“I don’t care about the visitor numbers”

In a Dutch newspaper (NRC) there was an article about Philippe de Montebello the departing director off the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met). Under his presidency the Met doubled up in exhibiting space end collected a few billion dollars in funds and has huge visitor numbers. The Met has around 5 million visitors a year and is one of the most popular attractions of the city of New York. Mr. Montebello is clearly a successful museum entrepreneur. But I think he would probably really detest the word entrepreneur. In his opinion a museum should not be seen as an economic entity, but first and foremost as place where great works of art can be admired or learned from. In this interview he states “I don’t look at visitor numbers, I don’t care that much. It is awesome if a lot of people attend the museum, but if they don’t, it is their problem’

What do I think about that as museummarketeer? In my opinion a museummarketeer should care about only three things visitor numbers, revenue, and customer satisfaction. Would I be a very unhappy marketing professional if Mr. Montebello was my boss?? My answer is probably not.

Why not? First of all in previous blog posts I have said that ‘art matters’ for getting really high visitor numbers. Mr Montebello has always strived for excellence in the artworks that were on display. Only the best is good enough. I could not agree more as a marketeer. Content matters, Art matters, as a marketeer you are only spreading the word around.

Secondly I could be a marketeer anywhere. I could work in a peanut jelly factory and do exactly the same thing as I do for a museum. But I don’t work at peanut jelly factory I choose to work at a museum (and get less paid). I choose to work in a museum because it gives me a first hand opportunity to learn about, gaze at, experience works of art.

Thirdly, I think art/a museum sells better if it has an elitist image. Great artists are most of the time great salesmen too. Rembrandt was well known about his salesmen qualities and a modern example is Damien Hirst. Selling art is different then selling peanut jelly. Selling art is also selling a story, is selling meaning, is selling something luxiourus. If Mr. Montebello would say that he thinks visitor numbers are more important then the works of art he puts on display he would be a terrible salesperson. He would take away the magic of the museum.

Furthermore I think he is just being a bit provocative. In the discussion about the cultural entrepreneur or the museum as an economic entity he is choosing a clear point of view. I guess that he thinks that the discussion about museums is to much focused on economics and less about the art. If museums would focus solely on economics they would end up being amusement parks. This is probably his worst nightmare (and mine too). But a museum without visitors and uncomprehensible art is in my opinion also not a thing to strive for. Museums should be balanced in their economic/marketing focus and their focus on art. My guess (again) is that Mr. Montbello is fully aware of that, considering his great economic achievements.

As a marketeer I would probably enjoy working with Mr. Montebello. It is a pity he is leaving.

More on Philippe de Montebello in NYTimes.com