Arts and the Man

Philippe de Montebello has ruled over the world's greatest treasury of visual culture for 24 years without compromising his standards or his taste.

Tall and enviably trim, his Labrador-glossy black hair barely tinged with gray, Philippe de Montebello at the age of 65 looks at least two decades younger. Nonetheless, with the retirement over the past several years of his most notable counterparts—J. Carter Brown of the National Gallery of Art, John Walsh of the J. Paul Getty Museum, and Pierre Rosenberg of the Louvre—de Montebello is now the elder statesman of his profession. Yet neither attrition nor seniority gives the director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art his preeminence.

Rather, de Montebello has used his extraordinary force of personality and consummate political skills to consolidate his supremacy at the Met, and far beyond it, over the past quarter-century. "Philippe really is the Sun King," says a trustee of the Museum of Modern Art who knows him well, "in the way he's centralized all the power around himself."

The Versailles-meets-IBM decor of de Montebello's office at the Met mirrors those two contradictory sides of his personality—Francophile aesthete and global power broker. That large room, occupying a corner of the top floor of the museum's new executive wing, commands panoramic skyline views over Central Park to the south and west. Outfitted with corporate-generic dark wood bookcases and cabinets, it at first seems surprisingly banal, until one turns to a wall hung with an imposing landscape by the 17th-century French master Claude Lorraine.

The director's desk, which faces that Arcadian painting, is an ornate 18th-century lacquer and brass-inlaid bureau plat in the manner of Boulle. Next to it stand two gilded Louis XVI fauteuils upholstered in rich blue damask, looking incongruous near an oval conference table surrounded by beige-leather swivel chairs. Wearing a fluidly cut single-breasted gray glen-plaid suit with the thin red ribbon of the Légion d'Honneur sewn into the left lapel, the CEO of the Met displays more than a bit of faux modesty when asked about his proudest achievements.

"I don't think terribly retrospectively," he demurs. "I love to think ahead. I was brought up to believe that it's not for me but for other people to characterize my accomplishments." Indeed they have, and their judgments parallel those he then reels off rapidly. "What is the aggregate?" he asks rhetorically. "If the institution still is held in high repute, if it does not meet with a regular stream of derisive comments, if the public continues to come and be satisfied, if the level of the exhibitions, acquisitions, and programs is high, scholarly, and appealing, then broadly I've succeeded. It's the sum of it all that's important."

In his case, the sum is staggering. Aside from many spectacular individual acquisitions—including such old-master paintings as Rubens' life-size self-portrait with his family, Ludovico Carracci's Lamentation, and Georges de La Tour's Penitent Magdalen—de Montebello has won a number of coveted collections, among them Walter Annenberg's promised cache of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings and the Jacques and Natasha Gelman collection of early modern art works. To accommodate its many glittering prizes, the museum has doubled its physical size, to two million square feet, and opened stunning new galleries for Greek and Roman art, Chinese and Japanese art, European sculpture, and photography, among others.

The director's exhibition record is no less impressive. Such blockbusters as The Treasures of Tutankhamun (the Met's all-time greatest hit, with 1.2 million visitors), The Vatican Collections, and two Van Gogh exhibitions prove him to be a master of the big draw. Yet on his watch, definitive retrospectives of Manet, Degas, and Seurat, the Origins of Impressionism show, and this year's Vermeer and the Delft School were also hugely popular. Quite aside from high attendance figures, Met presentations now set the world standard for scholarly excellence and glamorous display.

De Montebello has enhanced his high standing by taking courageous stands on several international art issues, using the immense prestige of his institution to stanch the seepage of moral authority from the museum world in a period of rampant commercialism and political expediency. This spring, when the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban regime in Afghanistan threatened to blow up two landmark ancient statues of Buddha that it deemed idolatrous, he was the art official who took the most conspicuous action, quickly offering to have the colossal sculptures removed and preserved at the Met. After the vandals carried out their destruction, he denounced that barbaric act as "a frontal attack on the cultural history of the world."

