Philippe de Montebello: Man of Reflection

He comes here to escape the social obligations of his city life and relax, and only in the winter
Philippe de Montebello said he was happy that his life as an academic no longer required a tie, but he was still well turned out at the Institute of Fine Arts in New York last Thursday. Jennifer Landes Photos

    Many otherwise plugged-in cultural cog­noscenti of the South Fork might be surprised to learn that Philippe de Montebello is this year’s recipient of the Guild Hall Academy of the Arts Lifetime Achievement Award. It is not that the former and longtime Metropolitan Museum of Art director does not deserve it, but rather that few, if any, know he actually spends time here. He would like to keep it that way.

    He comes here to escape the social obligations of his city life and relax, and only in the winter. A grueling weekend might mean that he played tennis five times or did some reading for work in an armchair while enjoying the view.

    There were dozens of interviews and assessments of his tenure at the Met upon his leaving in 2008, but very few since he took up in the same year his current position as New York University’s Fiske Kimball professor in the history and culture of museums at the Institute of Fine Arts, where he gave an interview last Thursday in a grand receiving room in a mansion once owned by Doris Duke on Fifth Avenue and 78th Street.

    This semester, he is teaching a course on whether the art museum as traditionally envisioned is still valid in a “post-colonial, multicultural, and global age.” While he is known for a certain conservatism as a museum director, he said that he enters such discussions with few preconceived notions. “As an intellectual, I pose questions. It can be debated one way or another.” Running a museum required action primarily, even when guided by thought. “I’ve gone from being a man of action to a man of reflection.”

    His immersion in a more theoretical world with students of varied backgrounds, has not, “oddly enough,” changed his viewpoint on such issues. “I may think about things more slightly diffusely, but I would say over all my current thinking about things is not all that different from where my intuition once led me.” Some of this he credits to his continuing involvement in the museum world’s curatorial affairs, where “there are physical, legal, and other constraints that scholars don’t have to face” while considering more utopian views.

    In addition to his teaching duties, he still serves on several non-voting committees at the Met and is on the board of the Prado Museum in Madrid, from where he had just flown back the preceding day, and recently finished a four-year term on the board at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. With Paula Zahn, he hosts a weekly show on WNET-Channel 13 about the arts in New York City.

    “I have plenty to do and no time to look back. I walked out the door, closed it behind me,” he said. “I had the good fortune that when I became director in 1977 Tom Hoving never stepped back, never called me. It’s very good for one, and I respect my successor’s need to be his own person.”

    Thomas P. Campbell, who has been director since Mr. de Montebello left, has, by all accounts, kept the Met on a steady course since he took over but has yet to become as synonymous with the institution as his predecessor. If he has a similar tenure, he still has decades to do so. The former colleagues do still have lunch.

    “If he wants to chat with me, which he does occasionally, he does. Otherwise, once you leave, you leave,” Mr. de Montebello said.

    Upon his leaving the Met, its curators feted him with an exhibition honoring his achievements, primarily the expansion of the physical structure and the individual galleries of the museum and his encouragement of a vigorous and engaged acquisitions program across all departments. The effort belied a public perception that he favored some areas of the museum over others because of his background as a curator in European paintings.

    “There was never a favorite work for 31 years and there isn’t one now,” not even a shortlist when he visits now for pleasure or brings classes. “I move around. I’m not tied only to paintings, either. I go to the Islamic galleries, the Egyptian galleries. I am eager to see what the new curator will do with the European decorative arts and sculpture galleries. I’m watching it. I’m only one block away.”

    While the museum did acquire significant historical European works under his tenure, including Caravaggio’s “The Denial of Saint Peter,” one of very few works by the artist in America (or anywhere else for that matter), there were many similar acquisitions in each department, including contemporary art, which grew steadily in the past two decades.

    One of the prominent works acquired during his directorship came from the estate of Robert David Lion Gardiner, the descendant of the first English settler of East Hampton, and was purchased at Christie’s auction house. The Chippendale chest on chest, made by a relatively unknown member of the Townsend cabinet-making family of Newport, R.I., was acquired for $750,000 by Morrison H. Heckscher, the chairman of the American Wing of the Met. At the time, Mr. Heckscher was hesitant to identify himself, because he said his bosses did not know he was at the auction or planning to buy anything.

