America’s curator

First, there is the voice. A speaking voice that sounds like the aural equivalent of cognac in firelight – burnished with a Gallic flavor. 

Told that Merriam-Webster probably has an image of him next to its entry for “mellifluous,” Philippe de Montebello gives a throaty laugh, perhaps that cognac being poured.

For 31 years, that voice was part of the preeminent presence at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan, so much so that we reporters could be forgiven for getting lost in it as we listened in at The Met’s coveted press luncheons or on the audio guides.

But it wasn’t just the voice. It was the elegant appearance in double-breasted suits, the debonair manner and, above all else, the erudition and leadership that de Montebello brought to his tenure as the museum’s director (1977-2008).

That sparkling leadership has earned the director emeritus a host of honors. His native France made him an Officier de la Légion d’Honneur, while Harvard University, his undergraduate alma mater, awarded him an honorary degree. To these and many others he will add The Himmel Award, which the Katonah Museum of Art will present to him Nov. 10 at the Chappaqua Performing Arts Center. 

“I’m very pleased,” says de Montebello, noting his friendship with Katonah trustee emerita Rochelle C. Rosenberg and The Met’s loans to the KMA in the past.

At the award ceremony, de Montebello will give a talk on the changing world of museums, a 15-minute audiovisual presentation about such powerhouse institutions as The British Museum in London, the Louvre in Paris and The State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. This will be followed by a conversation with Michael Gitlitz, KMA executive director.

“It will be very informal, and then we’ll open it up to questions,” de Montebello says.

No doubt they will include one on the shift from the classical to the contemporary in everything from exhibitions to art education to the art market.

“It’s very true,” de Montebello says. “Just about every major museum — including the Louvre, The Met and the Hermitage — is showing contemporary art side by side with older art.”

De Montebello does not want to give away what he will say about this the evening of The Himmel Award, named for KMA trustee emerita Betty Himmel. But as a curator and museum director, he was well known — and criticized in some circles — as a champion of more traditional art. Knowing of our love of classical culture, de Montebello says we’ll be “reassured” by his comments. And when we add sheepishly that we’re a bit of an old fogey, he says with a gallant laugh, “I’m a much older fogey.”

Such self-deprecation notwithstanding, de Montebello never lost sight of The Met as a democratic institution with a small “d.” Despite his patrician background, or maybe because of it, he always said he loved nothing better than walking through The Met’s Great Hall and seeing it thronged with people from every walk of life. (In 2017, The Met welcomed 6.7 million visitors.)

And he gave them plenty to ooh and ah about, from the lucent limestone Greek and Roman galleries that lead you to a spacious chessboard-like court where the old cafeteria and reflecting pool used to be, to such stunning acquisitions as Vincent van Gogh’s “Wheatfield With Cypresses,” to fabulous collections like the Muriel Kalix Steinberg Newman Collection of Abstract Expressionist art and other Modern works. De Montebello transformed The Met’s physical plant, holdings and presentations — doubling its size to 2 million square feet and offering 30 special exhibits a year involving all 17 of the museum’s curatorial departments, each of which is like a museum in itself. 

When he announced his retirement on Jan. 8, 2008, it was the beginning of the end of an era, for de Montebello wasn’t merely one of the world’s longest-serving museum directors and the face (and voice) of The Met. He was the epitome of what an American museum director could be. Retirement was, however, a choice he never regretted.

“I came to the decision slowly and for many reasons,” he says. 

These days he is on various visiting committees at the museum and has a good relationship with Max Hollein, who succeeded to the post of director after the rocky tenure of Thomas Campbell. In any event, de Montebello is too busy for either retirement or regrets. He and his urbane presence have made a fluid transition to co-host with Paula Zahn Thirteen-WNET’s “NYC-ARTS,” an Emmy Award-winning weekly cultural program.

“I’m essentially a talking head,” he says modestly, though one who gets out in the field and does interviews with such movers and shakers as Glenn D. Lowry, the David Rockefeller director of The Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.

De Montebello is the first Fiske Kimball professor in the History and Culture of Museums at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, from which he received his master’s degree. There his duties include “a bread and butter” lecture course for beginning M.A. candidates on the history of collections.

But one of the roles closest to his heart is chairman of the board of the Hispanic Society Museum & Library, a little-known jewel of an institution in northern Manhattan devoted to the cultures of Spain and Portugal as well as of their former colonies in Latin America, the Philippines and Portuguese India. It includes several Velázquezes, El Grecos and Goyas. 

Born in Paris to an artistic, aristocratic French family whose ancestors include a decorated Napoleonic general and the notorious Marquis de Sade, De Montebello comes by his love of the arts naturally. When his family immigrated to the United States in the 1950s, he became a naturalized citizen, graduating from the Lycée Français de New York.

“By my late teens, I knew I’d do something related to art.” That something would find its focus at The Met, where he began as a curatorial assistant in 1963 in the Department of European Paintings, rising to full curator. Except for a brief tenure as director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (1969-74), he has spent his museum career at The Met.

A life in the arts — one he has shared with wife Edith, director of financial aid at Trinity School in Manhattan, and three now grown children — would seem to be a marriage of vocation and avocation, but de Montebello still has some pastimes. They include going to concerts “when I can” and playing and watching singles tennis.

He’s also known to take up (or apart) the occasional jigsaw puzzle “but only in the summer.”

The rest of the year, he’s clearly got other things to do.

The Himmel Award and Lecture will be offered from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Nov. 10 at the Chappaqua Performing Arts Center, 480 Bedford Road. Tickets are $75; $50 for Katonah Museum of Art members; and $15 for students. Reservations are recommended. There will be a limited number of tickets at the door. Tickets to the event and 7 p.m. post-lecture dinner at neighboring Crabtree’s Kittle House are $350 and must be booked in advance. For more, visit katonahmuseum.org.

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