The Philippe de Montebello Years: Curators Celebrate Three Decades of Acquisitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Philippe de Montebello; courtesy The New York Times

* * *

Philippe de Montebello stepped up to the podium at the press preview for the exhibition The Philippe de Montebello Years: Curators Celebrate Three Decades of Acquisitions and looked about ready to keel over. Explaining that he had caught a bug, Mr. de Montebello seemed adrift in a NyQuil haze, his voice croaky and his demeanor sluggish. The eve of a much anticipated tribute to an illustrious career–there are better times to catch a cold.

When Mr. de Montebello announced his retirement almost a year ago, many New Yorkers were taken aback. The museum’s public face and its unmistakable voice (who hasn’t heard those dulcet tones emanating from the nearest audio guide?), Mr. de Montebello was the museum’s eighth and longest-serving director. He hasn’t been a fixture of the city’s life so much as one of its linchpins. Under Mr. de Montebello’s guidance, our greatest museum became even more indispensable.

Not least because of respect paid to the public. “Elitism” is a dirty word redolent of sniffy aristocrats, but Mr. de Montebello has proven that it isn’t necessarily the same thing as snobbery. By advocating for the highest standards, he placed faith in the acumen and ability of that many-headed monster, the general audience. This outlook is starry-eyed, perhaps, but better naïveness than rank condescension. Besides, Mr. de Montebello has been vindicated. Look at the crowds: They want to see the best. In his own erudite way, Mr. de Montebello is a populist.

The Met acquires an object after a variety of experts–curators, conservators, librarians and scientists–discuss and debate its historical and artistic merits. But Mr. de Montebello was the final word–or so it’s said. “My-way-or-the-highway” betrays not a little arrogance; there’s no doubting Mr. de Montebello must have frustrated and infuriated colleagues. But quality, not appeasing, was the goal. Do I remember correctly Mr. de Montebello stating that collecting used condoms wasn’t in the museum’s mission statement? He took his job seriously.

Eighty-four thousand objects entered the collection during Mr. de Montebello’s tenure. There are bound to be a fair share of clunkers—how could there not be? All the same, the work on display—around 300 or so pieces—is probably fairly skimpy in terms of the good stuff. You just know the riches go deeper than that. Helen C. Evans, curator of Byzantine art, must have exercised considerable diplomatic skill in coordinating the 17 curatorial departments when organizing the exhibition.

The curators had free reign, but Mr. de Montebello made a request: The exhibition should be mounted in a cross-cultural and ahistorical manner. Five thousand years of art—why not mix-and-match Mesopotamian devils, Jasper Johns, sandstone Buddhas, a Kongo power figure, Islamic miniatures and Peter Paul Rubens’ busty wife? Commonalities in aesthetic and functional purpose are gently emphasized, not least as they apply to art’s ability to encapsulate spiritual longing and solace. (Mr. de Montebello has spoken movingly about the profound feelings engendered by Duccio’s Madonna and Child.)

Juxtapositions of time, style and place, often extreme and never denied, are rendered fluid. Credit Jeff Daly, the senior design adviser, for a beautifully nuanced installation–he hasn’t done the impossible; he’s made the possible revelatory. But consider what he’s working with: a collection guided by a man whose discernment, intelligence and eye have led him to a fairly unfashionable conclusion: Art is the embodiment of humankind’s noblest impulses. Mr. de Montebello is an optimist. That’s but one reason Three Decades of Acquisitions sings.

(c) 2008 Mario Naves

Originally published in the November 4, 2008 edition of The New York Observer.

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