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The Met’s Generation Gap

Here’s a “Did he really say that?” shocker from Philippe de Montebello, the Metropolitan Museum’s director, taken from Hilton Kramer‘s Q&A in the September issue of The New Criterion:

There’s a critical framework in place to approach older art. When you’re looking at very recent art, it’s much more difficult. There are no rules. It’s simply much more intuitive, much more individual. We strongly believe in the continuity of art, that it doesn’t stop at any point in time, so we have Cai Guo-Qiang on the roof, we have Kara Walker, we have Santiago Calatrava, lots of living artists. But we have pretty much made the decision not to buy very much of this generation. There is plenty of time, if someone emerges as a major artist, to buy that artist fifty years from now.

I can vividly remember an interchange some years ago, during a museum directors’ panel discussion, between de Montebello and the Whitney Museum’s then director Tom Armstrong. It was at the time when the Met was poised for a major foray into modern and contemporary art, thanks to its new Lila Acheson Wallace Wing.

“It’s not your territory!” Armstrong strongly admonished de Montebello, objecting to the Met’s encroachment on the Whitney’s contemporary turf. De Montebello logically responded that his encyclopedic museum had a responsibility to be involved in the art of its own time, and many major supporters of museums are contemporary art collectors.

But now, maybe the Met needs to update its own website’s description of its Department of Modern Art (which, in any event, no longer exists as such, having been merged into a department that lumps together 19th-century, modern and contemporary art):

The Metropolitan Museum has been concerned with the art of its own time, as well as that of the past, since its founding in 1870. Many of the objects acquired as contemporary in the early decades of the Museum’s existence are now in the collections of other departments….Those works that entered the collection before the turn of the century and still qualify as “modern” join many, many more acquired over the past hundred years.

What de Montebello is missing, by his 50-year rule, is that many of the best museum acquisitions of contemporary art (the holdings of the Whitney and the Walker Art Center, for example) are made by sharp-eyed curators who are inveterate gallery-goers and studio-goers and can take their pick of the best things from those sources, before they get snapped up by others and before their prices rise on the secondary market.

Maybe Armstrong was right: It just wasn’t their territory.

an ArtsJournal blog