Philippe de Montebello has long been a cynosure of the art world. Stepping down as director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art as the longest-running head in the institution’s history, de Montebello is also a host of the PBS program NYC-ARTS and serves as chairman of the board of trustees at The Hispanic Museum & Library in upper Manhattan.
De Montebello has also been inducted into France’s Legion of Honor and is a Gold Medal Honoree of The National Institute for Social Sciences. On November 10, de Montebello will be honored with The Himmel Award during a presentation at the Katonah Museum of Art. We caught up with the art-world arbiter in advance of his area talk for a brief discussion of his past and current work.
What’s bringing you to the Katonah Museum of Art?
I had been very kindly informed that I had been selected for The Himmel Award. I know about it because [Katonah Museum of Art trustee emeritus] Rochelle and [The Hispanic Museum & Library trustee] Mark Rosenberg have been friends for a long time, and I was very pleased.
The format we decided upon was that it would be a conversation between the director and myself, in front of an audience. But in order to set the tone, I will show some slides covering the topic of the discussion, which is the changing world of museums today.
How do you look back at your impact at The Met?
I think what I contributed is a state of mind and a reality, which is the prominence and primacy of art and excellence. We built a great many new galleries and refurbished a great many others to better show off the collection and our passion for objects and paintings. That’s what museums are about, and I think we succeeded pretty well.
The Rockefeller collection of African, Oceanic, and Native North American art was in a way an all-time first for a major museum, because that material was until then shown only in anthropology museums. I suppose my legacy is just a greater collection that is beautifully shown.
Please discuss your work with The Hispanic Museum & Library and the extensive renovations of its Manhattan headquarters.
The Hispanic Museum & Library is an almost unknown museum in New York City, although it is the single finest collection under one roof of Spanish and Latin American art anywhere in the world. It has a collection of books, manuscripts, and material about Iberian and Latin American culture that you cannot even find in Spain or Latin America.… But for 120 years, deferred maintenance took its toll.… We decided that it was high time to fix the leaking roof, since you don’t have a roof that leaks over one of the world’s greatest collections of Spanish art — you just don’t.
It seemed the logical thing to do: change the lighting, the wiring — all of this was decades old — and to take the opportunity to refurbish the place, not to change its character but to at least increase the gallery space and create a special-exhibition gallery, where we can have living artists in conversation with old art and be more dynamic and responsive to the community that the institution occupies.