Patrick Bringley, ALL THE BEAUTY IN THE WORLD: The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Me

Patrick Bringley, ALL THE BEAUTY IN THE WORLD: The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Me

Zibby interviews author Patrick Brigley about All the Beauty in the World: The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Me, an illuminating and beautifully written memoir about one of the world’s greatest museums and the guard who roamed its halls for a decade. Patrick shares his memories of his late brother, who died at age 28 and was the catalyst for a career change. Then, he describes what the museum, its art, and its workers taught him about himself and the world around him. Finally, he talks about the challenges of parenting, the books he likes to read, and what it was like to write this book mid-pandemic.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Patrick. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss All the Beauty in the World: The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Me.

Patrick Bringley: Thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure.

Zibby: This was so interesting, as a lifelong New Yorker, to read about what it’s like being a guard at the Met and all of the backstory of the ins and outs of the museum. That was totally fascinating. Honestly, the parts that I was most interested in were about the loss of your brother and how you coped with that and how being a guard and your whole trajectory through that whole position was, in effect, a way for you to reengage with the world, which I found really beautiful on so many levels.

Patrick: Thank you. Thank you very much.

Zibby: How did this become a book? Tell me about the whole experience. Tell listeners how you ended up doing this job.

Patrick: Right out of college, I got what seemed to be an unbelievable job at The New Yorker magazine in their events office. Of course, I was just twenty-one years old, so I sort of felt like I was at the top of the world. Never mind that I hadn’t written anything and wasn’t really capable of writing anything because I hadn’t lived any life and thought any ideas. When I was there a few years, my brother got ill. He got very ill with what’s called a soft tissue sarcoma. It all of a sudden was the case that I was spending less time, at least mentally, thinking about the office job and thinking about the glamor of it and more time with him at his apartment in Queens and at little hospital rooms. Spending all the time inside those hospital rooms where something very momentous and stripped down to the basics of life is happening, it’s very painful, but it’s also very, very beautiful. When Tom died, I did not relish the idea of just rushing back to some office job and putting my nose in some grindstone and worrying about whatever trivial things that you tend to worry about. I thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could keep my head up and I could just be doing something watchful and straightforward and simple and honest in this beautiful place?

Zibby: Wow. I’m so sorry about the loss of your brother. You wrote about him so beautifully and how you were seventeen months apart. Less than that? Twelve?

Patrick: Just under two years.

Zibby: Just under two years apart, and that you would always be his little brother. Even in the part where you became older than him, than he would ever be, was so stirring.

Patrick: It’s funny how that works, right? He died when he was twenty-six years old, but I find that impossible to believe because now I’m nearly forty. Still, in my memories of him, he’s oddly older than I am. That partially has to do with just a trick of memory, but it also has to do with who he was. He was a person who was very frank and honest and gentle and straightforward and wise beyond his years, not a hustler, not out to be cynical about things. He had his mind directed on the meat of the matter. That really paid off when he was ill in that he was able to handle it with incredible grace, which also was sort of an impetus to want to go into the museum and explore the grace of suffering that you see in so many of those older master paintings.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, amazing. I even loved all your relationships with the other guards and the people in the breakrooms and all of that. You had this one section about Tom. Can I read it? Is that okay?

Patrick: Sure.

Zibby: This is when you’re in the hospital and all of that. You said, “Then night would fall, and when Tom was very sick, someone would stay with him, usually Krista. We’d watch television on mute while he slept, and the stillness in the room couldn’t be believed, as nothing about any of it could be believed. There is Tom. There is funny old Tom. There’s his body that was once big, bounding, like old Tom, and is now gentle, graceful, like this Tom. How beautiful. Later, I’ll roll him on his side, dig my fists into his muscles, rub circles on his aching back, and he’ll moan and say thank you quietly. And the stillness will return, and I’ll watch him breathe. It was a moment like this one, actually, the early dawn, when I sat with my mother at the bedside and watched her take everything in as though for the last time. She looked at her sleeping son, looked at me, saw the light and the body and the horror and the grace. ‘Look at us,’ she told me. ‘Look, we’re a fucking old master painting.'”

Patrick: Many moments like that are vividly present with me. They’re easy to remember. What I’m referring to there is, especially in the older old master paintings, in the fourteenth century or something, they’re so often painting these scenes of the passion, which is just an old word that means suffering. Clearly, they’re thinking about life and death. They’re thinking about loss. They’re thinking about the fact that when you sit at a bedside like that in that scene, clearly, something horrible and regrettable and lamentable is happening. At the same time, your heart is breaking, but it’s also sort of brimming over because you feel adoration, which is another type of painting that you see all the time. You feel adoration at the same time as you feel lamentation because of this person you love, because of, I don’t know. The poignancy of the human drama in general exists in that space. It can be overwhelming. I think that sort of speechless, spellbound response that we have to such moments is often what is captured in those great paintings.

