Ashton Hawkins, manager of the rich and powerful at the Met Museum, dies at 84

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Ashton Hawkins, manager of the rich and powerful at the Met Museum, dies at 84
Ashton Hawkins, left, and husband Johnnie Hawkins at their home in Athens, N.Y., Nov. 29, 2008. Ashton Hawkins, who was, officially, the executive vice president and counsel to the trustees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but who could more aptly be described as the chief curator of its vast collection of rich and powerful donors, died on Sunday at an assisted living facility in White Plains, N.Y. He was 84. Nathaniel Brooks/The New York Times.

by Clay Risen

NEW YORK, NY.- Ashton Hawkins, who was, officially, the executive vice president and counsel to the trustees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art but who could more aptly be described as the chief curator of its vast collection of rich and powerful donors, died Sunday at an assisted living facility in White Plains, New York. He was 84.

His husband, Johnnie Hawkins, said the cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease.

If his name was less well known to the museumgoing public than those of Met directors like Thomas Hoving or Philippe de Montebello, two towering figures under whom Hawkins served, he was their near-equal when it came to the ultra-rarified networks that undergird the museum.

A consummate social animal with impeccable taste and limitless energy, he might have been seen in any given week lunching with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, dancing with Brooke Astor and throwing a party for Andy Warhol — all while wading through the dizzyingly complex world of art law, a field he helped establish in the early 1970s.

His career at the Met spanned a critical phase in its history. He arrived in 1969 as an early hire by Hoving, who had promised to revive what had become an ailing, dowdy institution.

Over the next decade, Hawkins handled the intricate legal arrangements behind many of Hoving’s swing-for-the-fences projects, like the acquisition of financier Robert Lehman’s art collection, one of the largest in the museum’s history, and the construction of an entire pavilion to hold it.

Hawkins extended his influence under de Montebello, who succeeded Hoving in 1977 and proceeded to double the museum’s size over the next 30 years. Hawkins’ extensive social network and preternatural politesse proved invaluable to de Montebello’s efforts.

“His gregarious side was extremely important,” de Montebello said in a phone interview. “He made sure that I would see all the right people.”

It was Hawkins who, for example, helped arrange for the construction of a new wing to house the Temple of Dendur, a gift from the Egyptian government — a project, opening in 1978, that was supported by the Sackler family, whom Hawkins had courted assiduously. (The family’s name was removed from the wing in 2021 over the role their company, Purdue Pharma, played in the opioid crisis.)

“All the major gifts during his time were projects that he was intimately involved with and helped bring to fruition,” Sharon Cott, a protégé of Hawkins and the Met’s current counsel, said in an interview.

Hawkins was also the secretary to the board of trustees and later its counsel, a post that pushed him beyond his official responsibilities to become something of a cultural consigliere to the astronomically wealthy. Though not nearly as rich as his unofficial charges, he was frequently seen mingling with them at their parties, dressed in understated, perfectly tailored Savile Row suits.

If the museum learned of a potential donor, it was often up to Hawkins to then reel them in, said Emily K. Rafferty, who worked with him as the head of development at the Met and later served as its president.

“Sometimes it would be me, and sometimes I would say, ‘Oh, I think the best person for that is somebody else,’ and often that person was Ashton,” she said in an interview. “He was a multipurpose kind of guy.”

William Ashton Hawkins was born May 11, 1937, in Manhattan and grew up in Syosset, a well-heeled Long Island suburb. His father, Ashton William Hawkins, was an investment broker who had moved to New York from New Mexico, where William Ashton Hawkins’ grandfather had helped found the city of Alamogordo in 1898.

His mother, Kyra (Schutt) Hawkins, was born in Russia and fled during the communist revolution, a European provenance that gave Hawkins further entree into the world of old money.

Hawkins graduated from Harvard with a degree in political studies in 1959 and from Harvard Law School in 1962. He took the Foreign Service exam with an eye toward a diplomatic career but opted instead for a job at Cadwalader, Wickersham and Taft, New York City’s oldest law firm, followed by a stint as an assistant New York state attorney general.

Almost immediately after returning to the city from Harvard, he immersed himself in Manhattan’s social and cultural scenes, both uptown and downtown, becoming as comfortable mixing with Warhol at the Factory as he was with Upper East Side art mavens.

Gracious, intelligent and blessed with boyish good looks, Hawkins became a fixture on the elite party circuit and an intimate of its prime movers. Truman Capote not only invited him to his legendary Black and White Ball in 1966, but took him by the arm to introduce him to Rose Kennedy, who, naturally, became a great admirer.

Along the way he met Hoving, who brought Hawkins to the Met soon after his own arrival at the museum in 1967.

As one of the only in-house museum counsels in the country, Hawkins set about defining the still-emerging field of art law, especially around knotty questions like foreign acquisitions and estate planning.

Hawkins was a “company man” wholly dedicated to the Met, his husband said, but his social life extended far beyond it. He co-founded one of the city’s most exclusive book clubs, dedicated, at least initially, to the works of Marcel Proust. He liked to convene the boldfaced and the anonymous alike at his apartment on Central Park West, hung with works by Richard Avedon, David Hockney and Helen Frankenthaler.

“His parties were great,” said Bob Macleod, who, with his partner, Steve Byckiewicz, founded the Kiss My Face cosmetics company in the early 1980s. “He was so strategic in who he invited, and it ran the gamut. It was people like us, who were just starting out, selling soap in the back of a car, and maybe Princess Margaret.”

Some of those same people might travel with Hawkins to his vacation home on the Greek island of Patmos, a place known, he liked to recall, as the site where St. John the Divine wrote the Book of Revelation. He and his husband later bought a 7,000-square-foot Federal-style mansion in Athens, New York, on the Hudson River, which they spent more than a decade renovating.

He met Johnnie Moore, an actor and producer, in 1996, and they married in 2013. Along with his husband, Hawkins is survived by his sister, Lisa Hawkins.

While still at the Met, he served for a time as the chairman of the Dia Center for the Arts. Brought on in 1985 to manage an institution on the brink of dissolution, he righted its finances, refocused it to be more public-facing and brought in a new generation of trustees. But after a power struggle broke out among several board members, he was forced to resign in 1996, taking seven of its 21 members with him.

Hawkins retired from the Met in 2001, after which he focused on art law full time. He continued to consult with the museum and with art patrons, and he became a vocal advocate for stronger protections for cultural property worldwide, especially in the Middle East after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

“We should not allow our primary objectives in this region to overshadow our cultural responsibilities,” he and Maxwell Anderson, an art historian, wrote in The Washington Post in 2002. “Ultimately we may well be judged by how we behave toward Iraq’s patrimony in the course of any military action and occupation we may undertake.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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