The Modern Museum’s Unlikely Champion

Sebastien Montabonel, an art consultant, warns that the museum world is unprepared for the 21st century.

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Chase Pellerin

Sebastien Montabonel’s jacket is plastered with a single photograph of a mountain. It is identical to the original print, which hangs in his home, Montabonel says. The “Blackout” series by British landscape photographer Dan Holdsworth. Very famous.

As we take our seat amid a wash of candlelight at the French bistro Cassette in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, it strikes me that, on its face, this might seem an odd choice of attire for an art consultant. In a few short years, Montabonel’s made a name for himself in the art consulting world by raising awareness to the plight of an English city’s art museums; he’s looking for solutions to fix Europe’s broken museum funding system by working with private collectors; and if he has his way, he’ll make a mark on the future of museums worldwide. And yet he’s comfortable wearing a photograph, much like the ones he and his clients spend millions on, as a style piece.

To be fair, it’s a really cool jacket.

Later, after smoked duck and lamb and several glasses of vodka, which he says he enjoys because its buzz is similar to the high of hard drugs, I ask Montabonel what his own personal collection would look like — what would he tell his own art consultant? He is triumphant.

“I would have a small collection,” he says. “Maybe eighty works. But I would do everything opposite to what they say I should do. Because I don’t give a shit. It’s only pleasure. My needs are very different than my clients’.”

Just a short while later, after a story about bringing “the whole art world” and “princesses, royalty” to his local strip club, Montabonel leans forward in his seat, locks eyes with mine, and soothsays the future of the art world with utmost earnestness. “In five-hundred years historians will look at this era as one of massive transition,” he says. “We could lose everything. The shift that’s happening now for humankind has never been as big. Maybe the last time we had this was when we discovered how to make fire.”

I’m having a hard time figuring out Sebastien Montabonel.


10:25, Greenpoint, Brooklyn

With his jacket off, Montabonel looks more the part of the playboy art confidant. His face is slightly jowly, dark scruff flowing from nostrils to neck, black hair slicked straight back. He is draped in an oversized cable-knit sweater, and his heavily accented French voice sticks somewhere deep down in his throat. His toothsome grin serves well for both the cocksure look of a professor and the glee of a cad.

Parts of Montabonel’s life feel like tall tales, but if you believe him, he: was nearly a professional snowboarder, before suffering a career-ending knee accident while in the alps skiing on a high dosage of guronsan, a caffeine-like pill used to treat chronic fatigue (“Normally you take one to two a day. I took ten. With the altitude, it’s amazing”); was a sommelier but knew nothing about wine; can imagine a red jacket as blue with perfect clarity; doesn’t give a shit about money, and never has. (The royal family of the United Arab Emirates offered him a job and envelopes of cash for his consulting, but withdrew their offer when he refused to move to Abu Dhabi.)

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Other pieces of his story are more readily fact checked. Growing up in the industrial city of Saint-Étienne, France, he had to be harangued by his father to finish high school, then went on to study quantum mechanics. He moved to London during the “Cool Britannia” period and found his way into the photography scene. His art was both obsessive and cruel. At one show, he stacked a short story through photographs under plate glass so that the audience couldn’t touch them, and then illuminated them with only a tiny sliver of light. In another work, he forced the audience into voyeurism by placing “dirty images” facing the wall, so that they could only be seen by peeking. He made serious money publishing art photography books by himself under the title of Alaska Editions. One of his most famous books, Dominique Lambert, was created almost solely to thwart his “fetishist” collectors. It came with one envelope, which the owner had to send off in order to receive the other 21 envelopes, making a complete set impossible. “The whole thing” — a set of psychological sketches of 22 people across France, all with the name Dominique or Dominic Lambert — “was from the artist. The frustration,” Montabonel says, “was from me.”

“At the moment we believe art is just to entertain us on a Sunday because there’s nothing on TV,” he says. “It’s a bit more powerful than this. Art, good art, is the memory of humankind.”

These moments are all told by Montabonel the Entertainer. He squeals and giggles, always heading toward a punchline, always adding that he was smoking pot here or flirting with a girl there. He is a blast. And, when you ask him a serious question about art, it is as if the spotlight’s fuse has blown out, throwing the performer into darkness and revealing a very different man standing quietly on the wings of the stage.

This would be Montabonel the art consultant and founder of Montabonel & Partners, a sober man who speaks carefully and cares about art because it is a mirror of our society. (His really cool jacket turns out to be a gift from the photographer.) He puts down his vodka and his speaking voice loses its flippancy. “At the moment we believe art is just to entertain us on a Sunday because there’s nothing on TV,” he says. “It’s a bit more powerful than this. Art, good art, is the memory of humankind.”

