AS two of the most prominent figures in the New York art world, Philippe de Montebello, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Thomas Krens, the director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, oversee distinct and often opposing museum models. The Manhattan-bound Met, ensconced in Central Park, and the global Guggenheim, with branches in four countries. The encyclopedic Met, whose territory covers five millenniums, and the contemporary Guggenheim, an evangelist for modern art. The stately Met, which attracts huge crowds for exhibitions on Impressionism, ancient Egypt and Renaissance art, and the hip Guggenheim, where spectacles like "The Art of the Motorcycle" and jazz on Fridays are as big a draw as scholarly shows.
When they met over breakfast recently at The New York Times to talk shop, it was not, as Mr. Krens suggested, "because we're the two oldest guys around." Mr. de Montebello, 63, has run the Met for 22 years, and Mr. Krens, 53, has headed the Guggenheim for almost 12. Their views on expansion, exhibitions, financing, the Internet -- excerpted here -- matter in what some call a golden age for art museums.
Q. Philippe, you have said that there will be no satellites for the Met. Do you still feel, in this era of mergers and linkups, that the Met will remain only on Fifth Avenue?
DE MONTEBELLO. We have vast collections, the strength of which is the ability to move from one civilization to another under the same roof, and that we don't want to lose. Dispersal would be a great weakening of the institution.
Q. Tom, what are the benefits of a global museum?
KRENS. It's access to audience. In New York we have about a million visitors a year. In Bilbao there are now about 1.3 to 1.4 million. In Venice, it's about 300,000. And then in Berlin, our limit's a little less than 200,000. So you have almost 3 million visitors, which makes it a fairly substantial cultural force. And it's still a fairly small space. Now, you can argue that maybe we shouldn't be programming as aggressively as we are, but the growth of the collection is related to programming. Donors are drawn to more challenging institutions.
Q. Do you see a limit on the number of branches? Can you bring us up to date on South America and Liverpool and wherever else you're looking?
KRENS. We're not really looking. If I were to show you a list of proposals or letters, it probably would be more than 50, but they're not solicited. We don't have any plans for any further expansion. There is a kind of public relations bounce to this. We were doing an exhibition project in Brazil, and I went to Brazil with a team of three. It was a major story in every newspaper. There were calls from governors of at least seven states in Brazil. But that doesn't translate into anything.
Q. The Met is constrained by its footprint in Central Park. How does it maintain its pre-eminence when it is so constrained?
DE MONTEBELLO. Well, I don't think you measure pre-eminence by square footage. We already are, with the Hermitage and the Louvre, the largest museum structure in the world. We have 2 million square feet. And our collections fit, if not capaciously, at least comfortably, in the building. I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing to have to develop plans that call for amelioration rather than aggrandizement. The public has demonstrated that it likes a sense of vitality and change in any institution, even one encased in stone as we are.
And there are any number of configurations that you can give to collections within a place as large as the Met. This fall, for example, to celebrate the millennium -- we had to do something to celebrate the millennium; I caved in -- we're doing a show called "The Year One," calculated as 50 B.C. to A.D. 50. "The Year One" is rich in South America, the Mediterranean world, India, China. So we're regrouping what man created at the highest level of visual perception in the Year One.
Q. How much of your collection can be shown at any one time?
DE MONTEBELLO. I would say 90 percent of what you'd like to see.
Q. Do you ever feel the temptation to just spread it all out and say this is everything?
DE MONTEBELLO. No. The Met was already too big a museum in the time of J. P. Morgan. The moment you're too big, you might as well get much better, because what you are is a series of individual destinations within the same place.
With major collections that we might be interested in, we might consider working with other institutions. Maybe, in the future, strict ownership of a work of art will be an outmoded concept. A kind of a general global understanding of trusteeship for works of art rather than ownership may develop.
Q. Museums all over the country are expanding, and yet surveys show that only about 10 percent of the population goes to art museums. Does enlarging the audience mean changing the kinds of shows you do?
DE MONTEBELLO. The predisposition to come to something as recondite as an art museum requires a whole set of things that a museum itself cannot give. We can help -- we can have as many educational programs as possible, we can promote, we can introduce artists in the schools, and so forth, but society has to do its bit as well.
KRENS. If you look at a snapshot of a museum audience, it tends to be tourist-driven. Why? Because we're all busy. Visiting a museum tends to be a leisure-time activity, so to the degree that education stimulates awareness, and prosperity stimulates mobility and the desire to experience these cultural activities in different places, potentially the audience is very, very large.
Q. Some theorists believe that museums are going to have to get people participating in the museum's life. One museum had visitors vote on which of two African sculptures to buy, another had ordinary people writing museum labels. Is that the way museums are going?
DE MONTEBELLO. The notion of opening to popular suffrage decisions that require a great deal of knowledge and discrimination is one that I don't understand.
