Philippe de Montebello doesn’t think the Hispanic Society Museum & Library is one of the unsung museums — he knows it is.
As chairman of the board at the HSM&L, he is unquestionably emphatic and understandably partial about the subject. In an interview Tuesday, de Montebello said the museum “is unequivocally the most important institution under one roof with the most comprehensive collection with a very high level of quality of just about every aspect of Spanish art and culture that includes books, manuscripts and so forth, including of course a huge component of the huge legacy in Latin America, the Philippines and all areas of the world where Spanish [people] have had an impact.”
On Thursday, the museum will unveil “Nuestra Casa: Rediscovering the Treasures of the Hispanic Society.” Curated by Madeleine Haddon, a London-based curator and art historian for the Museum of Modern Art, the show highlights pieces from the Hispanic Society’s permanent collection that are being shown in the Washington Heights museum for the first time in five years. The show magnifies the arts, literature and history of the Iberian Peninsula and Latin America from antiquity to modern day.
During the museum’s recent renovations, some works that will be on view have toured other institutions such as the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid and the Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, among others. The HSM&L is expected to fully reopen early next year.
The objects in the new show range in origin from Spain, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Peru and beyond and span the 10th to 20th centuries. Francisco de Goya’s (1797) “Duchess of Alba,” Diego Velázquez’s (1638-1642) “Portrait of a Little Girl” and Miguel Viladrich Vilá’s (1923-1925) “The Man From Montevideo” are a few of the prized selections.
Many know de Montebello as the former longtime director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, having held that post from 1977 to 2008. He hasn’t exactly been coasting since then, with various art-related roles and pursuits. Just back from two-and-a-half days in Spain for a doctoral dissertation defense at the University of Valencia, the New York-based discussed the upcoming show, fashion as art, NFTs and greater access to the arts.
From his viewpoint, museums should set trends, not follow them, and create conversations. “Collections are not immobile, inert, [nor] dead. Every work of art has many histories. There are many different ways of looking at them. People themselves, visitors, have different backgrounds, different preparations and different views on things. So the multiplicity of gazes onto works of art is something that also must inflect the way that museums present the art and discuss the art, giving as much of an opportunity for the diversity of views without losing site of all of the factual information and the raison d’etre of a particular work or a particular set of works.”
As traditional art museums and institutions are reckoning with the need to appeal to more diverse audiences, the HSM&L’s exhibition shows more than its artworks by El Greco, Goya and Sorolla, including relatively unknown Latin American artists.
The show’s paintings, drawings, sculptures and ceramics — “a mini anthology of the museum’s contents” per de Montebello — in a handsome ground-floor gallery in the East Building. The street-level location allows for the museum to do rotations from what he described as “an extremely rich permanent collection” of 750,000 items. Visitors will be able to access the show Thursdays through Sundays without an admissions fee.
Asked if other museums are making it more of a priority to diversify their collections with Latinx artists, as they have started to with Black artists, de Montebello said: “It is obviously something that we are looking at. But every museum is different. We’re not a generalized museum. We are also a museum that acquires very little obviously for financial reasons. We would certainly keep an eye on diversity as one of the elements for building and also how we harvest our collection.”
As for how museums are increasingly interested in fashion-related shows as a way to introduce people to their museums and present fashion in a different way, de Montebello said: “The definition of art is ever-expanding. That is nothing new. There is now a multiplicity that did not exist in earlier centuries where the canon was very fixed and very Eurocentric. You now have a kind of healthy sense that wherever good design and careful aesthetic considerations are placed — for whatever reason — we have an object worth examination.”
Unlike many people, he said he was not critical of the Guggenheim’s exhibition “The Art of the Motorcycle” in 1998. “It was a beautiful show. I didn’t see why a motorcycle that moves shouldn’t be considered good design. I’m not suggesting it’s art, but it’s good design and should be considered so,” de Montebello said. “Clothing has always had a place in a combination of a receptacle for good design, for the manifestations of changing fashions over time, which is interesting. From the toga in Rome to what’s happening today, just because it can be worn again doesn’t mean it doesn’t have good design.”
Through the Emmy-winning primetime weekly arts program “NYC-ARTS” that he cohosts with Paula Zahn on public television, de Montebello continues to inform the public and offer free access to the arts. A professor at the Institute of Fine Arts, he noted that his role at the museum was always “to communicate, to instruct, to explain and to inspire.” Broadening the horizons of the people that he reaches is what he said he finds most satisfying.
Asked how other museums might try to welcome more people beyond ticket sales or an online presence, de Montebello said: “I don’t think welcoming more people is the fundamental issue — it’s providing them with the best possible experience. It really isn’t about numbers. It’s about quality — the quality of what is presented and how it is communicated. Sheer numbers, that’s arithmetic.”
Allowing that numbers are primary for many museums, he said with a light chuckle: “I can’t comment on what other museums are doing. Luck, I wish them.”
De Montebello declined to discuss the rocky few years The Met has experienced, due to the pandemic shutdown and the subsequent financial fallout. He continues to serve as a director at Acquavella Galleries, a post he took up in 2017. Founder Bill Acquavella has been a friend for more than half a century. “He has a gallery that does extremely good exhibitions. The last one on Picasso drawings was an exhibition that MoMA or The Met could have been proud of,” de Montebello said.
When Acquavella has featured contemporary artists, such as the artist Wayne Thibault before his death at the end of last year, de Montebello led conversations with him. “I do some of those things — nothing to do with sales. It’s only a matter of presence. I come to openings, greet people and so on and so forth. It’s a very informal oversight arrangement.”
Not inclined to name any of his favorite artists or museums currently, he explained, “My favorite today will change tomorrow. I can’t answer that. I’m a trustee at the Prado. I love the Prado for what it contains.…I love The Frick for what it contains. No, I have quite too universal taste to choose favorites. My favorite is the Hispanic Society.”
Given the chance to speak to those who might be reluctant to go to the HSL&M due to its West 156th Street location bring too far away, de Montebello said, “I live on the Upper East Side. When I jump onto the number 1 train on 96th Street, it takes me exactly 20 minutes. It’s taken me more than 20 minutes, far more, to go to the Whitney [Museum of American Art] when the traffic is bad from where I live. Depending where you live, it isn’t far.”