’re businesses that have to consider things like overhead and profits.  Art museums are usually immune to things like market trends or shrinking profits.  Not to say that art museums don’t have to deal with financial problems (they deal with these things all the time), but in many cases they find ways to continue on in their mission.  Can anyone picture a museum like the Metropolitan Museum or the Museum of Modern Art going out of business?

            I think that the idea that intrigued me most about the Gallery of Modern Art was that it was closed, and operated entirely before I was born.  It is knowable only through photos and first-hand accounts.  I can’t go there and see what people saw in the late 1960s when the Gallery was open for its short duration (only 5 years).  When I started researching this topic, I was also fascinated with the idea that something art related could fail in an art-rich city like New York.  In a place that seemingly features art on every street, how did this museum fail to make an impression?  As I discovered more about the Gallery, I found that the institutions shortcomings rested squarely on the shoulders of Huntington Hartford, the tycoon who sunk millions of dollars of his own money into a building to display his personal art collection.  His tastes in art were seen as misguided (to put it mildly- art critics weren’t so kind) and the Gallery remains an example of a staggering miscalculation of what the art savvy citizens of Manhattan would and would not accept.  The Gallery (as well as Huntington Hartford himself), isn’t discussed much these days, but I think that the story of the Gallery’s construction and failure can still serve as a powerful cautionary example, a warning that hubris today can lead to stunning catastrophe tomorrow.

George Huntington Hartford II

            Schadenfreude is the feeling of shameful joy.  Taking pleasure in the misfortune of others.  In our culture, we build celebrities up, but then take great joy in watching them fall.  It’s a guilty pleasure, since someone’s livelihood is often at stake, but one only has to read the headlines of the tabloids at the supermarket checkout to know that schadenfreude is alive and well.  Tabloids celebrate celebrity couples while they’re together, but will most likely find them more interesting once the relationship fails.  This is hardly a new phenomenon, and the story of Huntington Hartford is a perfect (if tragic) illustration.

            George Huntington Hartford II (he didn’t use his first name- he was always known as Huntington or just Hunt for short) was heir to the A & P supermarket empire and was at one time one of the richest men in America.  His wealth was calculated at around 500 million dollars, and that’s in 1950s currency.  It would of course be much more today.  He was a highly visible public figure, a subject of both television interviews and Hollywood photographers.  He produced plays and films and operated theaters.  He hobnobbed with celebrities and political figures (Richard Nixon was a personal friend).  If you’ve never heard of him, it’s because he was also notorious for making bad financial decisions.  He spent millions of dollars developing a resort on Paradise Island in the Bahamas.  The Gallery of Modern Art (which will be discussed in detail in future posts) was closed after 5 years, costing Hartford millions in the process.  He was married several times, and went though several costly divorces.  He lived fast, spent lavishly, and died broke.   When he passed away (just recently in 2008, at age 97) he was all but forgotten.  His money and influence were long gone, and everything he had tried to put his name on in order to leave a lasting legacy had failed.  I think that much of the interest in Hartford’s life is to be found in his failures.  How could someone who had so much end up with so little?  The Gallery of Modern Art functions as a microcosm of what went wrong with his spending and ambitions.

Hartford with Andy Warhol

         As an artist, the Gallery of Modern Art is the most interesting to me and the perfect example of a Cultural Ghost.  It was born and died well before the age of the Internet, and information on the web is there, but often insufficient (the story of the Galley is summarized in one short paragraph on Hartford’s Wikipedia page).  Throughout the next few weeks, I hope to resurrect the Gallery and its collection, exploring the art that Hartford favored and examining the reasons why the museum was ultimately unsuccessful.  The Gallery is gone, the collection long ago sold off and dispersed, but in exploring its history perhaps the reasons why this happened can be illuminated.

Next week: Huntington Hartford starts collecting art, and critics respond with a collective “meh”.

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