Books October 2008

The Man Who Remade the Met

Unlike most modern museum directors, Philippe de Montebello trusted the public to embrace his high standards—and it did.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, founded in 1870, is enjoying a golden age. And if a single person can be said to have shaped this extraordinary era, it’s Philippe de Montebello, the director of the museum since 1977. The announcement last winter that he would step down by the end of the year has provoked stock taking and soul searching inside the museum and beyond. This month an exhibition opens, “The Philippe de Montebello Years: Curators Celebrate Three Decades of Acquisitions,” that draws on work from the museum’s 17 curatorial departments. Among the treasures assembled: a Kongo power figure, its massive torso bristling with nails; a guitar that once belonged to Segovia; a sweetly sensuous yet austere Buddha from fifth-century India; Rubens’s sumptuously romantic self-portrait with his young wife; and, most extraordinary of all, Duccio’s intimate, gentle, tiny Madonna and Child, a work that almost immediately found its way into the hearts of many New Yorkers when it was purchased, in 2004. These wonders join the 2 million objects in what may well be the greatest encyclopedic art museum in the world. But acquisitions are only the beginning of the glories of the de Montebello years.

This has in many respects been an unlikely golden age, unfolding as corporate and government support shrinks and the conviction grows among cultural arbiters that the public will invariably gravitate toward the latest pop sensation rather than the art of the past. De Montebello, however, isn’t among the pessimists. Rejecting the idea that a museum lives or dies on the basis of a few heavily marketed blockbuster events, de Montebello operates, as he told me in May, under the assumption that “the public is a lot smarter than anybody gives it credit for. The public as a whole has intellectual curiosity. These are people who know the difference between a serious show and pure sham.” This theory and its corollary—“If you take the high road, the public comes to expect it”—animate nearly everything the museum does. What some may regard as the Metropolitan’s overly rarefied adventures include exhibitions devoted to Byzantine art and Renaissance and Baroque tapestries, the immaculate reinstallation of the Greek and Roman collection in new galleries, and the recent “Poussin and Nature: Arcadian Visions,” a show that explored the poetic reveries of the most rigorously intellectual of all painters. The pundits expect the majority of museumgoers to reject Byzantine icons, Renaissance tapestries, Greek vases, and Poussin’s landscapes. But at the Metropolitan, the pundits are proven wrong—time and again.

In a period when museums seem increasingly schizophrenic—bouncing between a curator’s desire to pre­sent the best work in the most illuminating way and a marketing executive’s obsession with the next blockbuster show or high-profile building scheme—the Metropolitan offers nuance and coherence. Rather than herding visitors into the big show or the galleries with the greatest hits, the Metropolitan encourages them to take in a variety of unexpected treasures, often less well-known but equally worthy of attention. Every day, visitors linger over works on paper—a Rembrandt drawing, for instance, or a 19th-century children’s book, or a 20th-century photograph—placed front and center, just off the great staircase on the second floor. In most museums, prints and drawings and vintage photographs are relegated to a remote location, filed away as specialized items for specialized tastes. Here they occupy prime real estate, where they can’t be missed. The assumption at the Metropolitan—the most visited attraction in the most museum-conscious city in the country—is that the public can respond to anything beautiful or curious or rare, if only given a chance.

De Montebello—72, tall and elegant, with a deep, French-accented voice that visitors have come to know from the audio tours—was born in Paris, and after World War II emigrated with his family first to Canada and then to the United States, where he attended the Lycée Français in New York and then Harvard. Most of his professional life has been spent at the Metropolitan. He began as a curatorial assistant in the department of European painting in 1963 and, after being named director of the Houston Museum of Fine Arts in 1969, returned to the Met five years later, where he served as an assistant to then-Director Thomas Hoving. Hoving was a controversial figure, a showman’s showman who brought the Metropolitan into the blockbuster era, some would say kicking and screaming (he was the mastermind behind the exhibition of Egyptian antiquities that came to be known as “King Tut”). By the time the museum turned to de Montebello, many on the board of trustees were weary of the man the art critic Hilton Kramer had described as a “master of the revels.” Whatever the initial perception of de Montebello—and many saw him as relatively weak, perhaps as somebody the board could control—this will surely go down as one of the greatest hires in the history of American museums. Although he may have been brought in to be the anti-showman, de Montebello has reinvented showmanship, demonstrating that it can be intellectually grounded, civic-minded, and fiscally sound.

