Philippe de Montebello on His Plan to Revive New York’s Most Underappreciated Art Museum

The former Met director has big plans for the Hispanic Society. (They may involve Jeff Koons.)

Philippe de Montebello (Photo by Jonathan Grassi/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)
Philippe de Montebello. (Photo by Sylvain Gaboury/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)

Located in verdigris-topped neoclassical building in Audubon Terrace, a stately if often desolate cultural precinct all the way up on West 155th Street, the Hispanic Society of America is a repository of Spanish and Latin American art that is unrivaled in the United States, and by few institutions elsewhere. However, the greatness of its collection—which includes masterpieces by Goya, Velázquez, and El Greco, along with roughly 750,000 other works—is inversely proportionate to its foot traffic. Hampered by a gloomy setting desperately in need of modern amenities, and a mousey reputation among the city’s more glittering museums, it has long been in need of some Cinderella-style perking up.

For two years now, the man charged with fitting a glass slipper to this museological foot has been Philippe de Montebello, the 81-year-old former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. An elegant continental in tailored suits to match his noble lineage, de Montebello—who speaks fluent Spanish as well as German, Russian, French, and Italian—has been setting in motion a $15 million renovation campaign to bring the Hispanic Society into the 21st century. While this is underway (to be completed in 2019 at earliest, and likely years later), he has meanwhile contrived to raise the museum’s profile by sending 200 of its greatest objects to the Prado for a loan exhibition that has already proven a blockbuster.

While this might seem to be a demanding undertaking for a retired octogenarian, even one who led arguably the world’s greatest museum for three decades, de Montebello is not slowing down—if anything, he’s speeding up. An admirable multitasker, he also teaches a course on the history and culture of museums at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, co-hosts the PBS TV program “NYC-ARTS” alongside former anchorwoman Paula Zahn, and, as of last week, has taken a job as a director at Acquavella Galleries.

Here, in the first installment of a two-part interview with artnet News editor-in-chief Andrew Goldstein, de Montebello describes his vision for the Hispanic Society, and the challenges for a historic museum to remain front-of-mind in a world captivated by contemporary art. (Part two addresses the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for the Met, and de Montebello’s new role at Acquavella.)

It’s a pleasure to meet you here at the Institute of Fine Arts, where you are the first professor to specialize in the history and culture of museums—a subject, of course, that you are uniquely equipped to teach. We’re here on Fifth Avenue, surrounded by some of the world’s finest art institutions. Where would you says we stand today, in 2017, when it comes to the history and culture of museums?

If you think of span of recorded historical time—which is 5,000 years, more or less, going back to the first cities in the third millennium BC, the first laws, and irrigation in Egypt and in Sumer—museums have only existed for 250 years. So we’re in our infancy when it comes to museums, but their development has moved and exploded so rapidly that you could say we were already in a museum age by the end of the 19th century.

The first major moment was in 1793, when the Louvre opened. Other collections had obviously been formed between the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment, but most of these had very limited access, and, as with all major events in history, what counts is legacy. The Louvre, while it was second at first to the collections in Düsseldorf and at the Uffizi, et cetera, those other institutions didn’t have much impact. The legacy of the Louvre is that the whole world descended upon it, and for a period of time—when it had all of Napoleon’s spoliations, before they went back—it had the greatest assemblage of art the world will ever see. That basically started the museum world, and every museum in the world is modeled on the Louvre in one way or another.

Today, we are definitely in a museum age, in which access to works of art is available mostly now through museums—you no longer need to obtain an invitation from the Archduke in Kassel to visit his collection and clean your shoes and come between 3 and 5 pm. So museums are where you see art, together with the places in the world where it is left in its original context—although almost never with its original purpose—as it is in Europe where you find Berninis and Caravaggios in Roman churches, or Medieval art in the churches of France, and so on and so forth. But now even the churches of Europe have become “museified.” If you go to Venice and want to visit the Frari to see Titian’s Pesaro altarpiece, you’re going to pay a fee just as if you were going to a museum.

And museums are pervasive. No self-respecting city in the world doesn’t have its own museum. When Pakistan became independent in 1947, the first thing it did was create a national museum. They knew you couldn’t be a serious country if you didn’t have a national museum. So, yes, we are completely in a museum age, because museums are where you come and see art in a democratic society. Even in the chateaux of France and country houses of Great Britain, they’re all open to the public—if you pay your admission, you can see the Queen’s collection at Windsor Castle.

Now, of course, we have rocketed past this notion of a museum as an Enlightenment-derived institution that is there for the edification of the public to an almost hyperstatic state, where museums have also become organs of popular culture that aim to attract the largest possible crowds, run by boards that require enormous amounts of money to keep expanding their institutions.

