Controversial director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1967-1977. Hoving was born to a Swedish immigrant father Walter Hoving (1897-1989), a department store magnate, President of Bonwit Teller and later CEO of Tiffany's. His mother was Mary Osgood Field (Hoving) (d. 1954), a descendant of the first Postmaster General of the United States, Samuel Osgood (1747-1813). His early childhood was spent in Lake Forest, Illinois until his parents divorced (age five), when he and his mother moved to New York. His youth was turbulent. Hoving attended various preparatory schools, Buckley, Eaglebrook, Exeter and Hotchkiss, before graduating summa cum laude from Princeton University in 1953. He met and married a Vassar student Nancy Bell during his college years. After discharge from the Marine Corps in 1955, he attended Princeton graduate school in art history (on a scholarship because his father declined to pay for art studies). As a graduate student he gave a lecture in 1959 at the Frick Collection, part of Princeton's annual graduate student symposium, where James Rorimer, Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art was greatly impressed. Hoving’s father introduced his son to Rorimer, also a medievalist, who offered him a job as a curatorial assistant at The Cloisters, a branch of the Metropolitan Rorimer helped build. Hoving completed his dissertation in 1960, written under Kurt Weitzmann with a topic on the Ada School ivories, part of the first major scriptorium of the Carolingian Renaissance. Rorimer took Hoving on buying trips in Europe and taught him much about the trade. Hoving honed his connoisseurship skills from Erich Steingräber, Director of the Germanic Museum in Nuremberg, when the scholar spent half a year with the Met's collections.
Hoving's doggedness as a curator resulted in spectacular finds, such as the Romanesque doorway in the Fuentidueña Chapel of The Cloisters which he tracked down to an abandoned lot in Nice, France. He was also responsible for acquiring in 1963 one of the Met's most treasured medieval pieces, a late twelfth-century English ivory cross believed at the time to have come from Bury St. Edmunds. The other possible contender, the British Museum's Rupert Leo Scott Bruce-Mitford, refused to bid on the cross because of its poor provenance. In 1965 Hoving left the Museum to accept an offer by Mayor John Lindsay (1921-2000) to be Commissioner of Parks. As Commissioner, Hoving changed the operation of the NYC Parks, for example, creating the building-sized banners for the public to paint in Central Park, known famously as Hoving's "Happenings." When Rorimer died unexpectedly of a heart attack the following year, 1966, Hoving was appointed director of the Met, largely because of his skill at the Parks System of integrating the public into its projects. By 1970 he had developed a master plan for the Museum (the first big building project since 1926), calling for five new wings and an increase in gallery space by one third.
Hoving was always controversial in the position as director. In 1972, he authorized the sale of important Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings and old masters (some were unrecognized major works by important painters, such as Guido Reni and Artemisia Gentileschi), and modern pictures to raise money for new acquisitions. Scholars such as John Rewald, the dealer Eugene V. Thaw (1927-2018), and New York Times critic John Canaday raised a public outcry. Hoving saw his mission to change the museum to make art more accessible to the public. But Hoving's theatrics and what the academic world perceived as his lack of integrity were distancing the Museum from the very scholars they sought to attract. To address this, Hoving hired former Victoria and Albert Museum director John Pope-Hennessy for the position of "Consultative Chairman" to the Department of European Painting in 1977. The move was considered brilliant. Pope-Hennessy was essentially Hoving's opposite, a strong connoisseur-style historian with little tolerance for mediocrity. He also harbored a surprising regard for Hoving. Hoving negotiated the famous "King Tut" show for the Met, traveling to other museums in the U.S.. Sensing rising disapproval of his disregard of Museum procedures, Hoving announced a new private center to be built within the Metropolitan Museum with Annenberg funds, in 1977, with himself as director. He stepped down and was succeeded by deputy director Philippe de Montebello, who oversaw the stupendous response of the Tut show Hoving had instituted. Rising controversy followed the Annenberg plan and it was eventually scrapped. Hoving worked as an arts correspondent for ABC television's "20/20" (through 1984) and editor of Connoisseur Magazine beginning in 1981. He changed the respected art journal to include gossipy pieces and vendettas against art museums, particularly the Getty. The journal folded in 1991.
