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.

Last year, Campbell mounted an almost equally glorious sequel, “Tapestry in the Baroque,” which took the story into the 18th century. And although both shows have now closed, their extraordinary catalogs remain. Recalling the initial conversations about “Tapestry in the Renaissance,” de Montebello remembers thinking, “If it bombs, it bombs, but we’ll have a great catalog and the only book of its kind on the subject.” De Montebello’s office is a trove of such catalogs, and he delights in displaying them, jumping up to pull them off the shelves and expressing pride in their heft, their dense endnotes and bibliographies, and their generous indexes. These books—the permanent record of exquisitely plotted, dazzling but perforce fleeting exhibits—are perhaps de Montebello’s most lasting achievement. Seeing “Tapestry in the Renaissance” convinced me that the vast hunt scenes designed by Bernaert van Orley around 1530 and realized by the weavers of Brussels are among the masterworks of European art, panoramas of a richness and intricacy and poetic loveliness rivaling those of Brueghel. In his catalogs, Campbell, assisted by contributions from many of the best scholars in the field, helps us understand why such astonishing works could be so undervalued. The tradition of art writing that began with Vasari, he explains, tended to downplay the collaborative activity of the Belgian tapestry artists. Also, those who later celebrated tapestry, like William Morris, the prophet of the Arts and Crafts movement in 19th-century England, wanted to see tapestry as more purely decorative than it is in the work of a great storyteller like van Orley.

An encyclopedic museum in the heart of a world-class city has advantages that other institutions do not. When I asked de Montebello what he would do if he were put in charge of a smaller institution—a museum in a midsize city, say, with one or two masterworks and a fine but second-string collection—he was unfazed. He said he would focus on smaller exhibitions that showcased the best things in the collection; such shows aren’t expensive, and they give a museum a chance to bring in scholars from other institutions as it’s drawing local attention to its permanent collection. This is precisely what some of the savviest museums in the country are doing right now.

There are of course no simple an­­swers, certainly not in the high-cost world of museums. It’s not even always clear to whom, exactly, our museums belong. When we speak of a great museum as a public institution, we aren’t necessarily speaking with much precision. Technically, the board of trustees of the Metropolitan owns the museum’s collections—and this is not an unusual situation. While everybody on museum boards wants to serve the public good, each may have different ideas about the nature of that good. A great many board members come from the business world, where it’s believed that if you aren’t growing, you’re dying; this helps explain the endless building plans and blockbuster schemes, and even the deaccessioning of works, as if any kind of activity were better than none at all. Repeatedly in recent years, some big ego has thwarted a museum board, the most recent example being Eli Broad at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art—who, after paying for a museum-within-the-museum that bears his own name, announced that he would not in fact donate his collection. Many around the Metropolitan cite its board, relatively large and famously stable, as a source of strength. But in the years to come, the Metropolitan may conceivably be unable to withstand the pressures from a new generation of billionaires who tend to take an interest in contemporary art and who are used to getting their way. De Montebello departs at a time when Steven Cohen, a hedge-fund wizard, has already lent a Damien Hirst and two works by Jeff Koons to this museum, which is only beginning to develop a clear direction in its contemporary-art collection, and if we have learned anything in recent years, it is that few arts institutions are immune to the pressures that can be exerted by a certain kind of gonzo personality.

The trustees at the Metropolitan who are leading the search for a new director, a group headed by Annette de la Renta, have to be acutely aware that the museum’s future health depends on the board’s dynamic interaction with that new director. This is a complex relationship, for although the director serves at the board’s pleasure, a great director should in fact be shaping the board’s expectations. And if the trustees at the Metropolitan have any doubt as to what kind of a director they do not want, they need only look 30 blocks south, to the Museum of Modern Art, where Glenn Lowry, who has been director since 1995, has been reshaping the Modern as a business-model museum, a place where huge amounts of money are raised and large crowds are attracted while more and more of the essential matter of the museum experience is neglected. One of the ironies of the past 20 or so years has been that these two premier New York museums have in some sense switched places, with the Modern, once the more adventuresome, increasingly timid and mainstream in its thinking, while the Metropolitan becomes bolder and more innovative. When de Montebello says, “If you take the high road, you pull up your public,” he’s speaking the language of the great figures who once dominated the Modern, people like Alfred Barr and William Rubin, a language that is more or less dead on West 53rd Street. New York’s artists long owed their deepest allegiance to the Modern. But now they and the city’s most avid museumgoers really feel at home at the Metropolitan. Even in areas where the Modern once reigned supreme, such as the history of photo­graphy, the excitement has more and more been at the Metropolitan, which has mounted a definitive Walker Evans retrospective and unforgettable shows of French daguerreotypes and of English photographs from paper negatives.

