At the other end of humanity’s time line, de Montebello has also taken heat for his seeming indifference to—at times even disdain for—the artwork of his own era. In 1999 he outraged most of the art world when, after New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani threatened to cut off funding to the Brooklyn Museum of Art because he deemed some of the works in its “Sensation” show of young British artists “sick stuff,” de Montebello very publicly sided with the mayor. In an op-ed in The New York Times, he said of the show, “I think the Emperor has no clothes.” He also took the opportunity to pronounce Kiki Smith’s Tale, a sculpture depicting a naked woman on all fours trailing excrement, then on view at the Whitney, as “disgusting and devoid of any craft or aesthetic merit,” never mind that several of Smith’s pieces were already part of the Met’s permanent collection.
When asked whether he’s come around to contemporary art in the years since, he says only, “It interests me intellectually,” and then breaks into a tight-lipped smile that makes clear he’s holding his tongue. His explanation of why the museum has increased its programming in contemporary and modern work is a bit more revealing. “We do more in modern and contemporary and more in photography out of a realization that we are dealing with a public who is ill-served by general education,” he says. “Most people walking into a room of Buddhist art have no clue who is the god or goddess or what is the difference between Buddhism and Zoroastrianism. They stand in front of a baroque painting that represents Hercules and his labors, and they barely know what it is. Hercules is a cleaning product, probably, to most of them. With modern and contemporary art, you don’t have to have too much knowledge of mythology or of the Bible or of the Koran or of whatever else, which, frankly, is sad to say.”
This kind of talk has not made de Montebello many friends in West Chelsea. But George Goldner, the chairman of the museum’s drawings and prints department, points out that de Montebello is director of the Met, not, say, Dia:Beacon, and he can’t rightly be expected to be personally moved by everything the museum displays. “I know he’s been criticized by these militant contemporary characters who insist that everyone has to love contemporary art as almost like a religious principle,” he says. “Obviously if he were the director of a contemporary art museum, it would be something else, but he’s not. Isn’t it enough that he supports it at the museum?”
And indeed one artist who recently had a solo show at the Met describes de Montebello as nothing short of welcoming. “He seemed to like the work, and he smiled,” the artist recalls. “He was friendly, for a guy named Phileeeeep de Montebelloooo.”