Philippe de Montebello

Fiske Kimball Professor in the History and Culture of Museums

This statement will read rather differently from those of my colleagues as unlike them, my teaching is more experiential and heuristic than research and text based. That is because I do not teach art history as such, but rather examine works of art with an emphasis on their physicality and consideration of their existence within an autonomous category called “art.” As a result, I study their function as it varies depending on context, whether in museums, collections or in their original setting. My concern is on the one hand historical and on the other, focused on the contingency of response. In order to understand what follows, it is essential that I say something about my forty plus years of experience at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

When I enrolled at the IFA in 1961, I concentrated on early Netherlandish and French painting, privileged to study with the world’s authority on the subject, Professor Charles Sterling. This led to a curatorial appointment in the Met’s Paintings Department. I wonder if that makes me the only faculty member at the IFA without a PhD. I was to become the Met’s director in 1977, a position I held until the end of 2008. The following year I was appointed Fiske Kimball Professor in the History and Culture of Museums at the IFA.

What I learned from the Met’s curators, perhaps the largest and most diverse art history faculty anywhere, shaped my way of looking at art and today informs my teaching at the IFA. From more than 100 curators with expertise in all of the world’s cultures in every medium over five thousand years of recorded time, I attended, in effect, literally hundreds of mini seminars on an untold number of subjects in the form of acquisition and exhibition presentations. What I learned from that uniquely diverse curatorial staff about every form of art has, I believe, no equivalent anywhere. Unlike those of the scholar, who in pursuit of an advanced degree, acquires knowledge in depth concentrated in one area, my lessons encompassed an exponentially broader scope.

My direct experience of works of art was further enriched through extensive travels around the world while working on acquisitions and exhibitions. I have probably entered more museums than many well-travelled academics, visiting them and other sites where art is displayed, not just to enjoy the art, but also to examine them as institutions and as spaces of art installations. This has contributed greatly to, and significantly inflects, my present teaching.

Although nominally retired, I remain involved with the Met, serving on various curatorial committees, involved as well in museums internationally.  I continued my education as a Board member of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, and have served for several years on the Board of the Prado where I was the first visiting scholar in 2009, delivering lectures and seminars; last year I was appointed to the editorial board of its Boletín .  I have lectured and continue to do so extensively abroad, recently in (among other places) Paris, Berlin, Florence, Vienna, Barcelona, Shanghai, as well as across the United States. My studies in the art of Spain and Latin America continue through my new involvement as Chairman of the Hispanic Society of America, the premier museum and library dedicated to Hispanic culture, not just in the US, but also in the world. In addition, I reach an arts-aware audience through my weekly television program on channel 13 NYC Arts, where I interview curators and directors of major museums in the New York City area.

As indicated at the start, this autobiographical prelude is critical for understanding my approach to teaching at the IFA, both in substance and method. I do not teach conventional “museum studies,” a field that largely concentrates on the administrative and operational aspects of museums. Instead, I have chosen to concentrate my courses on the “contents” and not the “container,” with the one exception of The History and Meaning of Museums, a lecture course that traces the origins of the art museum from the first collections in the ancient world to the age of Enlightenment and the opening of the first “modern” museum, the Louvre in 1793. It traces the development of the museum as a building type in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, along with its close links to the new scientific disciplines of archaeology and art history, and concludes with the early modern period and its pivotal year of 1929, when the Museum of Modern Art opened its doors.
Other courses, both lectures and colloquia, deal primarily with works of art and their changing contexts, as in the case of two parallel colloquia entitled Art on Display and Art in Conversation. These courses explore how context materially affects our response to works of art and the interpretation of their meaning.

The physicality and ephemerality of the work of art is the basis of two lecture courses entitled The Multiple Lives of the Work of Art and Ars Brevis: The Vulnerability of Art and the Instability of Meaning. The chief premise of these lectures is that no work appears to us as it was originally conceived; it may undergo many transformations in the course of its life, from natural degradation to deliberate alterations. Because of that a viewer’s response is contingent and necessarily variable. I gave a condensed version of these classes in 2012 as the Humanitas lecturer at Clare College, Cambridge. Since then I have had offers from British publishers to write a book on the subject. In my future versions of these classes I will use a series of case studies to demonstrate the many variables affecting the materiality of art objects over time. I anticipate publishing the results for more scholarly readers than those who enjoyed my collaboration with the British art historian and critic Martin Gayford in our book, Rendez-vous with Art, which could not have come into being before I began teaching. Being director of the Metropolitan Museum required day to day action based on available knowledge and a heavy dose of intuition. Now, at the IFA, I find myself with time to reflect on my previous decisions and the beliefs that drove them.

Those self-reflections come to fruition in the more existentially conceived colloquium, The Art Museum: An Imperfect Construct, in which the group considers whether the model of the encyclopedic museum born of the Enlightenment is still valid in our post-colonial, multicultural, global age and discusses themes that include how much permeability there should be between different disciplines, genres or cultures currently presented in museums. Because I still have so many close ties with the museum world, I am able to call on curators from many institutions to act as discussants in my classes. This adds critically different voices to what should not, especially in this field, sound like universal truths delivered from on high. I owe this relatively new approach to my experience teaching at the IFA, where I continue to learn and expand my horizons through self-study and perhaps most productively, interaction with fellow faculty and students.

I believe the experiential quality of these classes provides the students at the IFA with an important alternative to standard academic teaching and I am pleased that they also have the benefit of providing students and professor alike, a chance to enter into a dialog with the present through the lens of the past.

Philippe de Montebello retired at the end of 2008 from the Metropolitan Museum of Art after serving for 32 years as its longest tenured director. He is its first Director Emeritus.