In the United States, the Museum of Modern Art, founded in 1929, was the model for a new, multilayered vision of the museum’s place in society. The Modern published books and catalogs that largely established the study of modern art as a scholarly discipline; the schedule of temporary exhibitions, both in New York and traveling across the country, shaped our understanding of the major and minor achievements of the 20th century; and the museum became a dynamic social force in the city, through the popularity of its sculpture garden and restaurants as meeting places, and of the programs of classes, lectures, and films that acted as a magnet for a growing modern-art-minded public. Quickly, other institutions embraced the approach pioneered at the Modern under its legendary founding director, Alfred H. Barr Jr. For American museums, the half century from the 1930s through the 1970s turned out to be the confident years, a period of seemingly endless growth and prosperity, when the ambitions of the museums were apparently in sync with the ambitions of the country as a whole.

Since then, much has changed. A decline in arts-and-humanities education at all levels and the move of middle-class audiences from the urban centers where museums are generally located have threatened to marginalize museum-going. And museums have found themselves increasingly hemmed in by sharp cuts in corporate giving on one side and a white-hot art market on the other. They have continued to grow in the face of these problems, in part by spotlighting their potential as tourist destinations. Their growth has tended to be strategic, with marquee-style events—that new building plan, that blockbuster show—often masking a shrinking focus on the long-term development of the permanent collection and on the scholarly activities that add weight to an institution. Marketing executives have been given previously unheard-of power, and some organizations are afraid to make a move without consulting focus groups; museum audiences are being treated like nothing so much as guinea pigs.

The Boston Museum of Fine Arts, one of the greatest in the country, has drastically cut curatorial departments and positions. The Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, in an effort to shore up an endowment to buy contemporary art, sacrificed to the auction block (and almost inevitably to the private sector) great rarities in its holdings of Graeco-Roman and Asian art. (Ironically, one of the Albright-Knox deaccessions, a magnificent classical bronze of Artemis, is currently on display at the Metropolitan, on loan from the European collector who bought it for $25 million.) But certainly the most extreme case of a museum done in by its own supposed marketing savvy is the Guggenheim, which under its former director, Thomas Krens, inaugurated an aggressive expansion plan. This began with a great success—the satellite museum, designed by Frank Gehry, which opened in Bilbao in 1997—but since then Krens’s operation has deteriorated, with the Frank Lloyd Wright building in New York now basically a rent-a-rotunda operation for trendy art events, while the museum’s permanent collections and scholarly mission are almost entirely sidelined.

Many who have written about the contemporary museum agree that there’s too much focus on the business model. It’s no wonder that several books critical of the recent drift of events have an ironic Inc. in their titles. Paul Werner’s Museum, Inc: Inside the Global Art World is a rollicking little screed that takes aim at Krens and the Guggenheim. Of Krens’s boasts about increased attendance, Werner writes:

It wasn’t clear where attendance had risen, and for what shows, and what the investment had been for each. Besides, the actual space available for exhibitions ballooned in those years, so it’s possible the ratio of visitors to square footage actually shrank.

Werner has a good eye for the smoke- and-mirrors of the marketing people and what it often serves to hide, which is a synergy between art museums and corporate ambition that has little to do with art itself. Writing after the Enron scandal, Werner points out that several of the lead players, among them Kenneth Lay and Andrew Fastow, were “avid sponsors of contemporary art,” experts in what he terms “Cutting-edge Cronyism.”

Presented by

Jed Perl is the art critic for The New Republic. His new book, Antoine’s Alphabet: Watteau and His World, has just been published by Knopf.

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