Metropolitan Gentleman

At a fancy Parisian hotel not long ago, an American journalist told Philippe de Montebello he was "heartbroken" over a Renaissance painting by Dosso Dossi in a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Why didn't the Met buy it and keep it in America? De Montebello, who has been the museum's director since 1978, sipped his drink, smiled and boomed, "Because it's a dog!" In the hypertouchy big-time museum world, an outburst like that could collapse delicate relationships--with wealthy patrons, helpful scholars and other directors--on whom the getting and showing of major works of art depend. But de Montebello is riding high these days. While Thomas Krens expands the Guggenheim and Maxwell Anderson tries to right the listing Whitney, the Met steamrollers on.

Never mind that the museum spent $1.5 million more last year than the $115 million it took in, and just kicked up its "suggested" adult admission (you can pay a penny if you want) from $8.50 to $10. De Montebello says it's a bargain. The museum owns nearly 2 million art objects, among them 18 Rembrandt paintings, 23 van Goghs and the entire ancient Egyptian Temple of Dendur. This week the museum opens its gorgeously renovated Greek galleries, containing some of the finest classical sculpture, ceramics and armor in the world. No wonder the Met is New York's No. 1 tourist destination: in 1998 the museum drew more than 5 million visitors.

De Montebello's main talents are as an acquisitor and a personification of the Met's grandeur. In 1991 he landed Walter Annenberg's collection of 19th-century French paintings--at the time the largest gift to any museum in half a century. And last year he reeled in a gift of $300 million worth of Picassos, Matisses and other modern masters. De Montebello's own deep, exotically accented voice ("first" becomes "fuhrst" when it crosses his lips) is famously present on the Met's Acoustiguides. The way he runs his museum is, however, a little less dulcet. "My style of management," says de Montebello, "isn't what they call 'consensus.' I don't have a mini-plebiscite on every little matter. I have a slight hauteur."

Guy-Philippe Lannes de Montebello was born in Paris in 1936, and studied art history at Harvard. De Montebello--who's married with three grown children--is 6 feet 2 but looks slightly smaller. His hair is still black, but there's a Nixonesque scrunch to his shoulders. And he's gotten himself a rep for being somewhat arrogant. Fellow museum professionals won't speak for attribution. Off the record, they talk about a vague "coldness" in his personality, his "run along and play" attitude toward smaller institutions and his offhand remark that the French Revolution wasn't such a good thing. There are reports of de Montebello's bad-mouthing William Luers, who served until his retirement from the Met's presidency last year as co-equal head of the museum. (Now that de Montebello has been granted total command--the new president reports to him--Luers won't return phone calls about de Montebello, and de Montebello has nothing but polite admiration for Luers.)

But captains of America's other major museums cut de Montebello some slack. "Underneath the polish, Philippe's a good guy, very fair," says Rusty Powell, head of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Powell adds, "He has an amusing capacity to be either French or American." Humor is actually de Montebello's most underrated asset. When asked at a press conference if the Met had ever been victimized by fake works of art, he replied, "No. Either we've recognized them as fakes or we haven't recognized them as fakes." Meaning, facetiously: if they can fool the Met, they're masterpieces anyway. As for his aloofness, de Montebello confesses, "I don't remember names and I don't recognize faces, not even ones I've encountered 50 times." As a result, de Montebello avoids calling anyone but intimates by name. He uses safeties like "Nice to see you" instead.

Nevertheless, de Montebello says, " the Met is my life. If it means going out to dinner with people I don't particularly like, I'll do it because it's good for the Met." At the podium during a March $1,000-a-plate black-tie dinner to hustle acquisitions funds, de Montebello lectured his moneyed audience that the Met's "Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer" by Rembrandt was not predestined for the museum. It had to be bid on and bought, he reminded them. Despite the Met's riches, he said, the collection still has great gaps: no paintings by Hieronymus Bosch, no Chinese archaic bronzes, no Verrocchio sculptures. Then he leaned forward and, putting The Voice into benefactor-convincing gear, intoned: " Each of you represents the possibility [of adding] a work of art to the collection."

De Montebello thinks the primary virtue of an art museum is its authority, its ability to make cultural judgments some people would call elitist. "That's where these relativists are wrong," he says. "Are they going to preserve everything, from a used condom to a gilt Buddha from a Korean shrine?" There's also another underlying truth at work in the Met: old art looks better in museums than brand-new art. Hot-out-of-the-studio art is best suited for the trendy chaos of SoHo or Chelsea. Once it gets into big, marbled institutions, it tends to look either overblown or weak next to old-master oils, African wood carvings and Assyrian stone masonry. Once you climb the Met's grand staircase, your experience--among its Oceanian masks, Japanese scrolls and ancient Greek vessels--is dependably awesome. To paraphrase the bumper sticker, the worst day spent in the Met is better than the best day looking at almost anything else. Especially if you listen to de Montebello on the Acoustiguide.