When the Katonah Museum of Art honors Philippe de Montebello with the Himmel Award next month, the director emeritus of the Metropolitan Museum of Art will discuss significant changes remaking the world of art and museums.

They’ve always been educational institutions, of course, but de Montebello finds today’s museums focus less on their traditional role as repositories of fine art and more on a hard-to-match ability to provide visitors with an active learning experience.

De Montebello will be this year’s featured speaker, discussing the changing world of museums and art, at the Himmel Award & Lecture, scheduled for Nov. 10 at Crabtree’s Kittle House, 11 Kittle Road, Chappaqua. A ticket can also be purchased that includes a post-lecture dinner with de Montebello. 

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A rewarding learning experience comes about, de Montebello said in an interview, through “mutual engagement” of museum and visitor.

“Each has to understand the other,” he said. “The museum has to understand who its public is and have a combination of accessibility—not just physical but intellectual.”

Visitors, for their part, need to maintain “a certain level of demanding,” he said. They must require the museum to teach and inform, “so that by coming to the museum they’re going to learn something, [that] they see art that is new to them.

“At the same time,” de Montebello added, “the museum has to understand—the museums do it all the time, through surveys, their friends groups, memberships—what interests their public.”

As big-name, big-city institutions retool their appeal to the public, they increasingly are seen to be adopting approaches associated with their suburban counterparts. “The larger museums, the ones with collections...are more and more resembling the Katonah Art Museum. They’re putting much more of an emphasis on what is temporary,” de Montebello said. 

“The Katonah Museum is not a collecting institution. It didn’t intend to be and it doesn’t...It was created in order to have programs. The Louvre Museum in Paris was intended as a repository for works of art. [But] it has started to do more education, more engaging of the public than essentially [being] containers for artwork. They’re not in the same category.”

He called two qualities critical to any program successes. “Whatever you do, whether it’s short-term or long-term, whether you collect, whether you’re doing exhibitions or classwork [or] bringing slides into school,” he said, you must “keep a level of seriousness and excellence. No matter what it is that you do, it has to be done so that your audience has a sense that there is an authority, and they can relax and enjoy what they see.”

The Himmel Award is given each year in honor of Betty Himmel, a longtime museum volunteer, to recognize “creators, conceivers, radical thinkers and risk-takers” who provoke new thinking in art and design.