It’s a little sad that the board of trustees at the Metropolitan Museum of Art has felt obliged to drop the term “director” in naming Philippe de Montebello as the museum’s new chief executive, but the decision itself is an excellent one. In the two decades that Mr. de Montebello has been in charge of the museum’s artistic affairs, he has not only rescued our greatest museum from the extravagant follies and intellectual demoralization caused by the reckless tenure of his immediate predecessor, but he has also restored the institution to a position of leadership in the cultural life of the nation. His achievement is all the more remarkable when we compare it to the woeful decline in standards that has overtaken so many other art museums—and not only in New York, of course—in the same period.
It was the Met board itself that, some twenty years ago, demoted the office of the director to second-class status by installing a paid president as the museum’s chief executive officer. This introduced a division of labor—and, what is more important, a division of authority—that was bound to cause more problems than it solved. It was never exactly a secret, moreover, that the board’s decision to effect that division of authority was a direct consequence of its own failure to rein in the excesses of Mr. de Montebello’s predecessor. The board, rather than acknowledge the role that its own failure in museum governance contributed to the Met’s mounting problems, covered its embarrassment by announcing a change in administrative structure that was claimed to be more “democratic” than the traditional directorship. This was nothing but face-saving humbug at the time, and it has now—at last—been acknowledged to have been humbug by the new board’s decision to restore full authority to what is in everything but name the traditional office of the director, who, in another face-saving stratagem by the board, will now be called the museum’s chief executive officer. Exactly who is expected to be fooled by this publicity device is anyone’s guess.
His achievement is all the more remarkable when we compare it to the woeful decline in standards that has overtaken so many other art museums.
What made the Met’s decision to demote the office of the director especially unfortunate at the time was that it lent the museum’s prestige to a larger, ill-fated trend that saw book publishing houses placed in the hands of executives who knew nothing about books, universities appointing presidents who knew nothing about scholarship or learning, opera companies handed over to bureaucrats who knew nothing about music, and so on and on throughout our major institutions of cultural life. We’ve lived with this phenomenon long enough now to assess its cultural costs, which have been enormous. If the programs in our art museums have come more and more to resemble the vulgarities of the mass media, if the intellectual quality of a university education has sunk to new levels of mediocrity and ignorance, if a great many other institutions of high culture have similarly settled for mistaken notions of “democratic” change, it is in large part because their governing boards have failed to uphold the standards appropriate to the functions of these institutions. They have failed, in other words, to appoint top executives who know what those standards are and are willing to fight for their advancement.
It speaks well for both Mr. de Montebello and William H. Luers, the outgoing president of the museum, that they have not allowed the worst to happen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We weren’t so lucky with Mr. Luer’s predecessor as president, however, and other museums have similarly experienced grave problems caused by the policy of divided authority. In a great art museum, there is no substitute for a director—or, if you like, a chief executive officer—who really knows something about art, and it is a measure of the present crisis that something so obvious even needs to be stated. It is nice to know that, at the Met at least, this obvious fact of cultural life has again been given its due.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 16 Number 6, on page 3
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