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"I am not retiring from the field"

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, January 30, 2008
Updated: Monday, January 13, 2014

Philippe de Montebello has announced that he will retire in December after 30 years as head of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The eighth and longest serving director in the museum's history, Mr de Montebello has overseen major renovation projects including the opening of the new Greek and Roman galleries and will pass on a $2.9bn endowment, up from $1.36m when he became director in 1977.

He joined the museum as a curatorial assistant in 1963. He became director in 1977, and was also made chief executive officer in 1998.

What are your plans?

I am not retiring. I am stepping down as director of the Met but I am not retiring from the field. At some point in the future I will continue, I hope, to be a voice for the major issues that concern me in the field of art and museology. It will simply be a different platform, and for the moment I have no plans.

Would the U.S. profit form a cultural ambassador, a counterpart to Neil MacGregor's new post in England?

It's so implausible. There is not even a cultural minister. There is no national policy as in England… that would be followed. This remains very much a federation of states, very much a federal system. Every museum is different, answering to different boards. There is no national collections fund, no ministry. It's just not comparable. It is unthinkable that a single person could be officially named to any position that represents all American museums.

How could U.S. cultural policy be improved?

I have no idea that it should. So long as there is a federal system there is no central voice. I'm not sure that I would want one. The plurality of the American museum scene is one of its strengths; it's the great diversity of the institutions. I would see no reason to change it. It works well.

What do you think of international collaborations such as those between the Guggenheim and the Louvre with Abu Dhabi?

I'm sure it's fine. We have never found the need for it for the Met itself. We have our own collegial professional relations with other parts of the world, other institutions, and we have never found any need to codify them or to create anything that had the appearance of exclusivity and, by extension, of restricting access.

You've said one of the strengths of the Met is having the world's treasures under one roof. You inherited the pre-existing Cloisters, but have you ever contemplated creating an off-site extension of the Met?

No. It doesn't mean anybody else shouldn't. I'm not critical of the Louvre, never have been. My interview in Le Monde has always been wrongly interpreted as criticism of the Louvre. It wasn't. It was merely an explanation of our position, which is that we see no reason to have wholly owned subsidiaries in other places. Maybe someday it will become important...As a basic principle there is nothing basically against it. The Met's collections are vast enough so that if someday we wanted to have a branch somewhere, we could, so long as you did not compromise the presentations of the collections here and left enough in the home office, so to speak. But I can't speak for the future.

Thomas Krens has spearheaded some of these projects. What can you say about his running of the Guggenheim?

I have made it a point all my life not to comment on what other museums do and I am not going to start now.

Is there any prospect for an international agreement that would govern museum collecting, particularly in the area of antiquities? Is an international agreement something you might help to motivate?

I think it would be very healthy if at some point there were closure, if a whole set of principles were agreed upon. I think we are still quite far from that. It would have to include not only the collecting institutions in the non-source nations as well as the collecting institutions in the source nations, but also ask what is the responsibility within the source nations as well. The responsibility lies on both sides.

Could a date for known provenance be agreed that would be sufficient to relieve objects from potential restitution claims?

I have had no indication from any source country that such a thing might occur, nor certainly from their judicial branches which are independent from their cultural branches…All museums are talking with each other, looking to harmonise their policies, but everybody works from a different vantage point with a different perspective, with different philosophies, even starting with different goals. Everybody talks about a date. What are you trying to achieve by that date? If one is merely trying to achieve harmony among institutions that is not much of an achievement…I will have in the coming years a great deal more to say and in a fully fleshed-out and carefully articulated way.

The Met's trustee and benefactor Shelby White recently agreed to return to Italy 10 objects from her private collection said to have been looted from archaeological sites. Do you feel she was unfairly treated by the Italians?

I would say Shelby White has been demonised by the press, by archaeologists, by many source countries, by a great many people everywhere, basically as an unjust reward to the fact that she was a collector who exercised transparency and public service. She is one who sponsored archaeological digs, who showed her collection, who displayed it in museums, who published it and announced it. She never hid anything and is paying the price for being actually rather responsible. So yes, I think the answer is that she has become the archetype villain because she made herself unwittingly an easy target.

Do you collect?

I used to collect a bit, yes -- Old Master drawings, early Chinese art (Shang, Zhou objects, bronzes and ceramics) and Islamic art. I still have those things. Periodically, the things that are good enough I give to the Met and make a little room on my walls and on my shelves. I haven't bought for years. With children and grandchildren my resources went towards other things. That was an early part of my career.

Congress recently enacted stricter laws for fractional gifts because collectors keep partially donated works in their homes. Is fractional giving necessary for museums to acquire art?

Absolutely essential… Doesn't the public in the long term benefit more if the object is ultimately going to be given to the public, rather than to say there is a short-term advantage to the collector, therefore the public should be denied it forever? If you pay $100,000 for something and give 25 percent of it to the museum and take your tax deduction on 25 percent of it, why should you not have the benefit of 75 percent of the time for the object? If you pass the laws that some legislators have backed the public gets nothing because then there's no partial interest and there's no gift. I don't see how that is in the public good.

Have the Met's acquisitions diminished because of the new law?

Not yet, but I am sure that it will have its effect.

You describe yourself as a generalist. Is that qualification crucial for the successful direction of an encyclopaedic museum?

There is nothing wrong with being a specialty scholar and at one point I was. If you are a specialty scholar then it means you understand specificity in scholarship. But one can become a generalist or one can have very catholic and broad tastes. Even though all of my work was on Old Master drawings and paintings, particularly 16th-century Northern art, I have always been interested in Egyptian art, in objects and decorative art, in antiquity. I never only looked at French 16th-century Mannerism. If you are going to lead an institution in which 5,000 years of the art of recorded time across the globe is represented, and you're responsible for it, if you have no affinity or curiosity about the art of other parts of the world, or different media than what you're working on, you're in trouble, and so is the institution. That's what I mean by generalist: broad interest.

It is often said that you have no particular affinity for contemporary art.

Really? Why don't you look at the annual report of the last three years….There are lots of perceptions about me – I'm supposed to be arrogant, I'm supposed to be insufferable, I'm supposed to be this, that or the other. Let other people judge what I am and let the record show what I am and what I do.

Interview by Jason Edward Kaufman
For The Art Newspaper

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