    Mr. de Montebello said it was not likely that Mr. Heckscher or any one of his fellow department heads would have been censured for such a purchase. They have price limits to which they can bid without receiving prior approval. “The trustees and director recognize that, within reason, a certain amount of discretion and flexibility is necessary, and if not exercised, we may scold a curator for not being enterprising enough.”

    Despite the prevalence of the idea that the actual object is losing ground to academic theories and increased digitization, he said such notions were overwrought. With better displays, lighting, and labels, he said, there is much more to engage the viewer. “I think the role of the museum is to make things accessible, make it as attractive as possible, make engagement with the work as comfortable as possible, and as rewarding as possible, both intellectually and visually. Once you’ve established lighting, text, the conversations among the works, the way you place them side by side and the distance, then it’s up to the visitor. I don’t think curators should go around with bludgeons and compel people to do anything.”

    He said museums are still filled with people looking at objects. “Too many do it through the lens of their camera, but those are not the people, in my view, who would have looked at objects that long anyway.”

    The role of money in the museum world and the stress to act like a business are real, he acknowledged, but never held much sway at the Met. “There are no hedge-funders trying to wield influence.” He added that given the Met’s size, with 2,500 full-time employees and 110 curatorial titles, “it would be very difficult for any single person to tip the balance one way or the other. It’s a much bigger problem in contemporary museums, which are by design smaller, and smaller institutions have smaller ratios” of professional staff to trustees.

    He said the number of museums being compelled to run like businesses is troubling. In the case of the Met, “the curators are the museum and the museum is about art. How well it is run from a purely administrative point of view is a very incidental thing.” Visitors are not coming to the Met because of a particular department’s bottom line. They are interested, he said, in the variety and quality of the exhibitions, the intellectual life of the place.

    “Obviously you need to balance the budget if you can and be run efficiently. Yet, there is a major difference between being run in a business-like manner and being run like a business.”

    Despite an aristocratic title, which he does not use (his birth name is Count Guy Philippe Henri Lannes de Montebello), and his descent from two people who inspired main characters in Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time,” Mr. de Montebello said he has little use for such distinctions. “It’s of archival interest, a footnote. We live in a meritocracy. My background never hurt. Some level of privilege is helpful. But I couldn’t flub an exhibition and say ‘but I’m a descendant of so-and-so.’ ” He added that he was also descended from the Marquis de Sade. “My family likes to point that out whenever I get nasty with them.”

    An American citizen, he chose to remain in this country when his family decided to return to France after moving here in his youth. Comfortable in both cultures, he said, “I am the most French of everyone in my family.” Fluent in several languages, he said he enjoys reading, writing, and speaking to his family in French.

    He is at work on several writing projects, but do not expect a “tell-all” account of his years at the Met. It is not of interest, he said, and even if it were, he noted he did not have his agendas from those early years, and it would be difficult to reconstruct his life there without them.

Ceremony at Sotheby’s
    Philippe de Montebello will be honored on Monday night in Manhattan at Guild Hall’s 29th Academy of the Arts Lifetime Achievement Awards for visual arts, along with Barbara Walters for literary arts and media, Blythe Danner for performing arts, and Jo Carole and Ronald S. Lauder for leadership and philanthropy. Alec Baldwin will be master of ceremonies, with Alan Alda, Bob Balaban, Ann Tenenbaum, and Michael Lynne presenting the awards at a dinner at Sotheby’s.

    Tickets for the dinner and the cocktail party, which will feature several of Guild Hall’s permanent-collection works on display in the Sotheby’s galleries, are still available through the museum’s special events department and start at $1,500. For young patrons, tickets for cocktails only cost $100.

This Chippendale chest on chest, left, was in the Gardiner family from the time it was made until it was purchased in 2005 by the Met at auction. The museum acquired “The Denial of Saint Peter”, right, by Caravaggio in 1997 as a partial purchase and gift from Herman and Lila Stickman for its European paintings collection.Metropolitan Museum of Art Photos