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.”

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.

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.