Zibby: That’s a beautiful way to say that. Hold on, there was another section that I underlined like crazy. So many sections that were just so beautiful. Oh, this was great. When you ended up having kids later in the book, I loved your section on being a dad and parenting in general and how humbling it is. I have four kids myself. You said, “Two years after Oliver, Louise arrives, a blond-haired thing like me, whom we call Wheezy, Wheeze-girl, Little Miss, Wheezer, and the Wheeze. She is easygoing compared to her brother, who has become a toddler, Captain Ahab, fierce, obsessive, and indomitable. Louise is sunny, funny, and oblivious. It turns out that a child’s temperament is a dice roll, and much of what we had taken to be human nature was, in fact, Oliver nature.” So true. You do not realize this until you have a second kid or more or whatever. You said, “I bat a thousand. In my new life, I see I will struggle like hell in a process called growth,” which referred to the job, but of course, it’s also referring to fatherhood and parenthood and all of that.

Patrick: Yes. It was quite an education having kids. I had had this job. I mentioned batting a thousand. You go to that job, and everything is clean. You’re in a pristine gallery. Some things go wrong, but you can handle it. Nothing’s getting stolen under your watch. Everything is orderly, in a sense. You can be sort of passive and watchful, which is a beautiful way to be. There’s another whole way to exist in the world, and that is to build stuff. Building a human life is one of those things, and building your own household. All of that is so much work. It’s work with the same sort of trivial details that I escaped from. I came to realize that there’s value in that, but there’s also value in packing and unpacking those diaper bags. Fortunately or not, that is life. That is what we need to do to live meaningful lives. We also have to engage with that sort of level of grimy detail. It made me even have a different feeling toward the art in the Met when I was knee-deep in parenting. You look at a painting or a statue, and you look in at its surface that is perfect and is still and calm and clean in that same way. Of course, the artist who made that thing was likely chewing up their paintbrush with aggravation while they made it. They went through ten other copies of it. They had whole struggling years and years when they couldn’t paint worth a damn. That process, that tumult behind the art also began to interest me more.

Zibby: It’s an illustration of the complete lack of control that is endemic to both children and, of course, loss and all of it. It’s intricately linked. From all of your time in the halls of the museum and spending all the time and observing people and art and all of that, what are some of the things that now that you’re not doing that you’ve taken away? I know a lot of them are in the book, but some of the things that you feel like you learned the most from or that were the most memorable to you.

Patrick: I feel like I took away from the guards, a fuller appreciation both of New York City and humanity. It’s very lucky to have a job where all diverse kinds of not only backgrounds, but also minds and ways of being are in the job. Usually, you have a job, you’re an accountant or something, and everyone has a similar kind of education. That’s why they wound up accountants. If you’re a museum guard, you just get to know New York, basically. Forty percent of New York City is foreign-born, probably the same of the guards. Maybe a little bit more. You are wearing the same clothes as these men and women. You are talking with them because they’re on the next post. My sense of what humanity is really expanded. Now out on the street, I feel the same way. I learned a cadence of dealing with the people around me that’s beautiful, I hope. Then also, from the art itself — what the Met is, is it’s so expansive. It reminds you that whatever is going on in your head right now, whatever narrow little thought or whatever’s going on on Twitter and the common conversation that seems to be going on about whatever topic is so hopelessly small compared to the world that we live in, all of its color, all of its life, all of its fullness, its great age. It’s all these different ways of conceiving what this mysterious existence that we are living in is. It’s a struggle to remember that. It’s a struggle to take our narrow thoughts and pry them outward. I continually have to return to museums or return to artworks or return to books, like anyone would, to reinflate your head, in a way, to get yourself thinking on more than one level. I hope that some of that lesson bleeds into my life even when I’m not out in the gallery.

Zibby: I love that. Tell me what it was like writing this book.

Patrick: It’s hard writing a book. Oh, my lord. It was wonderful in the sense that it was a real challenge. I have a wonderful editor. My agent was very helpful in the early-goings of the project. I had to write it with Zoom school going on, so that was hard. I got the contracts right at the stage — I was meeting editors when it was at the stage, should we be shaking hands? Oh, ha ha ha. It was before we really knew what was going on. Then I had to write the whole book through all that madness. I did my best. I think any first book especially, the implied subtitle is, I did my best. Here it is.

Zibby: We should do that. All first-time authors, we should make that a shared hashtag. Instead of saying debut author, it would just be a secret code. That’s really funny. Did you know when you started it that it would be partially your own journey mixed in? Did you think it would be more Met? Did you think it would be more Tom? Was the balance — is that what you had in mind all along?

