A Conversation with Philippe De Montebello

Article excerpt

THE NEW CRITERION: You are coming up on your thirtieth anniversary as director of the Metropolitan Museum. Clearly, the museum world has changed dramatically during your tenure. What would you say is the most pronounced difference between when you began and now?

PHILIPPE DE MONTEBELLO: Well, I was appointed in May of 1977, and I would have to say it's a different world, to the point that, knowing everything I know, were I offered the job again I'm not sure I would take it. Let me look at it on two levels: the degree to which it has become bureaucratized (I don't know if there is such a word, but now there is) and legalized, with a paralyzing near-zero risk-tolerance level, and the degree to which financial issues dominate everything we do.

Question number one is not "What is the worth of a project?" but "How much will it cost?" With this attitude comes an increasing amount of bureaucracy and paperwork. So, the job has become hugely administrative, and over the last thirty years I can measure, simply by looking at my calendar, how much less I deal directly with works of art (which is why I'm here) than ever before.

TNC: In what ways were you more concerned with the works themselves?

PD: I can remember the days when I wrote all my own audio guides, when I wrote, or at least substantially reworked, the introductions to catalogues. Now, I read them quickly, and if I see nothing that is egregious, I go ahead and sign off on them. Obviously, I'm involved, because I don't have a chief curator, but it's more at a distance. My favorite moments are frankly when I get curators together, talking with them about acquisitions and looking at works of art. I have to make time on my books to say to my staff, "I'm going to the galleries for twenty minutes." That's when you also notice the labels. Are they correct? The lighting, the color? You're working. It's never ...

TNC: It's never pure pleasure.

PD: After I'm gone, if I come back, it'll be pure pleasure simply to look. A term has been created for what I do: "arts administrator." A dreadful sounding term, but one that is becoming increasingly accurate (laughs).

TNC: Your administrative duties have included overseeing the expansion of the museum. The Metropolitan under your tenure has doubled in size.

PD: Yes, that's correct. It's all expansion within the cube of the building; it's all reworking of interior spaces. I have in fact transformed the restaurant, moved it downstairs, to turn it into galleries for Greek and Roman antiquities. So the expansions were for the installation and better presentation of art, or, as with the Uris Center, for educational programs.

TNC: It seems that when other museums expand, it's about getting more bodies in. It's about box office, to some extent. Renovations are more about the flow of traffic.

PD: And the ability to do revenue-generating activities: to rent out the space, do parties, and so forth. We do that! We have any number of revenue-generating activities, and we do parties, and we do rent out space, but I think we all know that is strictly in order to support the program. There isn't anyone who would say, if we had another billion dollars in the endowment, that we would not review all these ancillary activities, and reduce them substantially.

There's no question in our minds that certain things are about money. Money is what allows us to pay my curators and do excellent exhibitions, so one mustn't be too self-righteous about it. Things cost money. You repaint a wall; it costs money. You reframe a picture; it costs money. Money has to come from somewhere, and we don't have federal funds. We have to raise it privately, mostly, and from the city.

TNC: To strike an elegant balance in support of the programs--you've been a leader in that.

PD: Thank you. There's no question that the moment you compromise the excellence of the scholarship, you may in the short term win out, but in the long term, boy, do you lose out. …