It’s sad to see the ongoing bloodbath at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In all places and of all institutions, one would assume the redoubtable Met would be immune from the financial crises that seem now to be part and parcel of the running of any arts organization. While the Met has sought to engage a larger audience and broaden its constituency through capital expansion, new programs and electronic media, so far it hasn’t- as it hasn’t for anyone in the arts- made much difference.

It seems that in desperate times, all organizations seek some sort of messianic solution- a new, charismatic director is a popular one, someone who will develop a cult of personality allowing thereby a mesmerizing effect on visitors and donors alike, both actual and potential. One wonders, though, how well the likes of Thomas Hoving or Leonard Bernstein, those of sainted memory of 40 years ago, would fare today.

And, indeed, when one thinks of these charismatic characters at the top, what’s not apparent is the spiky relationship they maintained with the governance of the organizations they served. In developing their own cult of personality, they felt immune from the mundane necessity of things like working within a budget. And, of course, it is the failure of working within the vaunted budget and the eventual failure to meet its financial obligations that results in the ultimate failure of the institution.

It may seem insulting to the intelligence of my gentle readers to make such an obvious point, but it is astonishing to me the extent to which arts organizations fail to grasp this simplest of simple facts. Indeed, when times are tough, organizations often spend more money in an attempt to widen their audience and make a big splash, when they should be focusing on their core institution and, wait for it, spending less. How often I’ve seen the last big expenditure the payment of six figures to an offsite consultant who told the organization what they should have already known, and the payment to the consultant resulted, sad irony, in the last nail in the financial coffin.

It’s funny, not really, but ironically so, that along with today’s press about the vicissitudes of the Met, I also read in the art press about the pending opening of TEFAF Maastricht, arguably the world’s finest fine and decorative arts fair. My last visit to Maastricht brought me face to face with several curators from American museums, with an equal distribution from both coasts of the US. None of them were shopping with donors, but they were shopping, although at present I can’t confirm that any purchases were made onsite or subsequent to the closing of the fair. However, what I can say is that the curators got a free, expense paid trip to the Netherlands, with their doubtlessly cash strapped institutions footing the bill. Charity begins at home, it seems to me, and if one doesn’t have an abundance of the ready, one needs to stay at home.

At long last, Keith and I were able to spend enough time in Honolulu to take advantage of something we’d wanted to do for decades. Not precisely one of these so called bucket list items, but something nevertheless we felt the poorer for not participating. Specifically, it was a series of lectures, running annually for 30 years, sponsored by the Historic Hawaii Foundation, and covering heritage subjects with a particular emphasis on Hawaii. Kudos to the persistence of the Historic Hawaii Foundation for making this all happen, with the long time assistance of the redoubtable Dr William Chapman, the chair of the American Studies program at the University of Hawaii, Manoa campus.

It is something of an irony that, with so many people who support the heritage industry, not only with their money but with their visits to heritage sites and attendance at lectures, of the shall we say graying generation, those who operate and curate the heritage industry are very, very young. Consequently, there is a bit of a disconnect, beyond the one wrought simply by age. Museum and heritage studies programs turn out graduates who are imbued with contemporary ideas about museology that then are spewed back, and heard while scratching their heads, by museum and heritage site visitors.

Mind you, a bit of revisionism is appropriate given that there still exist pervasive notions about culture being the exclusive province of northwestern Europe, and the northeast of the United States. History is, after all, written by the victors whether on the fields of battle or halls of academia. Still and all, sometimes, as Freud had it, a cigar is just a cigar.

Case in point, with one of the lectures focused on the Hawaiian Mission Houses, we were treated to a generic discussion by the outgoing director on changes in historiography over the last century. Mystifying at first, but then his point brought vaguely into focus when he asked those assembled whether, by show of hands, we thought the missionaries to Hawaii were colonists or imperialists.

