Lesson from a master

Legendary Met director will take your questions
By KEN GREENLEAF  |  July 15, 2009

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  STANDING TALL Philippe de Montebello.
 Photo by Wild Bill Melton Images - Wild Bill Studios

Philippe de Montebello retired at the end of last year from his position as director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York after 31 years. During his tenure, the museum nearly doubled in size to two million square feet and increased its collections by some 80,000 pieces. The museum mounted dozens of special exhibitions annually, often with loans from collections all over the world. It has also become a major art-book publisher, issuing 25 to 30 publications a year. He is generally regarded as the most successful director in the Met's 139-year history.

He'll visit the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland on Thursday, July 23, to speak with Farnsworth education director Roger Dell and take questions from the audience. The Portland Phoenix caught up with him in advance of his visit. This is an edited transcript of the conversation.

WHAT WAS YOUR VISION FOR THE MET WHEN YOU STARTED AS DIRECTOR, AND HOW HAS THAT VISION EVOLVED OVER YOUR TENURE? I wanted to maintain, if not restore, the primacy of art over all of the incidentals as the most important aspect of the museum, over and beyond its programs. Because ultimately that was its identity. It's the collection of the museum that is the key, especially for the larger museums. It does not apply to smaller institutions, but for large, international, universal institutions, their collection is their identity.

A simple way to measure this — if you're going to Madrid, to the Prado, you're not going to decide on whether or not to visit the Prado based on what exhibition they happen to have on; you're going to go to see the Hieronymus Bosches, the Velazquezes, the Goyas and all the rest. It's the same for the Met. I wanted to continue to build the collection and to reinstall it in the best possible way. That's why I augmented the galleries and completely redid a great many of them.

IN AN ORGANIZATION OF THAT SIZE YOU WOULD ENCOUNTER SOME UNEXPECTED CHALLENGES OVER THE YEARS. CAN YOU TELL ME WHAT SOME OF THE MORE MEMORABLE ONES MIGHT HAVE BEEN? First there are the prosaic challenges of finances — periodically you have those problems to surmount. The key is to do so without compromising the mission and the purpose of the institution. One of the key things that I did in the late '80s, which I think made a big difference in the Met, was to abolish the fees and the tickets needed for special exhibitions. The reason for that essentially was one of civility, that having to come to an exhibition — and having to reserve a certain time in advance and pay for a ticket and so forth — was not conducive to what we mount exhibitions for, which is to introduce art to the public. You want to be able to visit a show that you like many times, especially if it's a large show. You can't possibly see and digest it all at once. This creates repeat visitors and I don't think this actually costs the institution any money at all.

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