Without the Net

The other evening our usually dependable Wifi sputtered during a meeting. I was able to get back on it, but yesterday we woke to the realization that we didn’t have Wifi. After two calls to our provider, RCN, our “box” was declared dead (well, dying, it has a few meager lights blinking) and a technician requested for later today. It was also, as it would happen, Kim’s birthday and so thoughtful wishes are piled up, as I write, in the world online, an internet connection away.

Kim, who is immersed in the latter stages of his next book spent yesterday tracing off pages which will then be tightened and eventually inked. (A post with the specifics of Kim’s process can be found here. It is a great favorite!) I still had online access, via my phone (and my ipad which decided it could operate off my phone) which meant I could do some work including attending meetings with my little Italian Felix toy avatar in my stead.

I have my own policy of trying to be on camera for most Zoom meetings, at least at the beginning of each, and I try to stay on for all meetings with staff. I think it is more humanizing even if I am just in from my run and admitting that I only make it to even nominal make-up about once a week these days.

Nonetheless, the lack of Wifi slowed me down mightily – if you are reading this it means either I posted it via my phone (a skill set that may well be beyond me), or the technician has come and restored us to full function. It makes me realize how much I depend on the internet for casually adding things to these posts as well. My fingers twitch to check references and add links and photos.

In case the day needed more complications, I had an appointment to get a new phone. Like many people, I beat the heck out of this thing over the past 18 months. The screen is cracked from dropping it from the elliptical at the gym, years ago now. (There was a time when I didn’t take my phone into the gym, preferring to listen to a tiny and somewhat finicky ipod instead, but when my dad was began his decline and was hospitalized I started bringing it with me to workouts. It bounced off the moving machine hard and it is lucky it didn’t hurt someone.)

It has been giving me warning signs that it is breathing its last (screens turning into strange shadow screens, no longer holds a charge) and so while making another change to my account recently (prophetically changing my date plan), I committed to a new phone. Suffice it to say, given the day that yesterday was, after more than an hour at the Verizon store, I left sans phone transfer complete – alas, I must return later today.

Evermore than even a year and a half ago however, I am tethered to the internet like it is a favorite child!

Simultaneously, this week I was encouraging my office to help inform a return to work plan and being met with recalcitrance, fear and assorted resistance which evinced an insurmountable level of exhaustion in me. Like many managers, the decision about a return to the office is an institutional one and Wynton Marsalis has made his feelings very clear throughout this period – we will not be an organization that operates remotely. We need to be together and to see each other as humans again as soon as is safely and reasonably possible.

My first work-out at the gym. Man, I swear the weights are heavier here than at home!

Like a good manager, I have been trying to gently exercise the muscle of in-person meetings and discussing our return. Our policy is to return to the office in person two days a week over the summer and then moving to full time mid-September. Having to decide on dates was like ripping the band-aide off for many folks though. It is hard to balance their variety of concerns, an institutional mandate while keeping any of my own feelings to myself. I am impatient with my own impatience.

The day finally concluded with Kim and I eating some excellent Vietnamese food which greatly restored me. Then, with the premiere of a concert for our virtual season, our full Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, with the founder and head of the Equal Justice Initiative, Bryan Stevenson. It was a great marriage of spoken language and jazz and spoke very directly to the topics of freedom and inequality and history. (Freedom, Justice and Hope is available on-demand until May 26 and you can purchase tickets to watch it here). It is in my opinion by far the best concert we have produced for online viewing and I am so proud of my colleagues who created it and how far we have come. It left me with the very real hope that we will come out of this period with a new way of continuing to reach audiences far beyond those in our hall and on our tour destinations.

Afterward, I watched the first part of a PBS documentary on the Metropolitan Museum. Long-time Pictorama readers know that I spent most of my career, thirty years, there before leaving for my current gig. (I wrote about my departure in a post called Leaving the Met which can be found here.) I gather that the documentary was originally meant to follow the museum through its 150th Anniversary Year. Instead it is half about that and half about how 2020 played out with the pandemic and the closure of the museum, the ultimate re-opening and then grappling with the new re-emerging world.

It was moving for me to see many former colleagues as well as some objects I know like they had spent years in my own living room, so they too are like old friends. But overwhelmingly for me it was so touching to see the conservators, curators and other colleagues I had worked with for so many years. I was graphically reminded that yes, despite our discomfort, Wynton is right. In the end it comes down to the people. People make organizations like these great and that will suffer if we do not make the effort to come back together again to work with each other in person. When I interview people I always ask them, what will you miss most about where you work now and almost to a one they say it is the people.

Me and Eileen Travell, Met buddies and long-standing friends, having our first post-pandemic in-person meal earlier this week! Sheer bliss to see her again. It helps to do some of the nice aspects of getting back into the world as well.

In her remarks, Carolyn Riccardelli, one of the conservators, kept coming back to the metaphor of the conservation work that had been done on the Tullio Lombardi statue of Adam. Many years ago, it famously fell spontaneously from its base and smashed into an almost infinite number of pieces, fragments, and some reduced to dust. Like a crime scene, the pieces were photographed in situ and logged where they fell to aide reconstruction. That reconstruction took ten painstaking years (it has been documented in a video called After the Fall and can be found on their website here) and is back on display. It looks flawless, but of course as part of the team who restored it, Carolyn must see her years of handiwork beneath the surface every time she looks at it. She talked about how sometimes you just need to move forward, even if you have no idea how you are going to do it, making progress and claiming small victories until finally, you are there.

Shown at top: Tullio Lombardo (Italian, ca. 1455–1532). Adam, ca. 1490–95. Italian, Venice. Marble. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Fletcher Fund, 1936 (36.163)

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!