As the lecture itself was so disjointed and so discomfited my own thoughts, I didn’t have the presence of mind to ask the lecturer if mightn’t the missionaries have been just that- missionaries. In his final remarks, the director asked again by show of hands if he hadn’t convinced us the missionaries were cultural imperialists.  Were they? Were there proto-Maoists operating at the time of the Great Awakening in the early years of the 19th century? Or more likely, was the director in his lecture mouthing an extreme cultural anachronism? I would strongly stump for the latter.

No question about it, heritage sites and arts and cultural institutions generally, and internationally, are on hard times, with declining attendance and an increasing paucity of revenue that stimulates their governing bodies and administration to flail wildly for programs and approaches to make their institutions relevant to a younger audience. In this age of the handheld device and million channel interactive TV, anything outside electronic entertainment has a tough row to hoe.  Still and all, it is imperative to mediate, to use a term current in museology, between the contemporary methodologies that are shall we say fashionable at the moment, and the familiar, traditional, canonical functions that are embraced by the traditional attendees and supporters. While of course one wants to educate and challenge the intellects of everyone, it would be wise to remember that entertainment is what most people are after, including that elusive younger attendee, so it would be equally wise to bear in mind that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

‘…with a wishing well’. Not precisely one of Rodgers’ and Hart’s most deathless songs, from a largely forgettable musical ‘On Your Toes’. It was, nevertheless, brought to mind this morning when I received a communication from an erstwhile client, a hospitality designer with a number of international hotel commissions from international hotel chains. No small hotels these, everything in the 300 room plus category, and even those in the remote locations suitable for, pardon me Oprah, ‘glamping’, the interiors and amenities being assuringly if unimaginatively recognizable, and one could easily wake up in the morning thinking one was in Anaheim and not in the Seychelles.

I suppose, as one would transit the country a few decades ago, one would visit Denny’s or McDonald’s with the knowledge that one would find, if not a culinary experience of Duncan Hines stature, then yet a familiar one, a safe one, and in our own benighted country, with most of its residents never venturing outside its borders, ‘safe’ is of paramount importance. Sadly, though, ‘safe’ and its fellow traveler ‘sameness’ is largely what’s become the byword of nearly everything- from merchandise, to hospitality, both lodging and eating, and inexorably, ‘sameness’ has erased local culture. The pope, for instance, can now walk less than the length of the nave in St Peter’s to order a Big Mac in Vatican City. Whether it is fast food stodge or an anonymous luxury hotel room, these are part of the monolithic internationalism in consumer culture, culture that had its birth in but represents something less than the best in American exports, and now, it is all that’s left of retail commerce in any municipality when it has squeezed out of business what’s best locally.

That everywhere and everyplace is losing its national, to say nothing of its local, character is decried by those of us of an age to remember the glory of diversity and loved domestic and international travel precisely to take in local color and is tinged with considerable irony. Ironic in that, with mountains and mountains of cash from the burgeoning pension funds those affluent baby boomers have amassed, it is a capital rich environment that funds the leviathan that’s literally wiping cultural diversity from the world’s landscape. It astonishes me to find, in my own sad case, that the equity in my whole life policy is now more than I ever thought I’d have in total net worth. What use is made of that equity, though, is what’s at issue. All of us require both  a reasonable rate of return, and with the prospect of our earning years moving into abeyance and the assurance of actuaries of a very, very long span of life, considerable capital appreciation. Considering who’s to blame for the change in the cultural environment, one needs only to look in one’s LED lit and heated and three sided bathroom mirror.

For all those younger who rail against international business and take to the streets in protest, the seductions of huge amounts of cash nevertheless enmesh younger people at the very moment when their  own creative efforts to counter cultural erasure begin to succeed. The young restaurateur, or the young artist, or any one of a number of creative people in any endeavour, once they achieve some public success see followed quickly on offers of cash to expand. It is difficult to resist the cheapening of one’s own product, to say nothing of one’s own principles, through expansion in the face of blandishments that allow one to purchase a Range Rover, hire an au pair, and live in Pacific Heights, South Kensington, or the Upper East Side.


