On the resignation of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s director, Philippe de Montebello:


Mr. de Montebello’s impact has been as much broadly cultural as aesthetic, something that can be said of no other departing museum director. Met board chairman James R. Houghton exaggerated only slightly when he told a news conference yesterday that Mr. de Montebello’s retirement represents “a seismic change in the life of the museum and the cultural life of the city, the state, the nation and the world.”

At a time when museums pander to get visitors, either by flogging, yet again, the long-dead Impressionist horse or by selling their souls to popular culture with exhibitions of motorcycles or electric guitars, the Met has drawn in its public the old-fashioned way — routinely offering it intellectually substantial fare.

Take the 1995 “Rembrandt/Not-Rembrandt” show. The museum hauled out every painting in its collection that it was satisfied had been painted by Rembrandt, as well as the ones it had once attributed to him but had changed its mind about. And it used extensive wall labels to explain the difference between the two. Asked by a reporter at the opening whether this was a show only “experts” could appreciate, Mr. de Montebello replied “no,” and events bore him out. “Rembrandt/Not Rembrandt” had the highest average daily attendance of any exhibition that opened that year.

Mr. de Montebello also made it a point to put the art experience — a person’s one-on-one interaction with an object — at the center of the museum visit. This might seem to be akin to praising a conductor for keeping the orchestra in tune, but the sad fact is that the museum’s first responsibility to its public is increasingly becoming the first casualty of today’s art museum. Three years ago, for example, the Museum of Modern Art reopened greatly expanded quarters on its West 53rd Street site in Manhattan. Its vast hallways and permanent collection galleries give the impression that the architect was told his principal task was crowd control, designing spaces to keep people moving. There isn’t anything about them that invites, or sometimes even allows, the visitor to stop and really connect with a painting or sculpture.

All told, then, Mr. de Montebello has stood for traditional values in a culture that long ago declared such notions unfashionable. It’s a case of the conservative as radical. It says a lot about today’s art world that for his efforts Mr. de Montebello has been denounced in some quarters as an “elitist.”

Eric Gibson
Wall Street Journal