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Dartmouth Honorary Degrees 2004:Philippe de Montebello

Posted 05/05/04

Director, Metropolitan Museum of Art
(Honorary Degree: Doctor of Arts)
Philippe de Montebello
Philippe de Montebello

Biographical Background: Philippe de Montebello in 2002 marked his 25th anniversary as Director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art_the largest and most comprehensive art museum in the Western Hemisphere. He is the eighth Director in the Museum's history and as of January 2003 has served longer than any of his predecessors. Under de Montebello's leadership, the Museum has nearly doubled in size. It has acquired significant collections and masterpieces, mounted acclaimed international loan exhibitions, developed wide-reaching educational programs, vastly increased its exhibition space, and reinstalled much of its permanent collections in new and refurbished galleries.

De Montebello has been acknowledged throughout the museum world as one of the field's most influential and articulate champions of integrity, authority, education, and public access. As one magazine declared recently: "Met presentations now set the world standard for scholarly excellence and glamorous display." Noted The New Yorker of de Montebello: "He has won the ungrudging respect of the curators, the support staff, and the trustees." The Financial Times recently acknowledged that he has "successfully achieved a fusion of the curatorial and fiscal management streams." And Newsweek called him "a personification of the Met's grandeur."

The Metropolitan is the world's most encyclopedic art museum. Its permanent collections-housed in 17 curatorial departments-embrace some two million works of art spanning 5,000 years of world culture, from prehistory to the present, from every part of the globe, in all media, and at the highest levels of quality. The Museum also presents more than 30 special exhibitions each year. During the quarter-century of de Montebello's leadership, they have included such critically lauded and widely visited shows as: The Vatican Collections (1983), Manet: 1832-1883 (1983), Van Gogh in Arles (1984), India! (1985-1986) Degas (1989-90), Velaquez (1989-1990), Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries (1990-91), Seurat (1991-92), Origins of Impressionism (1994-95), Splendors of Imperial China (1996), The Glory of Byzantium (1997), Egyptian Art in the Age of the Pyramids (1999-2000), Vermeer and the Delft School (2001), and Tapestry in the Renaissance: Art and Magnificence (2002), Leonardo da Vinci: Master Draftsman (2003) and Manet/ Velazquez: The french Taste for Spanish Painting (2003).

During de Montebello's tenure, the Metropolitan has focused much of its resources on reinstalling, conserving, and publishing its permanent collection, and pursuing an active acquisitions program through purchase-ranging from the ancient Egyptian sculpture of an old kingdom Recumbent Lion to Caravaggio's The Denial of Saint Peter to Jasper Johns's White Flag-and through gifts and bequests, including the Annenberg Collection of Impressionist and Post Impressionist Masterpieces and the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Art.

Among de Montebello's recent initiatives are the ongoing renovation, expansion, and reinstallation of the Metropolitan's Greek and Roman Galleries, soon to focus on the Museum's Roman Court, and the reinstallation in 1993 of the 19th-century European paintings and sculpture collection in Beaux Arts-style galleries. Other recent renovations include: the expansion of the galleries for English furniture and decorative arts; the conservation and installation of the Renaissance studiolo from Gubbio; the installation of Coptic art in a crypt-like gallery beneath the Great Hall staircase; new galleries for Drawings, Prints, and Photography; and new galleries for Byzantine art, Cypriot art, and Ancient Near Eastern art. Recently opened, too, are new galleries for Indian and Southeast Asian art, Korean art, Chinese art, and the Antonio Ratti Textile Center. Stressing that the presentation of the collections remains the institution's primordial responsibility, de Montebello has committed the Metropolitan to a future policy of amelioration, rather than growth, focusing on such marked improvements as the recently re-designed Tiepolo gallery, refinements to the areas surrounding the Temple of Dendur, the planned reinstallation of much of the Egyptian collection, and the opening of the Roman and Etruscan galleries.

To the millions of people who visit the Museum each year, de Montebello's is also a familiar voice, guiding visitors in special exhibitions and installations through the audio guides that he has narrated throughout his tenure as Director.

Born in Paris, de Montebello attended French schools through the baccalaureate. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard in 1958, and after serving as a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, received an advanced degree from New York University's Institute of Fine Arts. De Montebello became an American citizen in 1955.

With the exception of four-and-a-half years as Director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas (1969-1974), de Montebello has spent his entire career at the Metropolitan Museum. He joined the Met as a curatorial assistant in 1963, rising to Associate Curator in the Department of European Paintings. In 1974, de Montebello was appointed Vice Director for Curatorial and Educational Affairs, a post he held until he became Director in July 1977.

Among his professional affiliations are membership on the Board of Trustees of New York University's Institute of Fine Arts, and membership on the Columbia University Advisory Council of the Departments of Art and Archaeology. He is also a Trustee of the American Federation of the Arts, and a member of the editorial board of the International Journal of Museum Management and Curatorship. De Montebello lectures on museum issues throughout the world, is the author of several influential op-ed pieces in the New York Times and other publications, and is a ubiquitous commentator on art and museological matters in the broadcast media.

De Montebello has been awarded many honors, including Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur in 1991; the Order de Isabel la Catolica, Encomienda de Numero; the Spanish Institute Gold Medal Award; Knight Commander, the Pontifical Order of St. Gregory the Great; the 2002 Blérancourt Prize for his contributions to the cultural bond between France and America and a number of honorary degrees and fellowships from New York University, Lafayette College, Bard College, and Iona College. In March 2003 The Pesident of the United States awarded him The National Medal of Arts, noting that by "promoting wide-reaching programs that bring art to the American people, he has helped to preserve, protect, and present the cultural and artistic heritage of our world."

Return to 2004 Commencement press release

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