Philippe de Montebello

Still Metropolitan After All These Years
Philippe de Montebello interviewed by Jeffrey Inaba

Piped through portable audio guides, Metropolitan Museum of Art Director Philippe de Montebello’s recorded voice leads countless visitors through the venerable New York institution’s vast collections on a daily basis: bridging the gap between visitor, curator and art with detailed descriptions of works on display. A name synonymous with the institution itself, he has led the museum for 31 years, overseeing landmark exhibitions and ambitious building expansions. He is equally well known for contributing to the cultural life of metropolitan New York through his passionate commitment to the museum’s public. Shortly after announcing that he will step down from his post, he talked with Volume about content at the Met.

JI: You’ve been the director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art for over 30 years, and your recently announced retirement has been said to mark the end of an era in the history of art, museums and culture. During your extraordinary tenure, you’ve forged a unique bond between the Met and its public. Can you talk about how you see your engagement with the public and also how you think about and estimate the intelligence of the viewing public?

PdM: We exist to preserve art, but why do we do this? We do it so that they may be accessible and touch people in this and future generations.

The museum-going public – people who choose to visit museums, which immediately places them in a somewhat separate category from the masses – is a very curious, very alert public that actually seeks something other than entertainment. They know the difference between a rock concert and The Metropolitan Museum of Art. They make a conscious choice to come for a pleasurable experience, for the wonder of art and to learn. They tell us that and if that public, our audience, keeps returning it’s because they have a sense that they’re not being catered to, that they’re not being pandered to, that we’re not giving them the flavor of the day and that there’s a degree of seriousness with which we approach both what we do in mounting exhibitions and exhibiting works of art as well as a seriousness in how we treat and consider the public. We don’t talk down to them.

The public knows the difference; stunts only work for a short period of time. The momentary notoriety of a particular subject will attract people, but if you try to pull the wool over their eyes too often they’ll learn and then they won’t come back. People come back because they realize they’re getting the real thing and that it’s not diluted for the purpose of the ticket sales or whatever it might be.

JI: They recognize the consistency of the high quality of the dialogue between the museum and the public.

PdM: Yes, it’s the ultimate dialogue, or trialogue: the work of art, the curator and the public. This is the key to communication.

JI: Have there been pleasant surprises in the public reception of an exhibition? Are there examples that stand out where in creating what you felt was a very interesting exhibition you were nevertheless uncertain about what its reception would be?

PdM: It’s happened in different ways. I’m probably one of the very few people in this institution who doesn’t look at numbers or the attendance sheet. It doesn’t interest me. I don’t do things for numbers. Needless to say, I can tell simply by sight if an exhibition I care deeply about is not strongly attended. Of course, you do things in order for people to see them, to be enriched, to discover new art or new ways of looking at the arrangement of art and so forth. So one obviously wants people to see what one does, but one doesn’t do it for the purpose of bringing in a large number of people. So if you were to ask me today how many people are coming to one show versus another I’d have no clue and it doesn’t interest me. I know that certain exhibitions will by definition draw fewer visitors than others. So be it! I’ve mounted many exhibitions that have not drawn well.

There are occasional surprises. Years ago we mounted a show of the work of Zurbarán, the seventeenth-century Spanish artist and I thought we’d get fifty thousand visitors. It was packed! Now whether it was because everybody had seen that great picture of the monk with the cowl in the National Gallery in London which was reproduced everywhere and wanted to see more ascetic pictures I have no idea. I still don’t know why they came in large numbers. I wish I knew what drove people to certain subjects and not to others.

It would still not make a difference. I would still mount a show of Girodet – whom nobody’s ever heard of – because they should know. The totality of the history of art is what we’re all about.

JI: It’s interesting that Americans from around the country gravitate to the Met. When they visit New York, they want to go to the Met. On the other hand, the Met’s works and collections are largely not American. I think one reason they visit is to learn about other cultures and in that sense the Met is an important platform from which Americans view the world. In that regard you’re our ambassador to other cultures.

PdM: I would not necessarily draw the conclusion that this is something unique to New York. Millions of people go to the British Museum, where you can count on one hand the number of British works of art. The Louvre has a great French collection, but it also has the great art of the rest of the world.

In a perverse way this aspect of the Met is being contradicted by the new retentive nationalism that wants to dismantle the British Museum, the Louvre and the Met and send back all of their works to their countries of origin so that we should become a new museum of American art, so that everybody’s identity should be located in the old country.

JI: Yes, and the Met has resisted that reactionary largess and continues to play a central and important role in educating its visitors about art from around the world. That said, the Met is rooted to New York. You’ve made it clear that visitors must come here. Though the museum has collaboratively exhibited work abroad, it has resolutely rejected the idea of franchising. What is your view of franchising the Met’s name?

PdM: We have not ‘franchised’. We have not ‘branded’ or whatever all those terms are. Yet I guess I grow indulgent in my old age and must recognize that often the policies of museums differ because museums themselves differ. The director of a museum such as the Guggenheim and the director of a museum such as the Metropolitan have very dissimilar roles. They are very dissimilar institutions. If you occupy a landmark building such as the Frank Lloyd Wright and you have a miniscule amount of space for a vast collection it’s perfectly understandable that one would find other outlets because once in a while one would wish that some of the Kandinskys had other chances to be exhibited. So on a certain level such museums would find a way to diversify.

Branding for us, as The Metropolitan Museum of Art, was unbecoming. So we haven’t done it. Although we have many international programs, we don’t brand them. For example, we have very strong links and exchanges with museums in China. We exchange programming and people and provide training without any sense of exclusivity.

