Few events have been awaited with more trepidation in the world of culture—we were going to say “the art world,” but it embraces much more than that—than the appointment of the next director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Philippe de Montebello, who will leave the museum at the end of December after a thirty-year tenure, is not just a hard act to follow. Mr. de Montebello has been a unique moral and aesthetic force in a museum world besotted by the meretricious glitter of a preposterously overvalued and trash-addicted art market. We have often expressed our admiration of Mr. de Montebello’s stewardship at the Met, his expert negotiation of those perilous waters where commerce, snobbery, and aesthetic fraudulence swirl in uneasy combustion with the imperatives of aesthetic achievement. At the Met, he conceded as little as practically possible to the clamorings of the merely trendy. He nonetheless presided over an institution that was as popular as it was admired. He showed that the Arnoldian ideal of furthering the cultural ambitions of a democratic society could be best achieved not by pandering to the lowest common denominator but by proffering the best that had been drawn and painted to a wide public. Who would succeed him?
That was the momentous question that has haunted the art world ever since Mr. de Montebello announced his retirement earlier this year. We confess that we were not sanguine. Whatever the merits of the candidates whose names one heard bruited about as possible successors, none seemed likely to possess Philippe de Montebello’s combination of high principles, savoir faire, and curatorial independence. The institutional world of art administrators—like many other institutional fraternities—was a hothouse that bred intellectual conformity and a business-as-usual mentality.
How refreshing, then, that the Met’s board of trustees reached beyond the usual pool of candidates to find the next leader of the Met. No one, we would venture to say, expected their choice to fall upon Thomas P. Campbell. His name appeared on none of those spurious “short lists” that were assiduously circulated by art-world gossip. But the forty-six-year-old English-born curator of European sculpture and decorative arts, who trained at the Courtauld and who has been at the Met since 1995, strikes us as an inspired choice. Mr. Campbell has had little administrative experience. He did not, we understand, put his name forward for de Montebello’s job when the impending vacancy was announced. Rather, the board sought him out and asked whether he might be interested in the position. But his combination of scholarly accomplishment—many readers will remember his magnificent Renaissance tapestry exhibition a few years back—and articulate commitment to aesthetic excellence made the unlikely candidate in retrospect the obvious one. We suspect that the fact that he did not seek the job was one of the things that, in combination with his demonstrated accomplishments, recommended him to the Met’s trustees. It would, after all, be difficult not to impute some measure of hubris to anyone who put himself forward to fill Philippe de Montebello’s shoes.
In selecting Thomas Campbell, the trustees of the Met have demonstrated an independence of judgment that is as rare as it is enviable. It is too early to say for sure, but we suspect they may just have found someone who, by concentrating on the Met’s core aesthetic mission to preserve and transmit the best of mankind’s artistic heritage, will succeed in maintaining the Met’s place as the premier museum of art in America, if not the world.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 27 Number 2, on page 2
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