Even if de Montebello had saved those works, he's sure he would have been criticized. "I would just as soon see an object studied here, exhibited in a vitrine, and displayed to people than turned into dust with bulldozers in Afghanistan," he says. "But most of the world is very politically correct and totally brainwashed by the notion that everything belongs in its country of origin. Never mind that most boundaries are due to modern Realpolitik and have nothing to do with the boundaries and peoples who lived in antiquity. Everything is pinpointed to the rapacious museums, as if objects that come to us are put in cellars for us to enjoy licentiously at night"—a defensive jab at those who have investigated Met antiquities with murky pasts.

Yet de Montebello is also a leader in the movement to return art works looted by the Nazis to their rightful owners or their heirs, no matter what the consequences are to the museums that now possess them. (Last year, the ownership of two relatively minor works in the Met's collection was directly questioned; the museum quickly released the detailed provenance of the works to disprove the accusations.)

As the line between fine art and pop culture continues to blur, de Montebello has warned against museums turning themselves into theme parks, pointing out that Disney will always do it better. The increasing emphasis now placed on attendance figures as the principal sign of a museum's success has led to a predictable litany of surefire exhibitions around the world, which he has derided as "Egypt, Matisse, Picasso, Impressionists, Impressionists, Picasso, Matisse, Egypt, over and over." And the so-called Bilbao Effect—named after Frank Gehry's wildly popular branch of the Guggenheim Museum in Spain—is now prompting many art institutions to favor spectacular architecture and bread-and-circuses programming at the expense of intellectual content. Though critics roasted the Guggenheim's recent exhibitions on motorcycles and Giorgio Armani, those displays nonetheless attracted audiences that otherwise might never have entered an art museum. But will they come back for weightier fare?

De Montebello is convinced that if you take the high road, the public will follow, and his actions amply confirm it, with more than five million visitors to the Met last year. His don't-dumb-down philosophy runs counter to the conventional wisdom of his numbers-driven colleagues. "We don't do blockbuster shows," he asserts. "We do exhibitions, and if they turn out to be very popular, then that's wonderful. Who would have expected The Glory of Byzantium to attract half a million people to see such recondite art? And we haven't done an Impressionist show in seven years.

"I would describe the overall program of the Met as somewhat hyperactive," he continues. "If there were not this vicious circle of program, revenue, and relationships, we probably would do less. One of the ways in which I specifically resisted the blockbuster mania is by abolishing charging for exhibitions. I'm a firm believer that the budget should support the program and not the other way around. But in many other institutions it has become an equation that's not always weighted in the right direction."

No incident better illustrates de Montebello's resistance to outside pressures than his abrupt cancellation in the spring of last year of the Met Costume Institute's planned retrospective on designer Coco Chanel. The exhibition ran aground when Karl Lagerfeld, the design director of the Paris couture house founded by the legendary Chanel, demanded that the installation include one of the artist Jenny Holzer's LED text pieces. "I have nothing against poor Jenny Holzer," insists de Montebello, no lover of contemporary art. "It was not who was being suggested, it was the very fact that there was interference. It's essential that our public be assured that authority and integrity dictate the program, so that whatever they see is indeed the result of the guiding intelligence of the professional staff, uninflected by outside commercial interests."

However, the Met under de Montebello has mounted a Cartier show sponsored by Cartier and a Tiffany show underwritten by Tiffany, as well as several Costume Institute shows supported by fashion designers, as the Chanel exhibition would have been by its parent company. But in response last year to questions about these shows by The New York Times, the unapologetic director asked, "Should we have asked Tiffany to fund Cartier and Cartier to fund Tiffany? . . . The work of Tiffany was created at the turn of the century, not any of which is still sold by the firm. The Cartier show ended in 1930, so Cartier didn't benefit. . . . This is pushing to an extreme. This is what I call righteousness. And it's silly."