Hoving also wrote a spate of one-sided tell-all-style books of his years at the Metropolitan. The books spent many weeks on The New York Times "Best Seller" list. King of the Confessors (1981) tells the history and acquisition of the so-called Bury St. Edmund's cross, failing to mention in typical Hoving style, that the work was referred to him by the (Boston) Museum of Fine Art's Hanns Swarzenski. In 1993, after several failures with fiction, he regained the best seller with his publication Making the Mummies Dance: Inside the Metropolitan Museum of Arta title derived from a comment of Lindsay’s to him, "you'll make the mummies dance." Hoving wrote a catalog intending it to accompany an Andrew Wyeth retrospective in 1995 at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. He matched Wyeth’s comments to the over four thousand pieces Wyeth had painted for the 1995 Kansas City exhibition, Andrew Wyeth: Autobiography. Though the book did disappointingly in sales, it marked the first time an art historian ever interviewed Wyeth. In 1996 Hoving returned to the block-buster tell-all with False Impressions: The Hunt for the Big-Time Art Fakes. He died at his Manhattan home at age seventy-eight.
Hoving's genuine art-historical erudition was overshadowed by a personal egotism, but also a genuine populism. Infatuated with publicity and the power it brings, he ultimately overplayed his authority at the Metropolitan. His disregard for standard museum practice was famous. For example, he and his curator of classical art, Dietrich von Bothmer, purchased a Greek krater decorated by Euphronios in 1972 by selling a large part of the Department's coin collection, despite the krater's murky provenance and high price. Years later, in 1993, Hoving admitted that at the time and krater was repatriated, the provenance was known to have been wrong. He mockingly referred to the incident as the “hot pot”. Scholarly shows, such as the important "French Painting 1774-1830," had included paintings by lesser-known artists lent by the Louvre. Hoving cut them from the show at the last minute, according to a fellow organizer, Bob Rosenblum, because they could not be promoted to the public. His memoir-style books, while rousing stories, are one-sided and at times fictitious accounts of what would have been fascinating stories of the art world by a genuine insider. In later years he became the editor of Connoisseur where he led the exposure of the Getty Museum's unscrupulous curator Jiří K. Frel. His competitive nature toward other art museums alienated the Met from much of the American art museum world, particularly J. Carter Brown of the National Gallery of Art. However, Hoving is credited with opening the Met to the larger museum-going audience through blockbuster exhibitions (later adopted by Brown of the NGA) and remunerative sales techniques now common in most art museums. He was often a very canny deaccessioner that resulted in remarkable exchanges benefitting the public (Cordova).
- McPhee, John A. A Roomful of Hovings and Other Profiles. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969;
- Glueck, Grace. "Met's New Annenberg Center Stirs Controversy." New York Times February. 27, 1977;
- Hess, John L. The Grand Acquisitors. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974;
- King of the Confessors. New York: Simon and Schuster,1981;
- Richardson, John. "The Mantle of Munchhausen," New York Review of Books, (January 21, 1982): 16ff.
- Making the Mummies Dance. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993;
- [relationship of Hoving to Pope-Hennessey] Christiansen, Keith. "John Pope-Hennessey (1913-94)." The Burlington Magazine 137, no. 1102 (January 1995): 36;
- Cordova, Ruben. "Deaccessioning at the Met: From Scandal to Plein-Air Bonanza to Collection 'Care'.” Glasstire December 14, 2021,https://glasstire.com/2021/12/14/deaccessioning-at-the-met-from-scandal-to-plein-air-bonanza-to-collection-care/
- Kennedy, Randy. "Thomas Hoving, Who Shook Up The Met as Its Director, Dies at 78." New York Times (December 11, 2009): A1, B12;
- Kimmelman, Michael. "A Populist Museum Chief with a Sense of Wonder." New York Times (December 12, 2009): C1, 6.