Philippe de Montebello has been the most significant figure of the last half century in the museum world. At the helm of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art for more than thirty years, he steered a path between populism and elitism, attracting both large audiences to the Met and burnishing a gold standard of quality. Along the way, he reinvigorated the museum’s traditional role and made the best possible case for the oldest values of art and humanism.
Born in France in 1936, he received his advanced education in the United States and arrived at the Met in 1963 as a curatorial assistant in the Department of European Paintings. It was a watershed year thanks to another visitor from France: the Mona Lisa. On loan to the Met for just four weeks, the famous Leonardo drew one million people to an institution that was used to about two million visitors annually. The long lines that formed daily pointed toward a new era for art museums, one in which the number of visitors mattered as much as the scholarship of the curators. It was this era that de Montebello came to dominate, not by attracting the most visitors—though the Met often did—but by showing that pleasing crowds did not require diminishing the quality of the works displayed or the rigor of the scholarship that underpinned them.
De Montebello rose quickly through the ranks and then spent four years as director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. He returned to the Met in 1974 as chief curator and became director in 1977. In the decades that followed, the museum was utterly transformed. When he joined the Met in 1963, its endowment was $136 million. When he left, it was at $2.5 billion (down from a high of $2.8 billion in June 2008). Annual attendance surpassed five million in the 1990s. The professional staff of the museum doubled, and de Montebello personally appointed each of the 125 curators at work in the Met today.
Yet his transformation of the Met was no break with the past. Testifying before the House Banking and Financial Services Committee in 1998, de Montebello noted, “The primary mission of the Metropolitan, as a public art museum, is to collect, conserve, and exhibit original works of art, and to make these collections accessible to the broadest possible public.” The key word is accessible. He did not say interesting or inviting. For de Montebello, a museum must never dumb down its mission in hopes of expanding its audience, but rather raise its audience up. Throughout his tenure, he was regularly accused of being an elitist. He gloried in the charge, noting to the New Yorker in 1997, “elitism … is the very essence of democracy, in that it seeks to bring as many people as possible to a higher level of understanding and appreciation.”
One of de Montebello’s most important decisions came in the late 1980s when he stopped the Met from charging a separate fee for special exhibitions—a widespread practice in the art world. “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.” It’s not the experience of the show, he is saying, but the art itself that matters.
Early in de Montebello’s tenure came the famous “Vatican Collections” exhibition. The 1983 show helped establish his public persona thanks to his shuttle diplomacy and the anecdotes told about how back problems had him negotiating with Vatican officials over works like the Apollo Belvedere and Caravaggio’s Deposition while lying on the floor. More important to the director was the nearly simultaneous opening of the renovated Egyptian galleries, the largest display of ancient Egyptian art outside of Cairo. “The Vatican show will come and go,” said de Montebello. “The Egyptian works will remain.”
Space for displaying the Met’s permanent collection doubled during de Montebello’s directorship, and the museum acquired an astonishing 84,000 new objects. One of the achievements that de Montebello is proudest of is that the Met today has the western world’s most comprehensive display of Asian art; although he might take equal pride in each of the eighteen curatorial departments. In just the last few years, the Met opened vastly expanded galleries for Byzantine art, for Greek and Roman, for nineteenth- and twentieth-century European painting, and a gorgeously renovated American Wing.
In 1998, de Montebello cochaired a task force that set the guidelines for how museums deal with claims that pieces in their collections were looted by the Nazis. The guidelines set in motion intensive provenance projects that were among the first successful uses of the Internet by museums. This, to de Montebello, was just another part of the museum’s traditional role: “The fact is,” he told the House banking committee, “as a matter of both policy and routine practice, museums endeavor to conduct research on the history of the ownership of works in their collections. This is an ongoing process to which we bring our energy and our commitment. For us, it is a scholarly obligation.”
A much greater scandal threatened museums in the middle of this decade when the Italian government began pressing claims for the return of antiquities that appeared to have been looted before being legally sold to American museums. As the scandal’s orbit grew wider and the trial of a Getty Museum curator got under way in Rome, de Montebello flew to Italy and arranged to return the objects in question in exchange for a series of long-term loans of equally important antiquities and the support of professional-quality archaeological digs. It was a decisive stroke, typical of de Montebello’s leadership style. The needs of the museum and the archaeological countries were both considered, and the agreement emphasized the importance of showing objects of aesthetic merit to the widest public audience.
Philippe de Montebello proved in three decades at the helm of our most encyclopedic art museum that crowds are drawn just as much by greatness as by novelty. His faith in art has amply rewarded the general public. In 2002, de Montebello was awarded the National Medal of the Arts by the president of the United States. This year he becomes only the fourth individual to have won both the arts and humanities medals, joining Paul Mellon, Eudora Welty, and John Updike—august company for an august man.
By Robert Messenger
Robert Messenger is senior editor for the Weekly Standard.