In any event, de Montebello quickly substituted the aborted Chanel survey with Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years, which opened this spring to rave reviews and became one of the museum's biggest hits in recent years and its most successful Costume Institute exhibition ever. The director's adroit handling of the sticky affair obliterated any memory of the Lagerfeld flap and perfectly demonstrated his finesse in turning a potential disaster into an unqualified triumph.

At a time when Thomas Krens, the director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, is applying multinational corporate models to the administration of his far-flung museum chain, de Montebello has lectured on his own rather imperious management style at the Wharton School of Business. "I make my decisions alone," he told the CEOs of tomorrow. "I hate committee meetings. That does not mean I don't consult with others. My style is collegial—not at the moments of making decisions, but leading up to them. . . . I encourage my staff to tell me if I have made the wrong decision. I don't fire them for that. I fire them if I've heard that they don't approve of a decision and they don't tell me."

In a very different vein of public speaking, de Montebello lately has been performing readings of French poetry—Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Verlaine—at the Met, which he manages to find time for in a grueling schedule. "I'm a ham like anybody else," he admits. "Occasionally a little self-indulgence is something that I feel I have a right to. People like my voice and the way I read, and if I can give them pleasure in that way, why not?"

De Montebello, who speaks six languages (French, English, Spanish, Italian, German, and Russian), is a man in love with the sound of his own voice. Who can blame him, for thousands of admirers also adore his plummy baritone. How much he continues to cultivate his ripe French accent is the subject of some debate. At the very least, he gives many English words of Gallic origin a florid pronunciation. Brochure becomes brah-SHEER, turquoise becomes tour-KWAHZ, Renaissance becomes hren-NAY-sahnce, and even a Latin phrase like a priori is romanced into Ah-PREE-oh-ree, all with r's gutturally rolled, bien sûr.

De Montebello's mellifluous radio commercials for Met shows (or EGGS-zibitions, in Philippe-speak) show off his verbal allure at its most seductive. Whether evoking uncannily lifelike Roman-Egyptian mummy portraits ("They lived—and died—two thousand years ago, yet you can look into their eyes as they stare back at you eerily,") or the flaming colors of the Fauves ("Their brushes were on FAHRR!"), he can make viewing art seem absolutely irresistible.

Some art professionals, however, have been less than enthralled. The critic Robert Hughes has castigated de Montebello's Acoustiguide manner, which he and others find unctuous, as "discoursing like an undertaker on the merits of the deceased." And the feminist art historian Linda Nochlin was so amused by de Montebello's overexcited yet evasive taped tour of the 1984 retrospective on Balthus—the late master of soft-porn depictions of pubescent girls—that she corralled a nearby student into listening to it with her. As Nochlin recalls, "There was a painting of a dwarf poking his big, phallic nose between the legs of a young girl, and Philippe's comment was, 'Notice the way he handles the light.' We were convulsed with laughter just as Philippe came strolling by with one of his ladies on his arm."

A frequent criticism leveled at de Montebello concerns his indifference to, and at times outright hostility toward, much modern and most contemporary art. The Metropolitan Museum's 20th-century wing, which opened in 1986 (it's now known as the Department of Modern Art), is generally seen as having a laggard record both in its programming and its purchases. The Met's contemporary shows have focused largely on a series of aging white male British artists, including Lucian Freud and Howard Hodgkin, and it acquired its first painting by Jasper Johns, White Flag, only two years ago. In a New York Times article last year, the critic Deborah Solomon asked the question on some people's minds: "Is the Met Phobic About Contemporary Art?"

That widespread perception can be traced directly to de Montebello himself, who in late 1999 outraged the contemporary art world with his unabashedly conservative New York Times Op-Ed piece "Making a Cause Out of Bad Art." He wrote it at the height of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's attempt to shut down the Brooklyn Museum of Art because of its controversial Sensation show, which included the artist Chris Ofili's painting of a black Virgin Mary decorated with bejeweled pellets of elephant dung, which is an African fertility symbol.