The difficulty with branding in one specific place elsewhere is that you create a subsidiary, so to speak. It is not, as it appears on the surface, that you’re sharing the art with the world, you’re actually pinpointing a single place where you’re doing business. You’re creating an exclusionary arrangement where the art becomes unavailable to other museums mounting serious exhibitions because it’s part of a single nexus. I have a problem with that. But I have to learn to understand it.

One must look at the issue in historical terms; museums did not exist until the late eighteenth century. Before then if people wanted to see art, they went to Rome and saw it in churches. From the late eighteenth- through the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries, art has tended to move from east to west and from south to north because art has always followed money. They always go hand in hand. Why was Florence such a great center of art? Because it was the banking center of Europe. If you look also at sub-Saharan African art in, say, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it’s the Kingdom of Benin or elsewhere where the tribes were powerful where artists and patronage developed. So through European imperialism during the colonialist era we’ve seen art coming from Mesopotamia to the Louvre, to the British Museum, to the Met or from the East – the Chinese, Japanese, the Silk Road – Langdon Warner bringing these things over to Harvard. When Charles I buys the Gonzaga collection of Italy, England is powerful and Italy by the sixteenth century is less so.

What is happening today? We’re talking about an odd form of mutual exploitation. Now we’re seeing wealth in China, wealth in the Arab countries and art is starting to move in those directions. This is opportunism where those countries are seeking art for legitimacy, just as the Louvre was created to give legitimacy to the new government that had decapitated the king. At the same time, it’s opportunism on the part of the West, which is renting out its collections in exchange for currency. Assets are changing hands: art in one instance, currency in the other.

JI: And do you see examples of an intelligent sharing and exchange of art?

PdM: A lot of work is being done. Many of the exhibitions at the British Museum are being sent abroad. This is a legitimate sharing of art. There’s a point at which the whole issue of technology in a different age comes in, where museums and those who hold in trust works of art are going to have to realize that works of art are not chattel to be traded and marketed. They are an irreplaceable and fragile asset and with every move, every packing and unpacking, every change of climate condition while the naked eye may not see changes, there is an inevitable, gradual deterioration.

For a great many audiences the initial contact with works of art doesn’t need to be with original works of art. I’m not being an apostate when I say that my first contact with works of art was through books. I had at home the little square Skira books and I used to look at their illustrations. We were all reading Malraux’s books, The Arts of Mankind and the Petit Larousse Illustré, and I used to look at the illustrations. I learned and realized something about the art. I moved from there – like most Westerners – to the visiting of museums, triggered by an interest in seeing the originals. But to use originals as if they were the color plates in a Skira book is putting them at risk.

There is a plan in Beijing being put together by Wang Limei to create a kind of huge digital museum to show the art of all the world. To me that makes a lot of sense: it is their Skira book. So first you show the art in a digital form, so that the vast quantities of people who obviously cannot see all the individual exhibitions can see it. Then there’s a second stage when you handpick exhibitions in certain places. People who are truly interested will then go and see the original works of art.

JI: It is interesting that in a world with content increasingly online, the things that are finite in the world – material, historical and cultural objects – become even more precious and valuable.

PdM: All of this information, all of these images you find online will ultimately lead to an improved experience when you encounter the actual work of art. The innocent gaze is wonderful and it yields certain things, but there is no question that the eye is an organ tied to the brain and that the more you know about something, the deeper you go into it, the more you get out of it. If you have to wait to get to the museum and read a label and so forth, you’re much better off having learned a great deal before.

Yet there are some aspects of the experience that the internet will never replace. For example, the internet will never replace scale. Have you ever been to Ghent and seen the Ghent altarpiece? It’s the size of this wall! How big is your computer screen? The great Veit Stoss in Krakow or the Portinari altarpiece in the Uffizi are gigantic. How can you represent the Sistine ceiling on a computer screen?

If you go to the Prado and see Vélasquez’ ‘Meninas’ you know this is the picture that was in the king’s bedroom, that he gazed upon it and you too are gazing upon it. If it were merely a fantastic reproduction of it, the forms would be the same, the subject would be the same, presumably the colors would be the same. That’s achievable, I suppose. But what would be missing is that magical moment when you join the 17th century and the court, that you too might have the privilege of standing in front of something that the king might have actually put his finger on. That you cannot replicate through a simulacrum.

We forget that our great-grandparents experienced a world of continually moving shadows. As a child I went to bed carrying a candle up the stairs to my bedroom terrified of the dark and of the shadows it created. Artists’ chiaroscuros were painted as a function of candlelight, of moving shadows. This is something that’s been absolutely, totally lost to the modern world. It does not exist anymore. One must learn to look using these historical senses, trying to recreate and understand the circumstances. A good museum, a good university, should bring a historical sense to things.

JI: Reflecting upon your tenure, how do you think the Met ought to program henceforth? I’m not suggesting you be prescriptive about what the next director should do, but the legacy of your directorship will surely cast a long shadow, if you will, on its future. Do you care to give your thoughts on that?

PdM: I gave my answer in January of this year when I stepped down. I was basically saying that I’m of a certain generation and I ran the Met decently, I think, for thirty years. Now I have nothing but questions about the future and very few answers. It’s up to somebody younger. I will watch carefully.


1. Philippe de Montebello with Duccio
2. Philippe de Montebello with Andres Segovia in 1986
3. Equestrian court, Arms and Armor Galleries, Wild Bill Studios










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