Regency period rosewood card table- we had one, the queen has two.

Amidst all the furore about the cost of refitting the much tinkered with Buckingham Palace, occluded is the fact the palace is very much a working government building. Although Queen Elizabeth II lives there for part of the year, she doesn’t own the place or its contents, and the bleating from so many anti-monarchist that she should pay for the repairs herself is analogous to insistence that Donald Trump pay for the repairs and maintenance of the White House whilst he is in residence. I pause for a moment until I stop shuddering at the thought…

Although not always occupied by the queen, the building is always in use, and while she is away annually in August, the place is open, as it was this last August, to tourists, including, as it happens, Keith and me.

Marquee for the Bucking Palace Garden Café- location, location…

Marquee for the Bucking Palace Garden Café- location, location…

We’ve gone often over the years, mostly to take in the extraordinary furniture and artwork that, although acquired over centuries by the crown, is not, in the main now owned by the royal family, but is in fact owned by the state. Our visits, while pleasant, do to be frank have a commercial imperative, seeking as we always do to determine if something in the royal collection matches up with something in our own stock in trade, and this year we were in luck. A wonderful Regency period card table had its number  matched by two in the Music Room, in the apse overlooking the garden. As an aside, we’ve now sold this piece to a very good client in Montecito. Did the tangential connection with royalty sell the piece? Perhaps not, but it does make for a good talking point.

Buck House ‘royal’ cappuccino- everybody has a living to make

Buck House ‘royal’ cappuccino- everybody has a living to make

That Keith and I are nakedly commercial in our outlook might seem crass, but we were cheered by the fact that, even amongst the great and the good, a desire to use wealth and position to make some dosh is something we have in common. After dodging the throngs inside, we were glad to find outside hugging the palace’s garden front a pavilion selling light refreshment, of which we were in desperate need. Our late morning cappuccinos were given a special, albeit tacky touch, with a royal crown stenciled in chocolate on top of the foam. Oh, well- everyone has to earn one’s keep, even Queen Elizabeth.

dumfries-house-coverOne of the things I had most looked forward to in an era that has seen a dearth of country house sales was the one scheduled nine years ago of the contents of Dumfries House. Is this politically incorrect? A heritage industry solecism? Of course it is, but I am unrepentantly acquisitive, and it is as a dealer that I fuel my obsession with buying things. Imagine, then, my initial disappointment when Prince Charles  intervened at literally the 11th hour, saving the house and its contents for the nation.

Oh, well, now I’ve offended every English Heritage, National Trust and Historic Homes Association card member, I must say that, absent owning a bit of the treasure trove of Chippendale furniture that had existed unchanged and in situ since placed there in the 1750’s by the 5th Earl of Dumfries it was my goal to sooner rather than later visit Dumfries House.

Not the easiest place to get to, the estate is rather at the back of beyond, in possibly the wettest part of the Scottish lowlands, known heretofore for sheep- there in abundance- and lead mines, a few still operating. Generally, though, this part of Scotland is not economically robust, and it was as a part of the acquisition of Dumfries House a consortium headed by Prince Charles- more accurately styled the Duke of Rothesay in Scotland- sought also to accomplish some economic regeneration, with the establishment of studios onsite to teach restoration techniques, and the eventual construction of a housing estate nearby.

The house itself, though, is something of a disappointment. The design initially the work of William Adam, and completed after his death by his sons, the house has the reputation of being an early visual essay in classical architecture by Robert Adam. All this prior to Robert Adam’s own grand tour, and nurturing and tutelage by Piranesi and Clerrisseau, the house is not much more than a box with internal rococo plasterwork of passing interest. After seeing the virtual invention of neoclassicism in the mature work of Robert Adam in places like Harewood, Kedleston, and Syon, it is hard even to draw a linkage between these works of an accomplished, mature architect and this a very early effort.