The director's inflammatory text lauded Giuliani's "astute critical acumen. . . . I find no fault with the mayor's aesthetic sensibilities, only with his effort at censorship. . . . Too many unwary visitors come to pay obeisance to art they feel they should try to understand and, heaven forbid, even like." Never mind that the general public neither initially understands, nor perhaps even ultimately likes, some of what is shown at the Met. Many found the column at best ill-timed, at worst a stab in the back of a faltering sister institution when freedom of artistic expression was under attack by the philistines.

The director's boundless self-assurance helps to put him on a par, in his own mind at least, not just with mayors but also with heads of state. Soon after the opening of Al-Andalus, an exhibition on the art of Islamic Spain at the Met in 1992, an event attended by His Most Catholic Majesty Juan Carlos I, a photograph was anonymously tacked to a bulletin board in the museum's administrative offices. The snapshot showed the Spanish monarch bowing toward de Montebello, who seemed rather aloof in contrast. Beneath the picture an irreverent staffer had scrawled the caption, "Which one is the real king?"

If de Montebello can at times seem impossibly superior, pompous, and condescending, those just might be inherited traits. The founder of the de Montebello dynasty was Jean Lannes, born in 1769 to a poor Gascon farmer. The ambitious young Jean enlisted in the French army and rose to become one of the most trusted and effective generals of Napoleon, who made him a maréchal and later Duc de Montebello, after his victory in the Italian town of that name.

A contemporary memoirist described the first de Montebello as "active, witty, and vain," traits some observers also see in his most eminent present-day descendant. In a meeting prefiguring the one between the Met director and the King of Spain, the supremely self-confident Napoleonic marshal once had an audience with the Pope, who put out his hand to be kissed, only to have his visitor shake it heartily instead.

Alas, at the age of 40 the Duc de Montebello was killed at the battle of Essling in Austria and entombed in the Pantheon. Two of his sons went on to prominence—one as minister of the Marine and another as general and aide-de-camp to Napoleon III—and in Paris today the Quai de Montebello, Rue de Montebello, and Boulevard Lannes remind posterity of the clan's glorious provenance.

In 1933, Jean Lannes' great-great-grandson Count Roger de Montebello married Germaine Wiener de Croisset, a descendant of the Marquis de Sade and a granddaughter of the Countess Laure de Chevigné, on whom Marcel Proust partially based his character of the Duchess of Guermantes in Remembrance of Things Past. Three years later, the second of the couple's four sons, Guy-Philippe Lannes de Montebello, was born in Paris. From an early age he showed an interest in art and he gravitated toward his aunt Marie-Laure de Noailles, the celebrated modern-arts patron who once took him to see a bullfight in the south of France with her pal Picasso.

Roger de Montebello was a portrait painter, an art critic, an art editor of the magazine Marie Claire, and a member of the anti-Nazi underground during World War II. (One of his aunts and her husband died in German concentration camps.) As Philippe recalled, "Some of my most vivid early childhood memories involve running—keeping one step ahead of the Gestapo and the Vichy government with a father who was serving in the Resistance." De Montebello père was also an inventor who, together with his wife, worked on developing optical devices and experimented with three-dimensional photography, a precursor of holography.

The search for venture capital for that project brought the de Montebello family to New York in 1951. The sons all eventually returned to France, married French women, and became bankers, except for Philippe. From the start, he tried hard to fit in here, and can still recite from memory the lineup of the 1951 Brooklyn Dodgers. "Although I don't think I ever went to Ebbets Field," he recalls. "I think my parents would have been horrified. They would have asked me if I needed a visa."

