Leaving the Met

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Pam’s Pictorama Post: This is one of those posts where I veer wildly off into an essay on my personal life (where the All Pam, All the Time comes from), so those of you who are in it for the toys and photos might want to pass this one by.

Much has been written in the press about The Metropolitan Museum of Art recently, and for the most part I guess I am not especially interested in commenting on that. Instead I thought I would take the opportunity to write a little bit about what kept me working at the Met for the better part of 30 years.

To dial back to the beginning of the story, after graduating college I had a vague idea about working my way through grad school in painting and drawing, and to this end I began cooking professionally here in New York. To collapse this part of the story, I was working for a young Jean-George Vongerichten at his first restaurant here in New York when diagnosed with arthritis in my hips and back. It would be years before a balance of meds and exercise would set things right and meanwhile, it was evident that I had chosen the wrong way to support myself. My good friend Frances (whose last name happened to be de Montebello) got me a job in the bookstore at the Met, as seasonal help – just something to do and make some money while figuring out what would come next.

Much to my surprise, the next months saw me, in rapid succession, hired away from the bookstore and into the Department of Ancient Near East; then hired into Human Resources Office, which we then called Personnel, as an assistant. Along that path I made fast friends among other aspiring artists in the bookstore, stockroom and eventually among the technicians, and even nascent curatorial staff. It seemed like something of the artist’s haven you are looking for after leaving the warm cocoon of college or art school – the grad school I never made it to. People always wanted to talk about art, invited me to participate in exhibitions, art jams and publications.

Some of those friendships and affiliations have lasted this long test of time, especially among those folks who are also still working there. One of two others from those earliest days I stay in touch with, despite having moved far and wide, and a few others – such as my friend Jennifer Pellman – sadly died young; or like another friend Drew Curtis, just slipped away from me. (Drew had a great story about how he had actually left home in Oklahoma to join the circus – his description of hosing down the elephants in the morning will always stay with me.) My more or less 30 year tenure at the Met meant I was always easy for folks to find if they came calling, sometimes even after decades. Still, even from my earliest days there, it was clear to me that this place was a community for artists and people who cared about art.

Surprisingly my casual approach to my career eventually landed me in the Development Office. With hard work (a work ethic instilled early on by my parents, and honed to a fine edge in my various incarnations as waitress, short order cook, house cleaner and chef) and the faith of those who supervised me, combined with some luck, and I continued to learn, grow and get promoted to something that almost equaled a living wage. Turns out I was good at this fundraising thing with its attention to detail and rewards for someone with good listening skills, patience and who likes people.

Curators were pretty much gods to us. I was trained to protect them at all costs as they are the talent of the Museum, and their time should be used judiciously. Of course at the highest end there was the Director, the President and our Vice President. They were to be shielded to the extent possible and never surprised under any circumstances if possible. There were many small things that I learned that stayed with me – always have a discreet pad and pen, even at events, so you can take notes for follow up; grace under pressure will get you through most things – never panic, and try not to allow yourself to be rushed. That’s when mistakes occur, when you are rushed.

A friend of mine who worked at the Met for about six years once said that it is the only place you’ll ever work where if you leave after ten years people will look at you and say, “I guess it just didn’t work out.” No one wanted to bother to learn your name until you had been there for several years, and therefore perhaps you were staying. Many alliances were forged at lunches in the staff cafeteria and the Amity diner on Madison. It sounds snobby and perhaps it was, but the end result was if you stayed and worked hard and actually cared, you found yourself working among a brilliant and interesting milieu.

Like family we fought hard as much as we played well together – there were some we thought were favored and others who were black sheep. As a part of the administrative staff we traveled along a slightly different path than the curators – frankly a lower rung. Had our own gossip and issues. However, together we all celebrated weddings, birthdays, the arrival of babies and attended funerals. I am always moved to tears when I think of how many people made the long trip to Long Branch, New Jersey for my sister’s funeral – and how a group of about six of my closest friends helped me decorate the vegetarian restaurant in Chinatown where our wedding was held.

Some of those people remain at the Met – others have also dispersed, but remain valued colleagues and friends. I find myself writing this three weeks after leaving the Museum, and two weeks into my new job with Jazz at Lincoln Center. While I already miss the warm arms of the Metropolitan family, being surrounded by the glorious art and all those wonderful people, I embrace the devoted earnestness of my new colleagues who believe that jazz, the great indigenous American art form, is also a path for living a creative and collaborative life. An organization which is having its own financial struggle as it strives to grow into a world-wide advocate and educator, the dedication of the staff is astounding. So, despite the distinctly exposed feeling of a chick who has flown out of the nest, I feel I have landed on the perch I was meant to. It’s a big challenge and there are already days when I just hope my skills are up to it, but deep down I know I am paying it forward now as I should be. Everything I learned at the Museum I will plow into helping Wynton Marsalis and the folks at Jazz realize their vision.

I am already using my ears more now these days than my eyes, but listening is an important thing to learn. These days I can’t help but feel Rich Conaty on my shoulder as well, always reminding me of the line he used to close his show with, remember that music saved the world – aloha!

 

 

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