‘French’ chairs, from Chippendale’s 1754 Director…

‘French’ chairs, from Chippendale’s 1754 Director…

But as at least as much as the association with the Adam brothers generally, the house is famous for its association with Thomas Chippendale, and indeed is vaunted as one of the first large-scale commissions of arguably the most famous English cabinet maker, executed at about the same time as the issuance of his exquisite pattern book, The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director.

‘French’ chair, as executed by Chippendale. Modern blue damask, matching the period original

‘French’ chair, as executed by Chippendale. Modern blue damask, matching the period original

No question about it, the furniture does not disappoint. The Chippendale pieces were wrought by the master’s London workshop largely to patterns associated with the Director… and selected by Lord Dumfries himself. The influence of Chippendale within Dumfries House is hard to overstate, as even the large numbers of pieces completed by Scottish cabinet makers were in very many cases executed to match Chippendale’s published designs. I must say that, as a tremendous enhancement to the visual experience, reading Sebastian Pryke’s masterful essay in the Dumfries House guidebook does a wonderful job of contextualizing the furnishing of the house.

Detail of Dumfries House serving table, attributed to Alexander Peter

Detail of Dumfries House serving table, attributed to Alexander Peter

Unfortunately, the house and its contents are less than the sum of the component parts. The Adam portion of the house itself is not the prodigious effort wrought by Robert Adam in his later years, and the interior decoration, and certainly the furniture pieces, while lovely in themselves, seem in many cases out of scale and just plopped inside. As Dr Pryke makes clear in his essay, the pieces were selected by Lord Dumfries and included readymade stock, as well as pieces purchased at auction and taken from other of Lord Dumfries’ homes.  The effect, sadly, is of something of a jumble that contrasts negatively with the care and effort Robert Adam was able to achieve with his controlled outside-inside decoration, where scale and style and colour were in complete harmony. Those few of my regular blogophiles will note that Lord Dumfries was very much concerned about some modest association of the exterior of the house with the Palladianism of Lord Burlington, noting in contemporary correspondence that some versions of the plan were favorably reviewed by the renowned gentleman architect, the acknowledged style setter of his day.

Sideboard table, Chippendale’s Director…

Sideboard table, Chippendale’s Director…

Unfortunately, though, the work of Burlington’s protégé William Kent and the notion of an interior befitting the grandeur of the exterior were ignored. Indeed, as must be implied from the manner in which the house was furnished and the paucity of exterior decoration, Lord Dumfries very much had economy on his mind.

One particularly unpleasant feature that did nothing to enhance the aesthetics of the house was the treatment we received as visitors. Required to book a tour, we did so several weeks in advance and upon arrival, were shunted into a small room with 20 or so other tour visitors to watch a long-ish video of the Duke of Rothesay discussing his role in saving the house and grounds, and his plans, with Dumfries House as the centrepiece, for the regeneration of the local area. It was embarrassingly self-congratulatory and did nothing to aid in the understanding of the house. We were then shunted outside, and introduced to our guide who looked and acted like a Hattie Jacques character from a ‘Carry on…’ film who then quick-marched us around the main and upper floor of the house, and who likewise mouthed with numbing regularity the debt owed to the Duke of Rothesay in saving the house and jumpstarting the local economy. ‘Hattie’ told all of us at the start we could ask questions but her diatribe and the fast pace at which she moved us along made anything other than a quick look impossible. However, along with Keith and our friends Michael and Jane Furse, we took our time and gave everything a careful look. Michael and I were, as it happened, in such rapt, albeit quiet, discussion about a clock case in the entry hall that we didn’t hear ‘Hattie’ chastising us about avoiding private conversation. Jane and Keith heard it, though and let Michael and I know once we were in the car park. Good thing, as I might have treated ‘Hattie’ to some Scots words and phrases, whilst certainly known to the Duke of Rothesay, are not often heard during most tours.