After receiving his baccalaureate from the Lycée Français in Manhattan, de Montebello went on to study art history at Harvard. After a two-year hiatus for mandatory military service, he graduated magna cum laude in 1961. That same year he married Edith Myles, an upper-class New York alumna of Brearley, Miss Porter's School, and Radcliffe whom he met in a 19th-century English poetry class at Harvard. De Montebello then continued his studies at the Institute of Fine Arts of New York University. When he was offered a job as a curatorial assistant in the Department of European Paintings at the Met in 1963, he accepted, stopping short of receiving his doctorate and taking a master's degree instead.

In 1966, the flamboyant Thomas P.F. (which wags said stood for "Publicity Forever") Hoving was named director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art and began a tumultuous phase in that staid institution's history, setting in motion the wholesale popularization that still reverberates throughout the museum world. Three years later, de Montebello was asked out of the blue to be director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, which he agreed to as a necessary step toward his ultimate goal of becoming the head of the Met. He also desperately needed a higher salary than his paltry curatorial wages.

De Montebello acquitted himself well in Texas, but he loathed the place and regarded the experience as insufferable exile among the alien corn. When he was summoned back to the Met in 1974 to become chief curator of European paintings, just a step away from the directorship, he could barely contain his joy. "The happiest moment of my life," he later confessed, "was booking a one-way ticket out of Houston."

"Tom Hoving and I are two very different personalities," de Montebello says, with considerable understatement, of his erratic precursor at the Met, "and we had very different attitudes to the collection, to the institution, to the public, and to the staff." Those clear-cut distinctions recommended him as Hoving's successor when the beleaguered, burnt-out director stepped down in 1977. "The irony is that I was brought in after my predecessor to create a certain equipoise, calm, and serenity," the present chief notes. "But we've done more shows, more acquisitions, and more building than at any other time, all in the interest of the works of art and the scholarship. You always put that first."

Though de Montebello does what he must in the way of official entertaining, he much prefers the company of his family. His wife, a niece of the midcentury Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan, is director of financial aid for the private Trinity School in Manhattan. She attends all black-tie dinners at the museum, "but really does not function as an ambassador's wife," a Met insider says. "They are not one of these power-couple, fund-raising dynamic duos."

The couple shares a conservatively decorated Fifth Avenue apartment several blocks north of the museum. The living room, with its unframed mirror over the Louis XV-style marble chimneypiece, resembles a genteel Paris hotel suite that's awash in family bibelots. Weekends are spent at their house in Bridgehampton—a startlingly nondescript structure they built during the '80s in an unfashionable far-north-of-the-highway location. "He probably uses it to hide out," says Sotheby's broker Frank Newbold, the leading expert on Hamptons real estate. The de Montebellos do strenuously shun the frenetic local social scene. Their one-acre property includes a tennis court that provides the director with his only regular exercise. "Real tennis, singles," he stipulates. "Every ball that is hit is mine. Doubles is too much sharing."

The de Montebellos' three children all live in Manhattan. Marc, 37, is an art dealer who owns a gallery just a few hundred feet from the Met on East 84th Street. He married Laure de Sabran-Pontèves, who is a descendant of an aristocratic Provençal family, and they have one son, Alexandre. The de Montebellos' daughter, Laure, 34, is a freelance writer married to Dr. Robert Bernstein, a cardiovascular physiologist. Charles, 29, an erstwhile rock musician, is the founder of CDM Studios, which specializes in voice-over recording and digital-media production.

But de Montebello's official family still claims much of his time. The masterly ways he deals with his heavyweight board of trustees—which numbers such major financial players as Michel David-Weill, Henry Kravis, and Michael Bloomberg, with arch-establishment trustees emeriti like C. Douglas Dillon, Henry Kissinger, and Arthur Ochs Sulzberger—are the wonder of his peers. Many other museum heads must act like cornered lion tamers trying to keep their overbearing and demanding benefactors from devouring them.

