Friday, 11 January 2008

Following Philippe

There is exactly one well-proven, ethically unimpeachable director of a major American museum that has not been mentioned amidst the wave of speculation about Philippe de Montebello's successor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Anne d'Harnoncourt of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

One can't help but wonder why the most similar current museum director to Philippe de Montebello, the figure that gives the lie to the critical consensus that he is the "last of his kind," has been ignored in recent coverage of the Met's search. Not only is she the next longest serving director in America, now in her twenty-fifth year in the job, she too has only an MA (from the Courtauld) as her highest degree but a solid scholarly reputation nonetheless and even has the same aristocratic "de" as Philippe. (She comes from Austrian aristocracy while Philippe is a French Count.) Commentators may be writing her off for the reason I gave in a previous post: that she is practically synonymous with the Philadelphia Museum of Art and it is difficult to imagine her leaving. She has in the past rebuffed inquiries from the National Gallery in D.C. and the MoMA and she may be difficult to drag away in the midst of major construction of new special exhibition galleries and a much-needed parking garage. However after successfully seeing the renovation of the Perelman building to completion she may be at last ready for a new challenge. At 64 years old, she's in her prime and has what it takes to be a dynamic advocate for at least the standard ten year term.

The absence of d'Harnoncourt from the lists is certainly not due to any lack of qualification on her part. Her record has been exemplary and, as I can attest from an internship at the institution, she has successfully held the respect and loyalty of the staff, an important part of the job of any leader but particularly at an institution as crammed with fragile egos as the Met. With a background in 20th-century art, she couldn't be a more perfect candidate for the Met's major agenda item, building the modern and contemporary collections. At the PMA, she has lead the development of 20th and 21st collections that make those at the Met seem utterly laughable by comparison.

Though my pick for the job is Neil MacGregor, the fact that the lists of candidates compiled by critics everywhere don't mention Anne d'Harnoncourt reeks of sexism. She has demonstrated that she can ably handle a similarly large and complex institution and has what it takes to make the Met better than it is. The list-compilers of the New York Times and others have let their readership down on this one. When that readership includes every member of the Met's Board and Search Committee, as is the case with the Times, this is a serious problem.

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