The Aristocrat

Photo: Damon Winter/New York Times

There was much private groaning when, in 1977, Philippe de Montebello became the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The city was financially destitute, its morale low, its cultural institutions uncertain. Was a director who sounded like a count from the ancien régimereally what the Met needed? Like Thomas Hoving, whom he succeeded, De Montebello seemed to invite caricature. If Tom “Terrific” was the populist who vulgarized art for the masses, De Montebello was the aristocrat who—the offense to serious taste was no less—dressed up art for the rich. He was tallish, he was handsome, he had a mellifluous French accent. All “de,” no “duh.” Art for the sherry-sippers.

In the end, however, De Montebello became the most admired museum director of his generation: His retirement last week after 30 years at the Met occasioned sadness even among those constitutionally unable to respect anyone named Philippe. Today, of course, great museums and universities have a hard time finding even a modestly competent director; one person rarely possesses the necessary array of talent. De Montebello could certainly play all the parts—administrator, scholar, sweet-talker, politician, fund-raiser, collector, showman—but simple versatility was not what finally distinguished his tenure. De Montebello, it turned out, was nothing like his caricature. He had a forceful sensibility, at once playful and determined, that helped sustain serious art in the tricky art world of the late-twentieth century.

To begin with, he was in critical respects very American. It would have been easy for a director like De Montebello, at an elegant institution like the Met, to subside into a kind of irreproachable and slumberous sloth. Instead, he remained abidingly restless and ambitious. He constantly challenged his institution. Once New York recovered financially, he tapped the economic boom for funds to build and renovate; the recently reinstalled Greek and Roman galleries are a crowning achievement. He learned to play the crowd, and he worked the rich. He understood the hunt: He slyly pursued both great collections and big bucks. At the same time, his ambition led him to press every department at the Met to test itself against the highest possible traditional standards. No one must be given grounds for arguing that another encyclopedic museum, such as the Louvre, was intellectually superior to the Met. And he didn’t want to hear too much talk of the good old days.

As a result, strong curators admired De Montebello. That’s rare at a museum. Curators typically regard directors as fundamentally mediocre, as bureaucrats and attention hogs who are not quite gifted enough to take the true measure of art. But De Montebello clearly understood what it took to be an important scholar, curator, or art historian, and he conveyed to thoughtful people a bracing and passionate defense of real achievement in the arts. (His reverence for the encyclopedic museum never seemed like just a lot of bull.) It might be natural to suppose that a man who enjoys being De Montebello as much as De Montebello enjoys being De Montebello would have little time for others, but, in fact, De Montebello did not block the view of the intellectual or artistic achievements around him. Curators and artists could reasonably suppose that he considered their work no less important than his. Even, perhaps, more important. And so, the curators at the Met during the De Montebello years instinctively aimed high, bringing to New Yorkers one remarkable show after another.

The “serious” can easily become an enemy of art. Something pedantic, ghastly, and dull clouds the eye. In this regard, De Montebello had something the value of which can hardly be overestimated: a genuine twinkle. Whenever I spent time with him—usually at a press luncheon—I would tease him a little. I couldn’t help it. There’s just something about the King Philippe manner. He never seemed to mind. De Montebello has a droll sense of humor, even about himself, and he will often slightly mock, even as he relishes, his own performance. Once, when the subject of the art world came up, I asked him how he could stand the hand-holding, cajoling, and flattery that his job occasionally entails. Not a very nice question. Then I quoted, as something that he might find useful, an aphorism from the eighteenth-century French wit Nicolas de Chamfort that I’d just happened upon: “Swallow a toad in the morning and you will encounter nothing more disgusting the rest of the day.”

I hoped to startle him for a moment. Instead, the twinkle. He relished the aphorism and readily agreed that his job did have its disagreeable aspects. The social world is a dark comedy. He wouldn’t pretend otherwise. But never mind. Leonardo’s drawings were coming to town.

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The Aristocrat