Met Museum director gets going-away exhibit

October 22, 2008 6:05:17 PM PDT
When Philippe de Montebello announced his retirement earlier this year, the curators at the Metropolitan Museum of Art quickly came up with the perfect going-away gift for their long-serving director. An exhibit, of course.

It was a mammoth task: In more than 30 years as director, de Montebello has overseen the acquisition of more than 84,000 objects, from sculptures to scrolls to paintings to pendants.

Around 300 of those artworks have been pulled together for "The Philippe de Montebello Years: Curators Celebrate Three Decades of Acquisitions," which opens Friday and runs through Feb. 1. De Montebello, 72, is retiring at the end of the year after being at the Met's helm since 1977.

De Montebello said the show came as "a wonderful surprise."

"When one's professional staff pays tribute to you, that gives you a sense that you've done something right," he said in an interview.

The curators had hoped to keep the exhibit a surprise for de Montebello, said Helen Evans, the curator who coordinated the show.

"In a dream, one would have thought one could have him know about it last week," she said. But reality intruded, forcing the staff to let him know it was in the works.

"There's so many different things that go across his desk that to explain to him why somebody couldn't do another project would require you to say, 'Because he's working on your show, Philippe,"' Evans said.

Once he heard about it, though, de Montebello had little to do with the project, she said. His major request was that it not be organized in a typical art-historical manner, with objects grouped by date of creation or place of origin.

Instead, the show moves roughly chronologically through de Montebello's years at the museum, with the result that works of art are juxtaposed with each other in ways they aren't normally. Paintings, sculptures, photographs, weapons, clothing, furniture - it's all there, sometimes making for some unusual neighbors, such as an Egyptian statue next to a sculpture from the people of Easter Island.

Evans hopes the unusual display will get visitors to look at the art in a different way, since it's out of its regular historical context.

"I'm hoping people come and are excited by the art," she said, that "they look at the art as art, not, 'This is Europe in the 1300s, this is Africa."'

People viewing the show for de Montebello's personal aesthetic won't necessarily find it, she said. "Philippe's taste is not in these galleries," Evans said. "He's never limited the museum to his tastes."

What she hopes they do understand about de Montebello is "his ambition to build a museum that really did represent, does represent and will represent the best visual voice of all cultures," she said.

De Montebello is one of the most prominent figures in the art world. His tenure at the Met was among the longest of any head of an American museum, and he helped transform the renowned institution by greatly expanding its collection over the decades.

With the year winding down and his successor named, de Montebello is preparing for the end of one chapter in his life and the beginning of another. Starting next year, he will be on the faculty of the Institute of Fine Art at New York University, where he earned his master's degree.

"I have for a long time been wanting to begin transferring my skills from management of the world of art to getting back to the world of art itself," he said, although he acknowledged that it would be an adjustment moving from the collaborative world of museums to the more solitary one of teaching.

"I'm going to have to get used to that, to be basically on my own with my own thoughts, my own syllabus, my own students."

He plans to remain an advocate for museums, and will serve as an adviser for NYU's campus in Abu Dhabi. He also plans to return to the Met, although this time as a visitor. And other visitors will still be able to hear from him, at least for a short time, since his voice can be heard on some of the museum's audiotours.

Looking back on his many years at the museum - the hundreds of shows, the renovations - de Montebello is hard-pressed to name highlights.

"My whole past is a blur. I just get a sense that it was well done," he said.

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