Jed Perl at the Atlantic names director Philippe de Montebello’s tenure at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as the museum’s “Golden Age” hanging much of this argument on the director’s philosophy that “the public is a lot smarter than anybody gives it credit for.” According to Perl, the success of this (sadly old school) thinking permeates the museum’s activities, and while Perl takes a few swipes at the contemporary art museum model too closely resembling a business model he outlines a number of de Montebello’s policies worth noting. In particular,
More than any other museum in this country, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has insisted on a coherent sense of purpose—which boils down to the coherence of the museum-going experience. De Montebello's epiphany occurred in 1988, a decade into his directorship, when a great Degas retrospective had opened at the museum. At the time, the Metropolitan was charging a separate admission fee for certain special exhibitions, a practice that remains widespread in the museum world today and that encourages people to visit a temporary show while bypassing the permanent collection, which often contains works far more important than those they've come specially to see. After the Degas show, the Metropolitan abolished this Balkanizing approach, henceforth offering a single admission that covers both the permanent collection and all temporary shows.
“My view,” de Montebello told me, “was that you have to be able to encourage people to come many times to a show as great as the Degas retrospective ”¦ If you have only one ticket, which you've paid a lot of money for, you're only going to see the show once. And if you can't come back three or four times, you're not really seeing the show. From the point of view of reaching people—and of civility—tickets and charging was not a good idea. I also felt, from the purely fiscal point of view, that in fact by encouraging return visits, the money you would lose from tickets, you would gain from more visits.”
Also, it should not go without note that the Met’s one time ticket price is a pay what you can price. This can sharply be contrasted with MoMA’s $20 dollar mandatory admission price, which as many have argued encourages one time visits, and acts as a deterrent to those in lower income classes as well as younger demographics from attending the shows. On the subject of blockbuster shows Perl goes on to observe,
[de Montebello] wants to move museums beyond the boom-or-bust mentality that blockbuster events tend to create. The Metropolitan declines to keep separate profit-and-loss statements for each show; that way, the financial people can't cherry-pick potential moneymakers or dismiss unprofitable exhibitions. “The budget,” he says, “is there to support the program”—not the other way around. By offering a truly heterogeneous experience, de Montebello has taken the Metropolitan out of the game of “guess which shows will fill the till,” an approach that in museums across the country results in a glut of predictable Impressionist and Picasso splashes. What de Montebello understands is that the public is actually hungering for something else.
And of course, this very philosophy is what gave the incoming director Thomas Campbell a start, as he was given the support to launch the truly ambitious, Tapestry in the Renaissance, an exhibition no one had anticipated would be a hit. Good PR management helped.
When it turned out that some of the tapestries were so big that they would have to come in through the museum's front doors, Harold Holzer, then the head of the press office (he's now the senior vice president for external affairs), got The Times to send a photographer—and New Yorkers were put on notice that a spectacle was about to be unfurled.
Surely Campbell and others at the museum were thrilled with the response. Perl discusses Campbell’s other achievements, and takes a few less interesting swipes at MoMA before concluding the piece. Criticisms that the MoMA has become too influenced by business models, focusing on crowd pleasing exhibitions at the expense of innovative programming may not be without merit, but its hardly as bleak a picture as Perl paints.
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