Photo by Don Pollard, Courtesy Metropolitan Museum
The following interchanges took place as part of yesterday’s press conference, not in Philippe de Montebello‘s office, where I had conducted a far-ranging interview with him at the beginning of his tenure, for a magazine profile. In the course of the half-hour press briefing, I managed to elicit three very thoughtful answers to questions I posed:
Lee: What would you point to as your proudest accomplishments?
Philippe: After three decades, I don’t wish to point to a single thing. The question is difficult to answer because, first, I suffer from a cultural reticence of self, and I find it very difficult to toot my own horn, so to speak. From my point of view, I would say it’s the ability to initiate and do any number of programs based on fundamental philosophical principles that include an absolute dedication to excellence, faithfulness to integrity and the courage to maintain institutional authority, by which I do not mean authoritarianism. I think far too many institutions, in a misguided sense of democratic ideal, fail to exercise their authority and tend to do things in a muddle.
Lee: Throughout your career, you’ve been known as an articulator and defender of museum standards. Can you give a last appraisal of what standards you feel are most in need of defending today? Which ones are in jeopardy? On which ones will you be speaking out in the future?
Philippe: I certainly will be speaking out in the future. I hope and intend that, whatever career I embrace when I leave, it will have something to do with continuing to promulgate the principles that I’ve fought for in this institution. Standards, principles: I would say the first is the primacy of art. We are not a “museum art.” We are an “art museum.” Art is first. A great many institutions actually in many ways have reversed the terms and have embraced, as a primary part of their mission, the museum experience, in opposition to the experience of coming to look at a work of art. Amenities are a very good thing but everything has to be in proportion. The major axis that is followed by the institution has to be its raison d’être, which is the work of art—its collection, its preservation and its presentation and the interpretation of it.
The museum has a very important and very delicate task and curators are people whose influence and importance far exceeds what they themselves believe, because what you select to put in the galleries is an extremely important statement. How what you select is presented and where, [how it is] lit, positioned—all this influences the response of a visitor. So we have a huge responsibility to the authenticity of the work of art, to the authenticity of its historical context—not to use and abuse art for ends that are foreign to it and that meet the needs for instant notoriety, rather than instruction and wonder.
Lee: Will you get back to art historical research and curatorship?
Philippe: No, I can’t any more. The discipline of an art historian—research, the truly focused attention on any particular field—is something that’s too far away. I’ve become a generalist. I’ve become an expert in something else: I’ve become an expert on museum issues, on museum problems, on the history of museums, on the nature and purpose of museums. I expect what I’ll be doing will be more museological than art historical. It would be closer to what I would call high art appreciation than art history.
Answering another questioner, he ended by vowing never to compose his memoirs: “I will not write a book about my experiences at the Met. That I know…although a true one is necessary at this point!”
Any takers to write his professional biography?