Met’s de Montebello called ‘leading museum director of our time’
By any measure, it’s an extraordinary career _ three decades as head of one of the world’s preeminent art institutions.
During Philippe de Montebello’s tenure, the Metropolitan Museum of Art nearly doubled in size and made its art more accessible to the public, increasing gallery space and removing fees from special exhibitions.
Museum board chairman James Houghton said at a news conference Wednesday announcing de Montebello’s retirement: “I think there’s no question that the Metropolitan Museum today is the finest museum in the world, and that is due in large measure to what he has done in the last 30 years.”
De Montebello, who has spent all but a few years of his professional life at the museum, started in the director role in 1977. The decision that it was time to leave, he said, came because, “I did not want to reach the point where I would stretch my tenure to an indecent level.”
“When somebody celebrates your 25th anniversary as director you start thinking,” he told The Associated Press. “When somebody says you’re approaching the end of your third decade you think a little harder and then finally you say, ‘OK, it’s time.”‘
A search committee to find the museum’s ninth director has been formed, Houghton said, and it is being headed by Annette de la Renta, wife of designer Oscar de la Renta. A first meeting was held on Wednesday.
De Montebello, to avoid prejudicing the process, refused to comment on what that search would entail or what qualifications a director should have.
But he readily admitted that his job had changed dramatically over his 30 years, describing his first decade as really being an “aggrandized curator” who dealt directly with issues such as exhibition construction and installation.
“Over the three decades, there’s been a very distinct shift in dealing more and more with financial, administrative, often very bureaucratic legal issues that have made the whole artistic side of my directorship almost ancillary to those,” he said. “That’s not a reversible trend; I think it’s just the way the world is today. I can say in a way I am happy my 30 years as director are behind me and not ahead of me.”
The 138-year-old Manhattan museum has vastly expanded under de Montebello’s tenure, with the creation of new wings and then with a program of building from within that had the museum refining gallery spaces for more room. In April of last year, the museum unveiled new Greek and Roman galleries in the south section, a 15-year, $220 million project that was the largest in museum history and affected five floors.
Visitors now get an overview of art history _ from the north end, which houses Egyptian art, to the spaces in the south end, spanning from the Bronze Age through the reign of Constantine.
Attendance at the museum rose from 3.5 million in 1977 to a peak of 5.1 million in 2000. It declined after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks but since has been increasing and was at 4.6 million last year.
The museum also has increased its educational programs, online resources and publications. And de Montebello did away with entrance fees for special exhibitions, meaning one admission price gave visitors the run of the place. The reasoning behind that, he said, was twofold: to encourage visitors to make repeat visits to really explore shows and to avoid any sense that the museum should host big shows for financial reasons.
“Nothing I wanted ever to hear a finance committee at the Met say is, ‘When is the next Impressionist exhibition so that we can balance the budget?”‘ he said.
De Montebello also oversaw a groundbreaking agreement with the government of Italy that had the museum returning looted artifacts in exchange for loans of other treasures. The agreement was considered a model for other museums dealing with the possibility of stolen goods in their collections.
Word of de Montebello’s retirement brought out plaudits from his colleagues.
Earl A. Powell III, director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, said his friend de Montebello “has represented the museum profession with distinction.”
“He has kept the Metropolitan Museum a standard bearer among the world’s great museums with particular emphasis on the development of its notable permanent collection and educational initiatives,” Powell said.
James Cuno, president and director of the Art Institute of Chicago, called de Montebello “the leading museum director of our time.”
“He has been in many respects the conscience of the profession, setting the highest professional standards for acquisition, exhibition and publication,” Cuno said. “And even more important, he has been the most articulate and vigorous exponent of a view of the museum as critical to the lives of individuals and communities.”
De Montebello, 71, said that’s a role he intends to continue.
“I don’t intend to silence myself,” he said.