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.

More than any other museum in this country, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has insisted on a coherent sense of purpose—which boils down to the coherence of the museum-going experience. De Montebello’s epiphany occurred in 1988, a decade into his directorship, when a great Degas retrospective had opened at the museum. At the time, the Metropolitan was charging a separate admission fee for certain special exhibitions, a practice that remains widespread in the museum world today and that encourages people to visit a temporary show while bypassing the permanent collection, which often contains works far more important than those they’ve come specially to see. After the Degas show, the Metropolitan abolished this Balkanizing approach, henceforth offering a single admission that covers both the permanent collection and all temporary shows.

“My view,” de Montebello told me, “was that you have to be able to encourage people to come many times to a show as great as the Degas retrospective … If you have only one ticket, which you’ve paid a lot of money for, you’re only going to see the show once. And if you can’t come back three or four times, you’re not really seeing the show. From the point of view of reaching people—and of civility—tickets and charging was not a good idea. I also felt, from the purely fiscal point of view, that in fact by encouraging return visits, the money you would lose from tickets, you would gain from more visits.”

True, the Metropolitan under de Montebello hasn’t exactly spurned the sort of bread-and-circus events that PR people love. Last spring’s “Super­heroes: Fashion and Fantasy,” a swankily engineered romp through comic books and designer clothing, is nothing to be proud of, and the museum has produced plenty of this stuff. But at the Metropolitan, such shows are never allowed to become the main event, at least not for more than a few weeks. An air of proportion and authority permeates the Metropolitan, which ultimately derives from de Montebello’s sense of the authority inherent in great works of art. Although sometimes criticized as elitist, he believes in the populist appeal of elite forms of art, which can speak to many different people in many different ways.

He wants to move museums beyond the boom-or-bust mentality that blockbuster events tend to create. The Metropolitan declines to keep separate profit-and-loss statements for each show; that way, the financial people can’t cherry-pick potential moneymakers or dismiss unprofitable exhibitions. “The budget,” he says, “is there to support the program”—not the other way around. By offering a truly heterogeneous experience, de Montebello has taken the Metropolitan out of the game of “guess which shows will fill the till,” an approach that in museums across the country results in a glut of predictable Impressionist and Picasso splashes. What de Montebello understands is that the public is actually hungering for something else.

The curators who work with de Montebello are used to seeing their dreams realized. Although curators have a largely behind-the-scenes role in museums, they’re supremely important figures in the cultural world, and the team at the Metropolitan is the best there is. They oversee the permanent collection, which involves caring for and presenting objects already in the museum, while keeping an eye out for objects on the market or in private collections that might enhance the holdings. They organize temporary shows, often building on the strengths of the permanent collection. And through their writings for catalogs and other publications, they bridge the gap between scholars and the general public, offering a unique synthesis of evolving knowledge. Unlike most museums, the Metropolitan has no exhibition committee. Curators go straight to de Montebello, whose adventurous spirit (he has been known to add last-minute shows to already overcrowded schedules) makes for an environment in which creative people flourish. People like Carlos Picón, who installed the new Greek and Roman galleries, and Helen Evans, who organized “The Glory of Byzantium,” not only are formidable scholars, they also have a sixth sense for the most effective way to pre­sent challenging material.

Nobody more thoroughly embodies the headlong creative spirit of the Metropolitan than Keith Christiansen, the Jayne Wrightsman Curator of European Painting—immensely tall, whippet thin, a nonstop talker with an endearing mixture of scholarly authority, aesthetic avidity, and unlimited curiosity. A few years ago, I ran into him at intermission during a performance of Lohengrin; under his arm was a paperback of one of Trollope’s novels, which he was reading, and he immediately launched into a lyric salute to the wonders of 19th-century fiction. I doubt there’s a subject in the arts on which Christiansen wouldn’t be able to speak knowledgeably. It was Christiansen who brought Duccio’s Madonna and Child to de Montebello’s attention, thereby initiating what turned out to be a $45 million purchase. Even though his field is Italian Renaissance painting, he delights in leaping centuries and borders. In an important 1996 show, he argued for the dramatic depth of the altarpieces of the 18th-century Venetian painter Giambattista Tiepolo, which many had hitherto thought of as merely magnificent decorations. And a couple of years ago, when he learned that Pierre Rosenberg, the former director of the Louvre, was organizing a show of Poussin landscapes for Spain, he arranged for the exhibition to come to New York. In Christian­sen’s essay for the catalog of “Poussin and Nature: Arcadian Visions,” you can see a curatorial imagination working at the very highest level. In some 25 beautifully reasoned pages, he moves beyond the traditional idea of Poussin as a master of the strictly plotted narrative painting, presenting us with an infinitely more instinctive, intuitive, and maybe even romantic artist. Rosenberg has written the entries for the individual works, and he is a master of the form, creating what amount to miniature essays that unite scholarly exactitude with an easygoing feeling for the underlying humanity of Poussin’s work. This catalog, which also contains five essays by as many art historians, becomes a conversation about the many ways to approach a great artist and his relationship with the natural world—a relationship that for Poussin was by turns terrifying and inspiriting, humbling and ennobling. “Poussin and Nature” was a quietly revolutionary show.

The Metropolitan is a rarity in that younger curators are given a chance to work on a truly ambitious scale. Thomas Campbell was still a relatively new kid on the block when in 2002 he organized and mounted “Tapestry in the Renaissance,” the immense and audacious exhibition that irreversibly established the centrality of tapestry in 16th-century art. I asked de Montebello about “Tapestry in the Renaissance” and about Campbell. He recalled that his first thought on hearing Campbell pitch the show was that it was going to cost $2 million. “When has it ever been done?” de Montebello remembers asking. “Never,” Campbell replied. Which meant, so far as de Montebello was concerned—even though most people thought 16th-century tapestry was a bore—that it had to be done. And then 9/11 occurred, six months before the opening day—just when all the fund-raising needed to be put in place. As Campbell recalls, “What was already a challenging project became an almost impossible one.” Again, de Montebello stood firm. “We’ll find the money for it. We have to do it.” So the museum rallied. When it turned out that some of the tapestries were so big that they would have to come in through the museum’s front doors, Harold Holzer, then the head of the press office (he’s now the senior vice president for external affairs), got The Times to send a photographer—and New Yorkers were put on notice that a spectacle was about to be unfurled. The exhibition turned out to be a scholarly sensation and a hit with the public: “The Greatest Show in Town,” as The New York Review of Books announced on its cover.

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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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