Museums are not about popular culture. Maybe the Brooklyn Museum is, and the Metropolitan Museum—fortunately briefly, under Thomas Campbell—tried to get into popular culture, serving the flavor of the day, but that’s not what museums are about. Museums are no longer about the canon, either—we’re in an age of relativism, and the canon has been exploded and shifted so often that there is no longer a canon anymore. But museums are still about their collections, and about striving for a higher experience. I don’t buy that it’s about popular culture. Today, the breadth of what we call “museums” has stretched the definition beyond recognition. PS1 and the Metropolitan Museum are both museums, but they don’t resemble each other remotely! They should have different names.

But, sure, museums of contemporary art are much more about popular culture, because contemporary art embraces pop culture. But when you go see Juan de Pareja and the Hatshepsut sculptures at the Met, that has nothing to do with popular culture. And that is what people come to see. Those seven million visitors at the Met don’t come to see contemporary art. They didn’t come for that during my time and they don’t now, because there’s not that much difference, really.

I definitely want to get to the Met—but first, let’s talk about your current project, revitalizing the Hispanic Society as the chairman of the board at a critical time in that museum’s evolution. For one thing, there is nothing contemporary about that museum’s collection.

No, it stopped with [Joaquín] Sorolla in 1900.

A large part of your job is overseeing a $15 million renovation that is poised to transform the Hispanic Society’s home on 155th Street. My experience of the Hispanic Society has always been that it’s a place out of time, a moody antique setting where great masterpieces by the likes of Goya and Velázquez are shown in tenebrous galleries, as if lit by candlelight.

But, you see, that’s not something I want to change. I don’t want to be like every other museum with a white cube and all that. Every museum should have its own character and its own aura. Yes, we have to be better lit and all that, and if you have the chance to see the show in Madrid right now it’s unbelievable. It’s incredible what is revealed there when it comes to what the Hispanic Society has.

There’s nothing like it in the world—there’s nothing like it in Spain or Latin America, either, which is why I took it over, because it drove me crazy that a place with not one or two but three great paintings by Velázquez was unknown. The Louvre doesn’t own a Velázquez! I mean, it’s amazing. Seven El Grecos, some of the great Goyas in the world, and on and on, plus manuscripts, and the greatest library of Iberian art anywhere, better than what’s in Spain. We have all the manuscripts of Charles V, his letters to his children and staff.

Going to the Hispanic Society, however, you’d be lucky to find one other person sharing a gallery with you, it was so empty.

That will change, because with the show at the Prado these artworks will be seen by 450,000 people, and afterwards the exhibition will circulate to several other museums while we are closed for five to six years for a complete renovation. I think it will go to Mexico City, to Albuquerque, to Houston maybe, and then back to Berlin.

But what about your plans for changing the dynamic at the museum in New York, encouraging more people to come see this incredible collection in its home?

With the traveling show, the visitors who come and see it will remember, “Oh, the next time I come to New York I should see the Hispanic Society.” You also get all the press, which helps to shine a light what we do. And we have been out in the world in other ways too. Before the show went to the Prado, Michael Gallagher, who was the head of painting conservation at the Met, cleaned two of our three Velázquezes, and the Met did an exhibition of portraits by Velázquez that included the three from the Hispanic Society. We also lent a number of lacquer furniture pieces to an exhibition in Boston—it was actually the best part of the show.

And now, whenever we lend a work we insist that the label doesn’t simply say it’s from the “Hispanic Society of America”—I’ve added “Museum and Library” so people don’t think it’s a private club. There’s also a label with a photograph that says, “The Hispanic Society of America is a museum located at 155th Street,” telling them what it is. So people are becoming more and more aware of our collection, I hope.

Also, this month I’m going to have lunch with the director of the Brooklyn Museum, and there’s a huge Hispanic population in Brooklyn that she’s looking to create programming for, so I’m going to see if over the next four or five years they can have a room devoted to 100 things from the Hispanic Society—a constant presence. We might do something here at the Institute of Fine Arts, and the Morgan Library might do something with our manuscripts. We have to stay in the public realm.

From the point of view of scholarship, however, our library is open, because you cannot do any serous research on early Spanish history or literature without going to the library at the Hispanic Society. We have all the resources. We don’t have books about the things—we have the actual sources. We have 50,000 books printed before 1550. So you want the real sources about the inquisition, that’s it, and scholars use it every day.

Do you think it’s easier to bring the Hispanic Society’s collection to other museums than it is to get people to actually go up to 155th Street to visit the museum? 