Q. Yet people are voting with their feet. If there is a show of the Impressionists, it will become a blockbuster and that will look good on the balance sheets. Isn't there a danger in having popular suffrage determine blockbusters?
DE MONTEBELLO. A terrible danger. Do you realize how it limits your options? Picasso, Matisse, Impressionism and Egypt -- is that a way to represent the world? Our obligation is to broaden appetites, to cause more people to come in and see the show we have on Tilman Riemenschneider. One of the reasons I speak a lot about the need for our institutions to become better capitalized, to have larger endowments, is for us to be able to have the integrity and the independence to continue to present things that are not obvious subjects for the public.
KRENS. Our attendance is stronger than it's ever been. It's hard to say exactly why. Is it a function of general prosperity? Of a larger institutional awareness? Bilbao has been such a successful enterprise in Europe -- does that translate to, "Well, when I'm in New York, I'll go to the Guggenheim"? There may be some of that.
As much as I would hesitate to say that the motorcycle exhibition is symptomatic of anything, it attracted a lot of attention, and it wasn't designed to stimulate audiences. We did the same kind of research for that project that we would do for any. It was presented in a very elegant way. And it generated a new audience for the museum.
Q. Are any of them coming back?
KRENS. We don't tag them like whales and find them. But I do have a general sense that [increased attendance] may be a combination of the programming, the prosperity and image awareness.
DE MONTEBELLO. To me, audiences are second. What distinguishes an art museum from a university or a hospital or any other kind of institution is that we collect works of art. Works of art are the tangible manifestation, the highest aspirations, of man as he expresses himself in visual terms. Our primary responsibility is to the works of art. We are responsible for the guardianship, for scholarship. Then comes the matter of bringing it to the public. The public is the ultimate beneficiary of our primary purpose.
Q. Does an institution like the Guggenheim have a special relationship with its hometown? Would it bother you to see works of art go from here to Bilbao permanently?
KRENS. I find myself lining up with Philippe, referring to what he said earlier about how issues of ownership might be changing. There may be, finally, a community of institutions that, because of standards and compatibility in collections, decide, in effect, to pool their resources. It's a fairly different concept from outright ownership. But right now, our strength as an institution is very much a function of what we do in New York City. If we are to consider serving our collection, we have to consider doing it in New York first.
Q. What are you doing with the Internet?
KRENS. In 10 years it's going to be so different that there is a huge challenge as to how to use this. In terms of Web sites, probably the best I've seen right now is the Met's.
DE MONTEBELLO. I view the Web site and most technological initiatives as forms of marketing, promotion. I want it as marvelous as possible. I want as many images on it as possible. Just as audiences after World War II swelled in part because of those wonderful little Skira books, I'm convinced that Web sites that provide an enormous amount of information will tip the scale for thousands of people who are thinking, "Maybe I'll visit a museum someday," but have never done it.
KRENS. The Internet's a curious thing. It doesn't at all replace the experience of the museum as we know it. Yet there are certain things you can do with the Internet that you can't do for a work on view. One is, with the proper photography and the right bandwidth, you can look in extraordinary detail at various parts of a work of art and have access to the scholarship, stories, histories and conservation records and provenances that surround it.
On the other hand, it still is a screen in a room, and people, at the end of the day, are social beings, and part of the attraction of going to a museum is being in the presence of the actual object.
Q. If the technology continues to improve and the image is virtually 100 percent, what remains to keep the original original?
DE MONTEBELLO. The notion of authenticity. Take a Rembrandt like "The Man With the Golden Helmet" in Berlin, which everybody admired but which is no longer attributed to Rembrandt. The picture hasn't changed. It was beautiful before. Why isn't it beautiful now? The answer is simple: you've changed. The day before, you were admiring something painted by Rembrandt. The moment you know it's not painted by Rembrandt, you changed toward it. And so the picture does change.
Q. The public was surprised, during the "Sensation" show at the Brooklyn Museum, at how museums raise money from people who have commercial interests in the art being shown. Do you think there need to be new conflict-of-interest rules?
DE MONTEBELLO. I cannot answer that in the negative since it is known that the Association of Art Museum Directors has appointed a committee to review and tighten its guidelines on private collections and funding of exhibitions. There's no question that a higher alertness as to what might be conceived as a possible conflict of interest enters our minds.
Q. But the association said virtually nothing about it before.
DE MONTEBELLO. It may not say much more afterward. As far as I'm concerned, most museums have shown, over the last decades, a great deal of wisdom and care in how they've done things.
I have to caution everyone against the puritanism of a newfound sense of ethics, which to me sounds more like righteousness. One has to be very pragmatic and remember that the interests of the many should dominate over the foibles of the few.
Q. But if a fashion designer makes a major contribution and, before or after, you put on the show of that designer, doesn't that create the impression that you're caving in to financial interests?
