Philippe de Montebello: The Art of Managing the Met

In a word of "soundbites and superficialities," says Philippe de Montebello, director of New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, "the longer I can keep the Met just as it is, the happier I will be."

It’s an understatement to say that de Montebello takes great delight in tweaking a high-speed, high-tech society where employee tenure is measured in months, and fads last about as long as paint takes to dry on a canvas.

De Montebello himself has been at the Met since 1963 except for a stint as director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston from 1969 to 1974. And he has managed to survive, he notes several times during a recent visit to Wharton as part of the Musser-Schoemaker leadership lecture series, without the benefit of any business training.

"How does an art historian run a large institution?" asks de Montebello, who has an art history degree from Harvard. His answer: "Since I am still here, relatively well." (De Montebello admits that a humanities background has drawbacks: "I still cannot figure out the tip. As a result, I am an overtipper, not an undertipper.")

He wants none of the "team-building" philosophy that MBAs spout when they apply for jobs at the Met. "I make my decisions alone," he says. "I hate committee meetings. That does not mean that I don’t consult with others. My style is collegial–not at the moments of making decisions, but leading up to them.

"I talk one-to-one with the key members of my staff, such as curators and senior administrators, and through this cumulative dialogue I get a good sense of what they are thinking. To me that is better than the endless charade of meetings set up around people with certain titles. And I will often go to junior members for advice rather than to senior ones if I think they are smart."

Management, according to de Montebello, includes other attributes. These include "great passion for the field and its products, common sense and good instincts, which are very useful if you cannot do charts and graphs and steps one through seven. It is the ability to recognize when someone is leading you down the wrong path, to know when you are being taken in by good rhetoric or marvellous presentation."

Then there’s flexibility, being able to admit to a mistake. "I encourage my staff to tell me if I have made the wrong decision. I don’t fire them for that. I fire them if I’ve heard that they don’t approve of a decision and they don’t tell me."

While de Montebello clearly loves being at the very top of New York City’s most revered cultural institution, he acknowledges that he does not have the same constraints as the CEO of a public company or as the head of an institution that receives government funding. (The Met is a private institution and gets no federal funds.)

And yet the scale and complexity of the largest museum in the Western hemisphere—on a scale with the Louvre in France and the Hermitage in St. Petersburg—does suggest unique challenges: The unrelenting demands of fund-raising from private donors and corporations; the competition with other museums for art, dollars and traffic; the pressure to expand; the need to strike a delicate balance between "selling" the Met, its individual exhibitions as well as its overall excellence, without selling out; the call to lead discussions about scholarship, censorship, ownership and other topics.

Consider blockbusters, de Montebello says. "These types of exhibitions are a serious issue and an increasingly problematic one. More and more museums have been doing them—Egypt, Matisse, Picasso and Impressionists, Impressionists, Picasso, Matisse and Egypt, over and over. Members of the public are ill served because they get a very small menu. Museums feed an existing appetite rather than augment it. The pabulum of popular themes is a poor thing…

"Blockbusters make a lot of money. Why is this a problem? Because you cannot do them every year, and yet your trustees want to know when your next blockbuster is scheduled [so that you can] balance your budget. Programs should not be in the service of the budget. The budget should be in the service of programs.

"In 1989, we decided that the Met would never charge extra for special exhibitions, even though we had just made $7 million on the Degas show. The Trustees agreed with me. It’s more civilized. You don’t force people to get tickets for a particular slot, and you don’t make them see it just once. Also, on a long term basis you have to be able to depend on the predictability of a stable budget."

De Montebello was asked at one point whether he sees using technology to "open up the contents of the Met." His answer: Yes. "The use of new technologies, including the ability to reproduce images with high quality, are important to museums. To say otherwise would be the same as saying in the 15th century that Johann Gutenburg was no good and going back into my scriptorium and writing out manuscripts. The point is to harness technology to your own purposes. For example we recently launched a new web site. We don’t feel it will be a substitute for people to come. We feel it will encourage people to come."

De Montebello cites other issues that face institutions like the Met, ranging from the devastating impact of mergers and acquisitions on fund-raising (since each transaction means the loss of a sponsor or contributor) to the ethical issues raised by the ownership of art works stolen during World War II.

After graduating from Harvard, de Montebello, who was born in Paris, earned an advanced degree, though not a Ph.D., from New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. While there, he was offered a job as a curatorial assistant at the Met for a salary of $5,000. He took it, figuring out that the reason he was working towards a Ph.D. was to get a job at the Met. Here was the job; no need for the degree.

He is a diehard New Yorker. "The happiest moment of my life was booking a one-way ticket out of Houston" in 1974 to return to the Met as chief curator. De Montebello became permanent director in 1978. Today the Met has a 2,000-person staff, including 105 curators, a $125 million budget, two million works of art, and five million visitors a year.

The strength of the Met, he says, "is that it has all the civilizations of the world under one roof." Its mission, he says, is to "collect, conserve and exhibit original works of art and to make these collections accessible to the broadest possible public. Above all, the museum has a stewardship function. It preserves these great works of art on behalf of all people."

If there is a touch of elitism about de Montebello, and about the institution he leads, that is fine with him. "I embrace joyfully the notion of elitism," he says. "Elitism is merely having a sense of excellence and betterment. There is some notion of unearned privilege in the Oxford English Dictionary definition. The word itself is kind of a loser. But we are elitists in the sense we want to draw as many people as possible in to learn about the wonders of art."

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