Patrick: Maybe about seven years into the job or something like that, I had the idea to write a book. At first, I thought that it was going to be a guide, a guard’s guide to the Met. I thought it would just be Met. It would be bopping from object to object, wing to wing, or whatever. Then I started writing that. It didn’t really have any sort of center to it. It wasn’t coherent at all. I realized that the thing that people don’t write about art very often is the subjective experience of being around this stuff. I thought, to write about the subjective experience, I got to write about me. This has got to be a story. I had that idea of making it a memoir and having this central figure of the guard. That balance of museum and family stuff and all of that, both my agent and editor are helpful with. It’s a hard balance to get, of course. The book is eighty-five percent museum, but you want it colored by the rest of this stuff but not dragged down by it. You just keep writing and writing and writing until it feels right, until it feels like it has the right shape and tone.

Zibby: If you had to pick another museum or cultural institution to guard, what would it be?

Patrick: I haven’t been asked that. That’s a very good question. I would like to do something in an entirely different culture. Wouldn’t that be cool? The Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City is just incredible. I’m going to choose that. That museum bowled me over. I’m sure there are lots of museums that I’ve never visited too. Then I’d like to change it up and do Natural History Museum. That’d be cool. I don’t know. I like to wander, so we’ll see.

Zibby: I love that. Do you take your kids, now, back and show them around?

Patrick: Oh, yeah. I did the other day. My son, he’s nine. He was saying so other people could overhear in the bookstore, “My dad wrote this book.” They had me sign the copies in the bookstore. He thought that was so cool. I love taking just one kid to a museum. I find when I take my two kids, the energy off of each other, they’re just worried about trying to rush from place to place. If I bring just one kid and it’s one kid and me, then they really slow down. We can let them lead me and figure out what they’re interested in.

Zibby: I have to say, I once brought — I have four kids. My older kids are twins. They’re almost sixteen. The son of that pair was always running somewhere, had so much energy. Now he plays three sports. He has an outlet for that. Back then, he did not. I took the two of them to the Met when they were probably five. I was like, this is great. They can just run around here. Look how big it is. I took them to the Met one rainy day. Every place that they ran, a guard was like, “Please, no running. Please, stop running.” I was like, okay, we’re not going to come back here for this purpose ever again.

Patrick: Yes, that’s true. The Natural History Museum is sort of kid-proofed. The Met, not so kid-proofed. One thing I say in the book is that you get these poor parents who are out-of-towners. They come up to you. They’re with their kids. They come up to you. They’re like, “Are there dinosaurs here? An interactive laser display?” You’re like, “No, I’m sorry. This is the art museum.” They don’t realize that the Met isn’t “the” New York museum. I tell them, “Hey, we’ve got mummies. We’ve got arms and armor. We can still show your kids a good time.”

Zibby: That’s true, yes. We did end up spending quite a lot of time at the Museum of Natural History. That’s a safer place, probably, for that particular kid. That’s for sure. What types of books do you like to read?

Patrick: I like to read all kind of books. I like to read old books. It’s funny. When I was researching art history books for the book that I’m writing, some book written by a German in the twenties about Greek art is so fascinating to me because they write in this big way. They take big swings. They have grand theses about the art. I think books that are written about art these days are oftentimes very academic, so they’re very careful. They’re very heavily footnoted and things like that. Let’s see. I just read one of Fiona Davis’s books, her one about the Frick. I’m just starting a Dickens’s novel, rereading David Copperfield because I’m going to London. The book’s coming out in the UK next month.

Zibby: That’s exciting. My kids, again — I don’t know why I keep talking about them today. You know how kids now, they say frick is sort of a stand-in word for — literally, my son who’s eight, he was like, “Is it true there’s really a museum called Frick?”

Patrick: We got to go. That sounds like a hoot.

Zibby: I know. I thought it was so funny. That’s my two cents on art. Would you ever write another book? Are you excited to? Would you? What would it be about? Do you have any idea?

Patrick: Good question. Yes, I think I will write another book. I would say that I think that to the extent that this book succeeds, it’s because it marinated quite a while. I don’t think I’m going to rush to write that next book. I do feel like I might have another art book in me in a somewhat different vein, but I need to explore exactly what that is. I also have a long-term creative project that I want to chew on for a long while that would be totally different and would be fiction. Short answer, yes. Long answer, I don’t know exactly what my next chapter will be. We’ll see how this book continues to do. We’ll see what doors open.

Zibby: Amazing. Wow. Congratulations. It’s really beautiful and unique. The intersection of family and the shared fortunes of the art world is great and immersive. I feel like we’ve all kind of gone on this journey with you at the end and come back to baseline, if you will, back ready to live instead of watch.

Patrick: Good. I always make the joke, when you go to the museum, carry something out with you, but not literally.

Zibby: Yes, carrying stuff out with me, for sure. It was really nice to meet you.

Patrick: It was nice to meet you. Thanks so much for having me, Zibby. It was fun.

Zibby: My pleasure. Take care. Buh-bye.

Patrick Bringley, ALL THE BEAUTY IN THE WORLD: The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Me

ALL THE BEAUTY IN THE WORLD: The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Me by Patrick Bringley

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