RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art today bids farewell to its long time and legendary director. As a goodbye, the Met is opening an exhibition of objects carefully culled from those acquired by Philippe de Montebello during his more than three-decade long tenure. NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg found it's hardly a traditional show but it is a cornucopia of artistic excellence and influence.
SUSAN STAMBERG: What a way to go! You retire at the end of the year from one of the world's greatest museums, and your curators send you off in a dazzle. Your legacy, a collection of more than two million works of art. Philippe de Montebello has presided over what he calls an encyclopedic museum.
MONTAGNE: A museum is the memory of mankind as it preserves pieces of history.
STAMBERG: Under de Montebello's reign, the museum acquired 84,000 objects. From that bounty, 300 were plucked for the show. Curator Helen Evans coordinated the tribute.
MONTAGNE: We could do the show three more times with equally good art.
STAMBERG: The breath is incredible. In one gallery, a Richard Avedon photo of Marilyn Monroe faces a brass and silver Russian imperial table, which sparkles near a mahogany highboy made in Rhode Island before the American Revolution. Another gallery has a Rothko painting from the 1950s, chunks of some 14th-century Egyptian temples and from the 18th century - armor for a French prince and a busy silver mirror from Germany. Helen Evans heads for a case of tiny objects, points to one and says, that's mine. She's curator of Byzantine art, and this is a little tip that went on the end of a pointer in 11th century Constantinople. It looks like a thimble for your pinkie - gold, with colored enamel and teensy, microscopic patterns - a de Montebello favorite.
MONTAGNE: He thought it was the smallest object he had ever allowed to come to an acquisitions meeting.
STAMBERG: That's how most objects get to the Met, curators pitch them.
MONTAGNE: And you sit in front of this huge long table of people that are the curators presenting objects and the trustees who are on the acquisitions committee. And I have this thing that's an inch tall. And mercifully, they put me at the very end, at that end we'd run for over our time. So I was able to say, it's really important. You've got all the papers, you know why it's important, and you all want to leave, so just please buy it.
STAMBERG: And they did. How much did that cost, the little pointer?
MONTAGNE: I'm not supposed to tell cost.
STAMBERG: Elijah Boardman would have told, and he was a merchant, sold cloth in New Milford, Connecticut in the late 1700s. He is in this Met show. Ralph Earl paints Boardman in his shop. Behind him shelves holding bolts of fabric, and closer in some leatherbound books. Titles and authors inscribed in gold. American paintings curator Barbara Weinberg says those volumes speak volumes.
MONTAGNE: Not just account books, but also books that bespeak Elijah Boardman's learning and savoir-faire. For example, there's a volume of Shakespeare, there's a volume of John Milton. There's a three-volume book about travel.
STAMBERG: The merchant as educated man of the world. A portrait of early American capitalism.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
STAMBERG: Painting's sure an ancient artifact, yes. But you don't think of the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a repository of musical instruments. Well, curator Ken Moore says, think again. They have some 5,000 instruments, the largest collection in the US. This one's an art lute, made in 1725 in Germany. That's about six feet tall with a very long neck and it's rare. Not many art lutes around. On the other hand, the world is full of guitars, but this one is special. Herman Hauser made it in Germany in 1937, and it belonged to Andres Segovia.
MONTAGNE: Segovia called this particular guitar the greatest guitar of the epoch.
STAMBERG: He presented it to the Met in 1986, just handed it to de Montebello.
MONTAGNE: And Phillipe played it a little bit and Segovia played it a little bit. So it's a personal connection to Philippe, as well as being a very important instrument, too.
STAMBERG: There's a fine black and white photo of the two men and guitar, you can see it at npr.org.
MONTAGNE: What can I remember coming here as a New York kid of about age seven, and being absolutely fascinated by all those men in armor. And then going to another room and seeing pictures from the Renaissance and the pictures from this. But this was a thousand years ago. Now, in this age of television, quick-fixes, and click of mice, how can the Met grab those young people?
MONTAGNE: What you see, this is a bit of the paradox.
STAMBERG: Again, Philippe de Montebello.
MONTAGNE: Many of the young people are accustomed to instant gratifications are still human beings. They have a need for some sort of psychic equilibrium. And I do believe it, many of them in fact, have a sense of relief when they put down their video game, enter a museum such as ours. And if they make the effort to approach a work of art and give it a little time, will actually find a serenity for which they certainly do not find in the frantic mechanistic actions that they perform at home.
STAMBERG: A young person would be mesmerized by a color photo Thomas Struth took in Venice in 1995. The magnificent San Zaccaria church teems with wall paintings by Giovanni Bellini and tourists in pews, admiring them. It's a huge photo - six by nine feet - Curator Doug Ecklund says. Yet every inch of it is focused and precise.
MONTAGNE: The whole point of this picture is that you can imagine the people in this church walking up into Bellini's paintings, and the people in the Bellini could walk down and join their space. So it's all about that intermixture between the past and the present that photography is able to capture.
STAMBERG: It's one of some 20,000 photos in the Met's collection. Bought in 1996, a year after Thomas Struth made it. Today, Ecklund says they couldn't afford it. And how much did the museum pay for it?
MONTAGNE: We're not allowed to say that kind of thing, but nice try.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
STAMBERG: You know, not one of you has told me what you paid for anything.
MONTAGNE: No, we never would.
STAMBERG: That's just so cruel.
MONTAGNE: We could, but we'd have to shoot you afterwards.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
STAMBERG: Never mind then, I want to go back to the show. The Philippe de Montebello years. Curators celebrate three decades of acquisitions. It opens today at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and stays open through February first. I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: And to hear what Philippe de Montebello wants for himself as a going-away gift, go to npr.org. It's Morning Edition from NPR News, I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
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