One such victim was Thomas N. Armstrong III, the longtime director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, who in 1991 was ousted in a clumsy coup engineered by the very board members he appointed. "Philippe is in the enviable position of having a board that is disciplined, loyal, and aware of the parameters of its responsibilities," Armstrong says. "Each knows what the other is meant to do, and respects them professionally." De Montebello will never fall prey to what happened to Armstrong. As one Met staffer says, "Philippe behaves in a manner that intimidates or awes almost everybody. I've seen people who were really difficult, who we were just quaking in our boots about, get into a room with him and just melt in the presence of his authority."

That authority translates directly to the Met's bottom line. De Montebello has earned a formidable reputation as a fund-raiser, though the grand total he has raked in remains incalculable. Aside from finding seemingly bottomless backing for acquisitions and exhibitions, he has led a $650 million capital campaign, more than $450 million of which has already been vouched for. It costs upwards of $130 million to keep the museum running each year, but less than a quarter of the budget is covered by the Met's endowment. Almost $65 million annually must come from gifts and grants (including support from the City of New York), which puts de Montebello in perpetual money-gathering mode.

Whereas some other male museum directors like Tom Krens respond more instinctively to macho businessmen, the head of the Met is unparalleled in his cordial relations with the grandes dames. Current board members Carroll Petrie and Annette de la Renta and trustees emeritae Brooke Astor, Jane Engelhard, Drue Heinz, and Jayne Wrightsman find him breathtakingly suave and dazzlingly charming.

Wrightsman, the widow of oil tycoon Charles Wrightsman and a self-taught expert on 18th-century French decorative arts, has been particularly generous to the Met during the director's tenure, including making a gift of the last Vermeer in private hands. Three years ago she donated a superb triple-portrait drawing by Ingres as a token of her personal regard for de Montebello. ("She's not the big kahuna," says one Met insider, "but she is the big clam.")

According to Met trustee Cynthia Hazen Polsky, a niece of trustees emeriti Walter and Leonore Annenberg and honorary trustee Enid Annenberg Haupt, "Philippe is not calculated in the cold sense, but he does measure and think out what he says and does. He's not a spontaneous, shoot-from-the-hip kind of person. That doesn't give you behavior that lends itself to anecdotes. People can tell you about his bad back, how he negotiates while lying on the floor. You're relieved if Philippe has a bad back because it suggests he might be human like the rest of us. He is what you see. He's terribly serious, terribly thoughtful, very, very hardworking and focused."

De Montebello's rapport with his trustees is central to his success. "We don't have twenty-five bosses," says a high-ranking employee at the Met. "Everybody on the staff understands that they work for Philippe, not the trustees. And as a result, you don't have that Whitney situation where the organization is run by the board." Paul F. Walter, a trustee of The Museum of Modern Art and a frequent donor to the Met, agrees: "Philippe is incredibly supportive and protective of his curators, in a way that many other museum directors are not."

An indication of the Olympian stature the Met has attained under de Montebello is how he disdains the museum partnerships that are now proliferating internationally. For example, Russia's State Hermitage Museum (or air-mee-TAHZH, as he calls it) has forged links with the Guggenheim, Somerset House in London, and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston cooperates with the Nagoya Museum in Japan. "As far as the Met is concerned, we've never chosen or needed to have alliances," its director maintains. "We have collegial relationships with all of these institutions and don't need them to be contractual.

"It would be problematic to decide I'm going to take as my bride institution X," he continues. "Because in all negotiations there's always give and take, and the Met has a lot to give as well as to take. When you are negotiating for loans, people considering lending to you are aware that they're likely to become a borrower in the future. The moment you create an alliance, you create something that's exclusionary."

Thus, as globalization is having as much impact on art institutions as on corporations, de Montebello is determined to resist the baser commercial and political instincts of our time. "It will not deter us," he says of the downward trend of mass-market museum culture. Then he adds with a reassuring smile, "Do not underestimate our degree of arrogance."

Martin Filler wrote about Alberto Giacometti in the September 2001 issue of Departures.