Under de Montebello’s stewardship, the museum has doubled in size; debuted a slew of new galleries, most recently for Greek and Roman art; become the most popular tourist attraction in New York (4.6 million people visited last year); and cemented its reputation in the eyes of the international art world as one of the most important encyclopedic museums anywhere. Perhaps most impressively, the museum has acquired some 84,000 works of art over the course of de Montebello’s tenure—including high-profile blockbusters like van Gogh’s Wheat Field With Cypresses and Vermeer’s Study of a Young Woman—about 300 of which will be on display as part of “The Philippe de Montebello Years: Curators Celebrate Three Decades of Acquisitions,” a salute to the outgoing director opening in late October.
The show is a fitting tribute to a man who is still happiest when discussing—often hotly debating—the merits of a proposed purchase or show, despite the fact that his job has become more and more “administrative,” as he puts it, with an increased focus on fundraising, budgets, legal issues and insurance. “Curators deal with Philippe most intimately in terms of exhibitions and acquisitions,” says Helen C. Evans, the Met’s curator for Byzantine art and organizer of “The Philippe de Montebello Years,” pointing out that his ability to see beyond his own taste is a rarity. “He’s encouraged the diversity of taste of his staff. He has never limited our acquisitions to what he would wish to live with. It’s a chance for us to recognize that.”
De Montebello’s reign has not been without controversy—but then to maintain such a prominent post for more than 30 years without kicking up a little dust, one would have to be almost catatonic. Most recently he found himself ensnared in the international scandal surrounding looted antiquities, finally hammering out a deal, in 2006, to return 21 classical works of questionable provenance—including the Euphronios krater, a 2,500-year-old Greek bowl that was a centerpiece of the Met’s classical collection—to the Italian government in exchange for long-term loans. Through it all he’s made no apologies for the way the Met has gone about acquiring antiquities, on occasion buying pieces whose routes from the dirt to the display case could not be clearly traced. At the time when most of these objects were unearthed, he says, their countries of origin “were completely indifferent to what was in the ground and were demolishing their great temples to build local schools. So from a certain point of view, there was a lot of rescuing.”
Though reportedly the stress of negotiating with the Italian government caused him to break out in shingles, today he plays down the magnitude of the drama. Most people, he insists, “have not paid much attention to what the papers have written and really don’t care. They’re interested in seeing antiquities here, and they see no reason why, to look at Greek art or Mesopotamian art, they have to go to Baghdad or Athens or Rome.”