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The Metropolitan Museum of Art sells more tickets than any other tourist attraction in New York City, more than the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, or Radio City Music Hall. Last year more than four-and-a-half million people visited the Met. So there was a lot of attention when the museum recently announced the retirement this year of the man who's been at its helm for the last three decades, Philippe De Montebello. A spate of news reports described him as the last of a breed, a patrician curator in an era when museums are becoming defined more by their boards and their economic concerns than by their art and scholarship. NPR's Margot Adler reports.
MARGOT ADLER: Walking into the Met on a Sunday late afternoon as the setting winter sun chimes through the great doors, illuminating huge vases of golden forsythia - forsythia in January - hearing voices in a score of languages, people of all ages and nationalities, you know something going on here works. And out on the museum steps, locals like John Calipinto(ph) and Ellen Nathanson(ph) and tourists like Barry Cromerdy(ph) feel it.
Mr. JOHN CALIPINTO: It's all just so well done.
Ms. ELLEN NATHAN: I'm always learning. It's an amazing adventure.
Mr. BARRY CROMERDY: It's one of those things you can share. You can be an old guy like me and you can be a nine-year-old like him. Everybody's happy.
ADLER: To pull that off, almost everyone in the museum world says this is a time when a museum director has to be a scholar, a businessman, a politician, a fundraiser, and more. And Philippe De Montebello managed to do it all well. And although he doubled the Met's size during his tenure, at the news conference announcing his retirement he stressed other principles.
Mr. PHILIPPE DE MONTEBELLO (Curator): I would say the first is the primacy of art.
ADLER: He said many other institutions have put something else first, what's called the museum experience.
Mr. DE MONTEBELLO: When I was a curator of the European paintings department, people on the outside would say to me, I'm going to the museum to look at paintings. Now people come and - I'm going to the museum. And one isn't quite sure what it means. I'm going to the museum because the cafeteria is good, to the shop.
ADLER: When De Montebello started out as a curator at the Met in 1963, restaurants and shops were amenities, not draws. He isn't saying these things aren't valuable, they're just not primary. And when he started, there was far less public scrutiny of museums. This past year the Met signed an agreement with Italy to return a number of artifacts the Italian government says were looted, including a vase that was one of the museum's most prized possessions, the Euphronios Krater from the sixth century B.C.
Ford Bell, the president of the American Association of Museums, says many museums and their directors are facing new stresses. Demographic shifts...
Mr. FORD BELL (American Association of Museums): Changes in audience expectations, the role of technology in everyday life, people living very fast paced lives and expecting to have sort of customized experiences. Museum directors today have to certainly be good at, you know, the business side of the operation. They have to be able to interact with government. And I think there's concern about museums that sit on large blocks of property. We're gonna see government entities looking at some of these museums to pay property taxes.
ADLER: Those are the very things that Philippe De Montebello says changed his job over 30 years, forcing him to deal more with legal, administrative and bureaucratic issues. And because budgets for museums are often tight and government funding often in question, many museums are emphasizing what they believe will draw the crowds and bring in funds - the flashy new building project, another Impressionist exhibition.
Jed Perl is the art critic for the New Republic.
Mr. JED PERL (Art Critic): I think the museum world is more and more guided by a corporate model, a corporate way of thinking, an idea that you have to grow in order to survive. If you don't get bigger every year, if your collection doesn't get bigger, if your endowment doesn't get bigger, if your building doesn't get bigger, if you don't have more people through the door, you are failing.
ADLER: When Perl looked at the Met, which he views as having done most things right, he uses the word authority, a word De Montebello also used in his news conference. Perl believes we live in a time when business models have enormous authority, but the idea of cultural authority is weak. And he says the few people who do have it, like De Montebello at the Met, or James Levine at the Metropolitan Opera...
Mr. PERL: These are people who can say to a board of directors, this may cost a little more, but in the end this is what's really important. And for some reason we now have a situation where boards of directors, money people, are running things when they should be listening to people who really understand what culture is and how it's supposed to act in the larger society.
ADLER: Whether or not they are listening, what they are doing is building. A 2006 survey by the American Association of Museums found that half of the institutions that responded had begun or recently completed an expansion. Ford Bell says that's understandable. Museums need storage space and it's much harder to compete for collections today. Some museums have to attract collectors.
Mr. BELL: And in order to collect collectors, they have to have the space to show that art, because nobody's gonna give their beloved collection to a museum to have it sit in the basement.
ADLER: What's already in the basement is often the justification for building a new space. But Timothy Potts, the new director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England, says the museum building boom is driven by a myth.
Mr. TIMOTHY POTTS (Fitzwilliam Museum): That museums are hording in their basements these thousand of masterpieces that no one ever gets to see.
ADLER: And it's a myth?
Mr. POTTS: Yes, it's a myth that they're all masterpieces.
ADLER: Still, it's a lot easier to raise money for a building to house whatever than to raise funds for maintenance or for lights or guards. Many collections are not well maintained and are in bad shape, according to the American Association of Museum's Ford Bell. But for many art museums the question is not art versus growth, it's how to get people in the door. At bottom it's the same problem book publishers and media companies are facing.
Mr. BELL: I have a 14-year-old son. How do we dynamite him away from the computer. How do we get him into a museum?
ADLER: And it's not something school trips are going to solve. Field trips are way down in the U.S. because of budget cuts and because with No Child Left Behind and its emphasis on math and reading, there isn't enough time. Ford Bell will tell you that there are 17,000 museums in the U.S. They include everything from small house museums and battlefields to public gardens and zoos, and he thinks most have simply not done a good job articulating their core value to communities, that they are as important as schools and libraries.
The Fitzwilliam Museum's Timothy Potts says institutions have to find a balance. Growth and numbers have to be kept in perspective.
Mr. POTTS: Against the core mission of the institution, which is to collect, is to present, is to educate in less spectacular ways than, you know, the much-hyped exhibitions.
ADLER: But the thing to remember, says critic Jed Perl, is that the four-and-a-half million people who came to the Met last year came because of a longing for something unique.
Mr. PERL: And I think more and more in our technological age, with all the wonders of technology, people are curious about this different thing, this painting that is only there in that room.
ADLER: Of course it may also be available online. But the magic of seeing that unique thing in that room rather than on a little screen in your office or bedroom is what museums have to figure out how to promote.
Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.
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