Philippe de Montebello stepped up to the podium at the press preview for the exhibition “The Philippe de Montebello Years: Curators Celebrate Three Decades of Acquisitions” and looked about ready to keel over. Explaining that he had caught a bug, Mr. de Montebello seemed adrift in a NyQuil haze, his voice croaky and his demeanor sluggish. The eve of a much anticipated tribute to an illustrious career—there are better times to catch a cold.
When Mr. de Montebello announced his retirement almost a year ago, many New Yorkers were taken aback. The museum’s public face and its unmistakable voice (who hasn’t heard those dulcet tones emanating from the nearest audio guide?), Mr. de Montebello was the museum’s eighth and longest-serving director. He hasn’t been a fixture of the city’s life so much as one of its linchpins. Under Mr. de Montebello’s guidance, our greatest museum became even more indispensable.
Not least because of respect paid to the public. “Elitism” is a dirty word redolent of sniffy aristocrats, but Mr. de Montebello has proven that it isn’t necessarily the same thing as snobbery. By advocating for the highest standards, he placed faith in the acumen and ability of that many-headed monster, the general audience. This outlook is starry-eyed, perhaps, but better naïveness than rank condescension. Besides, Mr. de Montebello has been vindicated. Look at the crowds: They want to see the best. In his own erudite way, Mr. de Montebello is a populist.
The Met acquires an object after a variety of experts—curators, conservators, librarians and scientists—discuss and debate its historical and artistic merits. But Mr. de Montebello was the final word—or so it’s said. “My-way-or-the-highway” betrays not a little arrogance; there’s no doubting Mr. de Montebello must have frustrated and infuriated colleagues. But quality, not appeasing, was the goal. Do I remember correctly Mr. de Montebello stating that collecting used condoms wasn’t in the museum’s mission statement? He took his job seriously.
EIGHTY-FOUR THOUSAND objects entered the collection during Mr. de Montebello’s tenure. There are bound to be a fair share of clunkers—how could there not be? All the same, the work on display—around 300 or so pieces—is probably fairly skimpy in terms of the good stuff. You just know the riches go deeper than that. Helen C. Evans, curator of Byzantine art, must have exercised considerable diplomatic skill in coordinating the 17 curatorial departments when organizing the exhibition.