For the moment, that is certainly the case. The great challenge is the provincialism of New Yorkers. It’s a lot easier to get to 155th Street than to the Cloisters, for example. If you’re on the West Side, you take the 1 train and it stops one block away, on 156th Street. To get to the Cloisters you have to take the number 4 bus up the hill, and some go all the way to the Cloisters and some don’t, so sometimes you have to walk all the way. But it’s the same problem the Brooklyn Museum always had—New Yorkers will not go to the Brooklyn Museum unless there’s a Van Gogh exhibition.

The famous reluctance among Manhattanites to cross the water.

Crossing the water, crossing the park, going north, whatever. It’s also about time. You know, I’m going to Brooklyn next Wednesday for my meeting, and I have calculated two hours of my day as gone in simply going and coming. It will take me an hour to get there and an hour to get back. And what, do you book a car or take the subway? It’s exactly the same.

But we are in a very nice area. It’s not a prime location in the sense that it’s not at 50th or 80th Street, and it’s not down where the Whitney is now, but the neighborhood is lovely—it’s been gentrified, as they say, completely safe and really quite beautiful. It has some of the oldest houses in New York, it has the Morris-Jumel Mansion, where Washington was headquartered during the American Revolution, and the beautiful Trinity Church Cemetery and Mausoleum designed by [Frederick Law] Olmsted. It’s a wonderful area, with nice little Hispanic eating places. It’s a nice place to be.

There’s no question that it’s a beautiful neighborhood, but it’s still a trek for much of New York’s museum-going populace. Is there a way to use technology to make the Hispanic Society less remote—to bridge the distance?

We’ve expanded our website, we’re going to have a podcast, and we’re going to do more and more. I’d like to work with Google Arts & Culture, where they put collection images online in great detail and so forth. They work with a lot of museums and they should work with us. At the same time, the technology should provide information and the trigger point for a visit—the result should be a visit to the museum. But, you know, we don’t have a communications department. We have a staff of a dozen people, underpaid, and they do it all themselves.

What will the actual renovations to the building consist of?

Oh, everything, from a completely new roof to new glass ceilings everywhere to a new lighting system to the installation of air conditioning. We’ll have a complete renovation of the entire space. When you haven’t replaced the roof in 110 years, it leaks! So there will be major infrastructural work.

Will there be an expansion of the actual footprint?

No.

I believe there’s still a $13 million shortfall for the project. How do you plan to pay for the renovations?

Oh yes, we need substantial funds to pull all of this off, because the endowment that is left from the [Archer Milton] Huntington endowment barely covers the operating costs. So we need to raise money everywhere, from the City of New York, from our very small board, and from as many friends as we can make through the museum. We’re hoping that the world tour of our collection will develop a keen interest.

Are there any other revenue sources available to you?

It’s difficult, because we are chartered as an institution free to the public, and so we will never be able to charge for tickets. And if you can’t charge, you have a revenue challenge on two fronts. The first is that you’re not getting the ticket fees; the second is that, since you’re free, you can’t have build a big membership because what do you offer the members? Most people become members of museums, as in the case of the Museum of Modern Art, so you don’t have to plunk down $25 every time you go. They can pay $75 once a year, knowing that they’ll go a dozen times, and so it’s much better to be a member. For us, membership is purely an act of devotion.

You have given yourself a real challenge.

One of the things I want to do is have a gallery for temporary exhibitions at least so people can come and see something new. Over the past 25 years we have lent to every major museum in the world—to the National Gallery in London, to the Prado, to the Louvre, to the major museums in America and everywhere else. The day we have an exhibition gallery and we want to borrow something from these museums, they will have to lend to us because they are indebted to us.

What kind of temporary exhibitions do you have in mind?

Well, there’s no question that not having a contemporary component is an impediment in some ways. People are always asking, “Why aren’t you more of a community museum?” And my answer is that it’s because of what we are, which is a mixture of the Frick Collection and the Morgan Library & Museum. We’re not a community museum like the Museo del Barrio—we don’t show the work of local artists. We give tours to schools and everything else, but our mandate is one that stops basically at early Modernism.

Now, when we have a special exhibitions gallery—and if I can find a donor who wants to name it for $5 million, they can open it—then we can do what every museum is doing now, which is to invite contemporary artists to enter into dialogue with our collections. We won’t go into the relative merits or not, or how legitimate these conversations are, but to have Jeff Koons choose 10 things for the gallery or to have someone create a work in relation to a work in the collection—that you can do.

Many museums, as you know, now insert contemporary art everywhere. It tends to be less a conversation about the collection than it is about the contemporary thing that’s being shown—the attention of the audience is drawn on the contemporary work. But, on the positive side, it leads to more repeat visits, both to the collection and to the various special shows. And it’s certainly one way we can be more involved. We’re just trying to be a little more current.


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