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The Met’s new pavement

17 September 2014

If you had $65 million to blow, how would you spend it? Too many options? Let’s narrow them down. How would you spend it on your local museum – in this case The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York? How about making a foundation to reduce the entry fee, currently a ‘suggested’ $25 per adult, or to fund more researchers to work on its incredible collection? David H Koch had another idea. Every cent of his monumental $65 million gift went on tarting up the museum’s Fifth Avenue pavement. For this he gets his name prominently pinned on it for 50 years.

The Met launched the David H Koch Plaza last week with much fanfare and a certain triumphalism. The event was a microcosm of how New York operates.

The setting: a lavish breakfast buffet in the Met’s vast gallery housing its Egyptian ‘Temple of Dendur’. Caffeine and vitamins done, a string of brief and carefully choreographed speeches of thanks worked through the hundreds of people involved in the project from security up, and always thanked Mr Koch.

Daniel Brodsky, Chairman of the Board of Trustees, kicked off with church-like solemnity: ‘We are gathered here to usher in a truly remarkable project of the 21st century, the David H Koch Plaza’. He then recounted the story of the donation: that Mr Koch had told him ‘the fountains did not work and were a mess’ and said ‘“I’ll give you $10 million to build new ones”’. How $10 soared up to $65 million was skipped over with mutterings of bigger fountains, a hundred or so trees, new lighting and some umbrellas and seats. We all applauded ‘the great philanthropist David Koch’.

Emily Rafferty, President of the Met, came next, pointing out that 40% of the Met’s six million annual visitors were foreign so the pavement ‘will be shared not just by New Yorkers but by the international community of the world’. Perhaps this made the cost OK, part of global tourism. She also thanked a string of New York City admin departments who had had to give various permissions in this highly bureaucratic city, from law and transport to parks and landmarks.

Finally, she addressed the group of chairmen of boards of the apartment buildings that stand opposite the Met’s four-block-long long pavement. Some of the city’s most powerful players, they had fought the project vociferously and publicly. She deftly thanked ‘our neighbours’ for ‘enduring the works’ and hoped they appreciated ‘the power of conversation during the early difficult days’.

Next up were two of New York’s commissioners. The one for Cultural Affairs, Tom Finkelpearl, remembered his Hungarian immigrant grandmother enjoying the Met ‘110 years ago’ just as the city’s immigrants do today, and called the Met a ‘museum of the people’ thanks to public-private partnership – romantic immigration images and private enterprise praise are invariably present on such occasions in New York. Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver said the project had ‘made Central Park even more beautiful’ (although the pavement faces Fifth Avenue, not the park) which played to the house because most New Yorkers live in flats and consider the park their back garden.

Politicians, required at such events, added their lyrical praise with campaign-speech abandon. Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney: ‘It is inspiring, it is beautiful, it would not have happened without you (Mr Koch). David Koch has given us all a gift to the soul’. Congressman Jerrold Nadler:  ‘This plaza will transform the Met…and the design retains the iconic steps. What we see today truly captures the spirit of the Met.’

Tom Campbell, the Met’s British Director, took up the ‘iconic steps’ idea and absorbed it into his wider aims for the museum. ‘Now’, he said, New Yorkers can better enjoy ‘one of their most favourite theatres: the steps of the Met…We aspire to be the best museum in the world for the interaction of art and culture and can think of no better way to start then with this plaza.’ He also mentioned that the germ of the pavement idea had been born at a dinner party, a key New York networking tool.

Finally, we had Mr Koch’s account of the pavement re-fit. ‘As we all know the plaza was very much in need of a re-do.’ Well, a bit of a scrub, yes; and a plumber to mend the fountains. But apparently ‘the Plaza Committee’s expectations were very high’ and the project was extended without knowing who would pay for it. So, he breezily recounted, ‘I said “I have a grand idea. Why don’t I pay for it and all the extras?”’. And he did. ‘I hope my legacy will be that David Koch made the world a better place.’ Perhaps not the world, Mr Koch, but certainly the Met now has a smart, if mundane, pavement.

Justifications complete, we relocated to the ‘iconic’ steps where the Vy Higginsen’s Gospel For Teens Choir of Harlem belted out a cover version of Pharrell Williams’s hit, ‘Happy’. Mr Koch flipped a big red lever and whoosh went the fountain, water jets soaring up to frothy peaks and then – as modern fountains must now do – playing games of falling and rising up again. The Met’s latest exhibit is now on show: a home-made $65 million pavement.