KRENS. You're making a big leap between the reality and the impression. Hypothetically, there may appear to be danger in lots of things. If something segues from appearance into common practice, then you have a situation that may become more complex. But the fact that there is a debate, that you do have the A.A.M.D. considering tightening these guidelines, confirms the general sense of ethical operations.
Q. Why wouldn't Charles Saatchi, or whoever, want it known that he contributed to the sponsorship of a show of his works?
DE MONTEBELLO. You're going to have to invite Arnold Lehman [the director of the Brooklyn Museum] to answer that.
Q. Is disclosure the answer?
DE MONTEBELLO. No, but disclosure is an answer. One of the key questions is does the public benefit from the exercise? You have to weigh the degree to which such perceptions, were they to be taken too seriously, ultimately damage the public. We don't print money. And so we have to find some middle-of-the-road way that is ethical but pragmatic.
I was quite amused to read that we were taken to task because we asked Tiffany to fund the Tiffany show and Cartier to fund the Cartier show. Should we have asked Tiffany to fund Cartier and Cartier to fund Tiffany? Let's be logical. First of all, the work of Tiffany was created at the turn of the century, not any of which is still sold by the firm. The Cartier show ended in 1930, so Cartier didn't benefit. This is pushing to an extreme. This is what I call righteousness. And it's silly.
You could even make the outlandish argument that in contemporary art, whenever you show an artist, you're benefiting the artist and the gallery. You might as well close shop if you can no longer deal in that way.
Q. I wonder about the impact of "Sensation" on programming. We spoke of how Impressionism and Egypt bring in crowds. In other media, shock brings in crowds. Are we going to see this more and more in museums?
KRENS. If the material holds up over time, and there develops behind it an intellectual support, you'll begin to see it. But I don't see it as an issue, like all of a sudden there's a special space in storage for the sexually explicit imagery.
We deal with this in a certain way. For example, we received a gift of 200 images from the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. And we've done small exhibitions selected from this collection. Some were obviously sexually explicit. We deal with that through signage, basically saying to people in advance that they're going into an area where there is some sexually explicit imagery and that parental guidance is encouraged.
Q. How do you deal with the crowds?
KRENS. There were no crowds, believe me. Would that there were.
Q. I was a little surprised to see there was an A.T.M. in Bilbao, inside the museum. I can't imagine one at the Met.
DE MONTEBELLO. Why not? I've always found it curious that we didn't have one inside our shops. We have phone booths.
Q. Are you fighting commercialism, the gift shops right next to the entrance?
DE MONTEBELLO. This is a question of aura. People who make the conscious decision to visit a museum do not want a promulgation of their daily existence. They want something different, conceivably uplifting, or at least challenging, and therefore there has to be kind of a caesura. Shops support the institution, but I certainly wouldn't put them first. I think that would defeat that impression of awe and wonder that museums should provide.
KRENS. To a certain extent, the retail activities are a necessary burden. It's absolutely for sure that museums cannot survive on admission alone. If you were to look at either of our budgets and divide by the number of visitors, the average ticket price would have to be around $75.
DE MONTEBELLO. When we had the exhibition of van Gogh in St. Remy and Auvers -- the last 18 months of the life of van Gogh -- you ended on the very moving set of the final pictures and the crows over the wheat fields. In the next room were all the catalogs and postcards. We had a flurry of letters saying, "We walked out of the exhibition in tears, a great experience ruined by the shops." And I had to say: "Look, I'm sorry we had to have the shops. Would you have preferred not to have an exhibition at all?" Because without the shops, I couldn't have afforded to do the show.
In the end, it's a matter of weighing public benefit with the evils. We are in a capitalistic society where earned income increasingly, as governments cut back, is an important part of our life. That's just the world.
At a 1999 lecture, Thomas Krens of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum listed "the components of a great 21st-century museum." Without knowing the contents of Mr. Krens's list, Philippe de Montebello of the Metropolitan Museum of Art agreed to compile his own.
* A great location, with urban in teraction.
* Great collections.
* Great architecture.
* A great special exhibition.
* A great second special exhibition.
* Two shopping opportunities.
* Two eating opportunities.
* A high-tech interface via the Internet.
* Economies of scale via a global network.
Mr. de Montebello:
* Great works of art.
* Intelligent and seductive presentation with good lighting and labeling.
* Highly accomplished, public-spirited curators.
* Substantial acquisitions funds.
* An endowment large enough to ensure integrity and independence from market-driven decisions.
* Fully committed trustees.
* Staff members who believe in authority and discrimination in judging and presenting art.
* Ease of access, physically through amenities, and intellectually, through programs that deepen the experience and understanding of art.
* Ease of access fuori le mura [outside the walls] of services and information through the latest technol- ogy.
* An unwavering belief in the primacy of the experience of art over that of "museum as agora," mindful of Hector's exhortation in Shakespeare's "Troilus and Cressida": " 'Tis mad idolatry to make the service greater than the God.' "