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Reflections on Philippe

Posted By Trinita Kennedy, Associate Curator, Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Philippe de Montebello, the aristocratic former director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, once said, "I am the Met; the Met is me.” For over thirty years he was the highest profile museum professional in the United States. He poured his life into The Museum, as the Met is called, and the dynamic ways in which he developed its collections, exhibitions, and programming served as the primary model followed by the vast majority of other American museums. For our organization, AAMC, Mr. de Montebello’s greatest legacy is his enduring respect for curators (he was, after all, once one himself) and the tremendous resources he devoted to research and teaching at the Met, which has helped curators to gain recognition as important thinkers and to bridge the gap between curators and academics.

Although AAMC’s tenth annual meeting opened with its members giving Mr. de Montebello an award for distinguished service, the first session looked forward to the future rather than reflecting on the de Montebello years (even he seemed a bit tired of the endless accolades he has received since retiring two years ago). Presiding over the first session himself, Mr. de Montebello passed the baton to all the curators in the room as we collectively contemplated the question, "What is the Museum of 2021?” The discussion was led by a series of distinguished panelists who are all already seeking to shatter established museum paradigms with their work. Paola Antonelli, the design curator at the Museum of Modern Art who made headlines last year for audaciously adding the @ symbol to MoMA’s collection, envisioned a future in which museums would be "centers of R&D for society” and community-based rather than object-based. Linda Shearer then showed that at Project Row Houses in Houston, where she is director, those ideas are, in fact, already a reality—although not without Mr. de Montebello questioning whether the new institution could be considered a museum at all, given its lack of a permanent collection. Princeton philosophy professor Kwame Anthony Appiah rounded out the panel and, with the aplomb of a seasoned diplomat at the United Nations, advocated for the idea that collections do not belong to the institutions that invest in and care for them but rather to the world, by which he meant that leading museums had an obligation to share their treasures not just with peer institutions and wealthy nations like Japan and Qatar that can pay multi-million-dollar loan fees, but also the Third World. Mr. de Montebello’s concluding statement—"bisogna cambiare tutto per non cambiare nienta” (everything must change so that nothing changes), taken from Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel Il Gattopardo (The Leopard)—served as a reminder that change is inevitable. For us this means that we must adapt if we are to survive in this new era in which even recent notions about the role of art museums in society are being revised. These ideas are being broadened because of globalization and shifts in population and power and fractured with the advent of new technologies. It is a testament to the vitality of the field that at the end of the session the room was not filled with melancholy for a world gone by, but rather energized and empowered by the opening up of a seemingly endless number of new possibilities. 

Trinita Kennedy

Associate Curator

Frist Center for the Visual Arts


Tags:  De Montebello 

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