Now well over a century old, the Metropolitan, like any institution with a long history, must simultaneously embrace what is best from its past while reimagining itself for the present and the future. No event in recent years has demonstrated the museum’s capacity to realize this Janus-faced vision better than the reopening of the now-dazzling Greek and Roman galleries last year, for here everything old is, quite literally, new again. You have only to take a look at the catalog published on this occasion—Art of the Classical World in the Metropolitan Museum of Art—to see how conscious a process was at work. Carlos Picón opens this volume with “A History of the Department of Greek and Roman Art.” Don’t be put off by that dry title; in the historical photographs that Picón has gathered and in his account of 125 years of collecting is the story of the Metropolitan’s heroic efforts to establish in the New World a remarkable record of the achievements of the Old—a record now housed in one of the most delightful, coolly elegant spaces in Manhattan.

Although many of de Montebello’s triumphs, like the new Greek and Roman galleries, have involved the art of the past, he recognizes the pressure of the pres­ent. Under his watch, not only has the museum’s involvement with photography grown enormously, but the Metropolitan has acquired highly significant 20th-century art, including one of Balthus’s greatest paintings, The Mountain—an evocation of a Biedermeier afternoon in the Alps, but with the pleasures of the hiking party somehow becoming atomized, troubled, surreal. Museumgoers will see connections between this painting, completed in 1937, and Courbet’s Young Ladies of the Village, from 1851. And it is precisely that kind of connection that de Montebello wants to encourage visitors to recognize. Nothing makes him happier than when an important object in the museum inspires a curator to organize an exhibition—and when that show in turn gives birth to another show. In this and other ways, the museum maintains an ongoing conversation with the hundreds of thousands of museum­goers for whom a trip to the Metropolitan isn’t an occasional event but a regular and vital part of their lives. In the catalog for “Byzan­tium: Faith and Power,” de Montebello describes the show, mounted in 2004, as

the third wing of a “triptych” of exhibitions dedicated to a fuller understanding of the art of the Byzantine Empire, whose cultural and political influence spanned more than a millennium.

That show—together with “The Age of Spirituality” and “The Glory of Byzan­tium”—exemplified the director’s vision of the museum as a kind of crossroads, where art of many times and places comes alive in the present. Helen Evans’s immense catalog for “Byzantium: Faith and Power” is as gloriously overstuffed as was the exhibition it accompanied. The sections devoted to stone sculpture, metalwork, icon painting, mosaics, and textiles could stand as substantial books in themselves. And Maryan Ainsworth, a curator of painting at the Metropolitan, contributes a brilliant essay on the impact of Byzantine icons on Gerard David, Jan van Eyck, and other European painters during the Northern Renaissance. A catalog such as this is an intellectual and artistic binge—but a binge without excess. And that, come to think of it, is a fair description of the Metropolitan Museum of Art today.

How long the Metropolitan’s golden age will last, nobody can know. Continuing it, even for a time, is going to require a director who can harness the best traditions of American museum­-going, with its dazzling merger of populism and elitism. This is a juggling act, no question about it, infinitely more difficult than de Montebello has ever been willing to let us see.

A little more than a century ago, Henry James, on his last trip to America, visited the Metropolitan, which was by then established on Fifth Avenue, and he saw a museum involved in a major housecleaning, eliminating third- and fourth-rate stuff. In The American Scene, his resplendent account of the United States at the dawn of the 20th century, James wrote:

The thought of the acres of canvas and the tons of marble to be turned out into the cold world as the penalty of old error and the warrant for a clean slate ought to have drawn tears from the eyes. But these impending incidents affected me, in fact, on the spot, as quite radiant demonstrations. The Museum, in short, was going to be great.

And so it would be. The first half of the 20th century was the age of collecting, when the Metropolitan acquired the lion’s share of its Old Master paintings, classical statues, Byzantine ivories, and Impressionist works. But in the past 20 years, more than ever before, the museum has demonstrated the power the individual object can still exert in a society where mass marketing rules. The climactic purchase of the de Montebello years is the Duccio Madonna and Child, less than 12 inches high—a modest yet monumental gold-leafed panel to remind us of the golden age that has flourished on Fifth Avenue in the very midst of all the follies of America’s new Gilded Age.

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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