Catchup Post II: At the Met
A while back I was engrossed in reading about the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's retirement. Philippe de Montebello had served as the director for the met for 30 years, longer than any other. I can't say that I've exactly kept up with the details or issues facing modern museums, but reading through the articles brought several important things to mind (not least of which is that I need to get back there and see it again).
In the Verlyn Klinkenborg (which is a fantastic name for arts criticism, although he appears to be a non-fiction author) Appreciations column, he writes:
"It’s usual to see a nimbus of adjectives whenever Mr. de Montebello is described, words like “patrician” and “imperious” and “old world.” Those words say somewhat less about his personal and institutional manner than they do about a chronic American anxiety over the largely non-American cultural richness embodied in the Metropolitan Museum’s collections. It is really a historic uneasiness for Americans — we see ourselves as a new departure rather than as part of the diverse and ancient continuum that Mr. de Montebello so elegantly championed."
This raises the point of the question of what the Met should be, or not be. The museum, at least to me, should be something that has the potential to educate as broadly as possible. Certainly, American art is going to go back less far than, say, Italian. But shouldn't that be a cause for celebration of the fact that this museum is here? Furthermore, is there a way we can make that tradition feel relevant and present for the visitor-off-the-street? I hope so.
There's several comments in this article and elsewhere about Mr de Montebello's ease with words, and that's precisely the sort of direction I like to see. One article discusses a war (their word) between the curator-as-director and the administrator-as director, with Mr. de Montebello serving as an advocate of the former. The director should be more than comfortable in front of the art, but they should be equally comfortable in front of the crowds, or at least put them at ease before the art without watering it down. Museums aren't meant to be sideshows or spectacles of the same works viewed and re-viewed without something to be learned. When given the option of molding the museum or molding the crowd, it's more challenging but more rewarding to do the latter. When you return to the museum, and see a familiar work, it would be nice to see it in a new light, with the sense that it becomes unfamiliar, and then refamiliarized. The obvious musical parallel here is that there's always something to be learned from hearing an old favorite brought to life in a refreshing new take. Risks are what the arts thrive upon, and we should be working to take an active role in shaping and presenting music to the masses.
The article also applauds his work at refurbishing the museum space itself. That's vitally important as important as acoustics in the concert hall. It shapes our experience, and welcomes us in and invites us back. There's nothing like the feeling of entering a gorgeous museum, that initial thrill of space, even before you see any of the art.
The main article notes that Mr. de Montebello has been criticized for being slow to embrace modern music, a criticism that in some way echoes Mr. Klinkenborg's comments about anxieties. This is a difficult subject for me, in part because I love modern art and know it doesn't always get the support it needs. But there are other institutions that cater specifically to that elsewhere in the city. My thought on this matter is that the criticism could best be deflected by a vital effort: make the historical stuff speak to modern audiences. It's hard to make modernism play well to audiences unwilling to understand it, but there are ways in which you can present the classics that engage them in the same sort of light as modern art museums use to bring their art alive to the viewer. Art has stories- political stories, love stories, adventure stories, stories that can not only entertain, but also deepen the understanding and engagement. To know why Goya painted what he did, to know the importance of this portrait and the iconography, ll of this can be drawn to modern issues. And this can in turn help to make the most of your modern art. The tactic to educate audiences about modern art (or music--he parallels I hope are becoming clear) doesn't necessarily have to tie it to just the visuals (though they can and should). But the contextual comparisons can feel more imminent and, well, important to the viewer. Bring the outside in.
I've read a few things. Thomas Hoving's Art for Dummies (Hoving was de Montebello's predecessor) was our assigned reading for the first week of my art history senior seminar. It proved incredibly insightful and infuriating, given Hoving's penchant for hyper-romanitcized tales of art and his dismissal of politics and anything controversial. Art is controversial. It's made during controversy, and its reception often depends a lot more on what's outside the frame than what's in it. I also read Lawrence Kramer's editorial about making the concert hall more individualized like museums. I think they both have a lot to learn from each other, and it would be nice to take notice of one man's impressive accomplishments and realize how far their echoes can reach.