Montebello: The Ability to Manage Must Increase, Too

Sunday, October 7, 2007

For 30 years, Philippe de Montebello has been director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the largest art museum in the Western Hemisphere .

People say the Metropolitan Museum is too big. But there's a point at which you can't declare that a museum is too big: If you can't do it in a day, you're too big. So we've been too big for 100 years. The size of the Met, and the size of its collections, is part of its value. We are the true encyclopedia: The breadth and depth are just as important. Adding? We add qualitatively: We buy a work of art; if it is finer than one of its cognates already in the collection, then we put up the better one. Every new wing and so forth are all ways for us to make the collection look better.

The big danger in growth, especially in the larger museums getting ever larger, is that they become frankly unmanageable, even undirectable. They get to be so large that the kind of people able to run them, with all of the legal and financial issues, begins to shift the set of skills of the potential directors more towards CEOs. I wouldn't take my job today. The proportion of my time spent on things I have learnt through practice -- management and so forth -- is not what I went to graduate school to do.

A lot of institutions have strayed more and more, when, from the top down, it becomes increasingly difficult simply to maintain the highest standards, because there are so many conflicting demands.

Museums are growing for a lot of different reasons. They're growing because they want a bigger cafeteria, a bigger shop. Or they want to become a tourist attraction: They want a piece of architecture like the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, that will, they feel, be their Eiffel Tower, their destination building.

It's very important in the museum world that the trustees be the first to understand, deep down, subcutaneously, instinctively, what their mission is. Our trustees at the Met understand that if we wanted 100,000 people one evening all we'd have to do is to bring the Doors -- or whatever the group is -- and, end of story, the place would be packed. But then change the charter to call yourself something else. The museum first of all is the only chartered, formal body with the responsibility for collecting and exhibiting works of art.

I never know the attendance of anything, and I don't care. And I never give the attendance to the trustees. But it would be silly for us to say, "Well, we'd rather very few people come." When you mount something like "The Glory of Byzantium," you want as many people as possible. You want them because they come and enrich their lives. But you don't want them because they pay you money.

In 1989, after an immensely successful Degas exhibition, with long lines and people buying tickets, we ended up making some money. We'd done this for one exhibition after another, and I remember saying to the trustees that henceforth we would no longer charge for exhibitions. And they said, "Well, my God, that's going to hurt the budget." But the last thing I ever want is for a member of a board of trustees to say to a curator or the director, "When is the next impressionist exhibition, so we can balance the budget?" If exhibitions have no balance sheet, then the question doesn't arise.

The one mantra that every museum director should have: First comes the work of art. Everything else devolves from it.

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