Montabonel has played outside the lines of tradition — used rule-following against itself, actually — as an artist. Now he’s parlaying that subversive mindset into the art consulting world, where he has a direct impact on government policies. His thinking on major public works is making waves and challenging the art curator as fossil. His is a potent mixture of deadly serious and wild not-giving-a-damn. And if you think someone behind the scenes in the stuffy old art world can’t change your life — well, we’ll see.

In 2015, Montabonel made headlines by bringing his private art world connections to bear on the ailing museum system of the city of Sheffield. Due to economic crises and subsequent austerity measures hamstringing the government-funded system, most of Europe’s non-metropolis museums have been in trouble since the late 2000s. In the UK, funding to museums since 2011 has been slashed by 30 percent, or roughly 166 million dollars, most acutely outside of metro areas. Some smaller cities have lost 100 percent of funding for the arts.

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Sheffield’s trouble was part of the bigger issue. “There is a massive gap in wealth between a big metropolis like London, Paris or Rome, and the other regions,” Montabonel says. “Then you also have gap in culture. Then you start to have tension. People start voting for populist things, extreme parties. It’s got nothing to do with immigration. It’s because of that gap.”

(Montabonel isn’t crying wolf. Political fringe parties are on the rise across Europe, including the far-right Alternative für Deutschland party in Germany, the historically anti-semitic and violent Action Française party in France and, in Austria, the narrow defeat of presidential candidate Norbert Hofer of the far-right Freedom Party, which Politico said highlights “a widening class divide,” the likes of which the country hasn’t seen since “the 1930s, when clashes between rightist and leftist forces almost triggered a civil war.”)

In Sheffield, Montabonel’s fix, “Going Public,” was relatively simple – he blasted the media, government and local populace with big-name art from private collections in public places throughout Sheffield. The work, including a famous sculpture by Jake and Dinos Chapman of a hanging corpse dripping fake blood called “Cyber Iconic Man” placed in the Sheffield Cathedral to great acclaim, drew attention to the city’s problems. The New York Times wrote that his work demonstrated “how cash-strapped public galleries and wealthy private collectors can cooperate more effectively.”

“To get someone to spend more than three seconds on an image is already a success. Well, I don’t want them to spend three seconds. I want them to spend forty-five seconds.”

His next project addresses a titanic question: how to build the museum of the future. His answer is using technology as a guide rather than a second thought, helping curators catch up with artists. He’s hosting a think tank this July, “Media in the Expanded Field,” which will bring together 12 art-world participants, from novelist and artist Douglas Coupland (who popularized the term “Generation X”) to professors, curators and artists, to discuss how museums and artists will deal with technology-based works.

He’s paddling with the current of the art world. When Paola Antonelli, senior curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art, said museums were in “a strange moment of change,” she was right. “Museums are being redefined for a digital age,” wrote The New York Times back in 2014. American museums continue to fill with visitors, but there is rightful concern about their ability to convey traditional art to Millennials — people whose smartphones, and maybe someday soon virtual reality headsets, are their lifeblood. As art critic Holland Cotter recently put it, “A new version [of the museum] can’t arrive too soon. Existing ones are, in crucial ways, stagnant.” When, in a mundane sort of sit-in protest, two teenagers recently set a pair of glasses on the ground at San Francisco’s MoMA museum — not to provoke thought about installation art, but rather because he had lost interest in uninterpretable abstractness of it all — and then laughed when a crowd gathered, they seemed to be speaking for an entire generation.

For a man behind such serious undertakings, Montabonel often feels more like the art-mocking teenagers than a MoMA curator. He seems to remember fondly his art’s frustrating guerilla tactics in a war against the 21st century audience member’s short attention span. Montabonel says the ends justify the means.

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“We are saturated by information,” he says. “To get someone to spend more than three seconds on an image is already a success. Well, I don’t want them to spend three seconds. I want them to spend forty-five seconds. The best way to do that is to show them nothing.”

To get those 45 seconds, Montabonel’s dangerously willing to break with formality and tradition.

“In the end, if we want the museum to be popular, without showing shit or easy things, it’s gonna have to be a mix between Disneyland and the church,” Montabonel says.

I laugh, but he keeps going.

“We need to draw people in. People want to be entertained. And looking at a painting on the wall when they can’t understand shit has limits.” He imagines immersive installations, participatory and engaging. Soundproofing for multimedia aspects; less focus on wall space, the display format of the last 1,000 years; more focus on the square footage for sculpture, multimedia, and audience interaction.

The end of our dinner conversation breaks like a fever. We are the last people in Cassette; they are blowing out the candles. Montabonel’s stoic concentration dissolves into a toothy grin again. At the swanky Casa Wabi art foundation, where he’ll host Media in the Expanded Field in July, he expects to surf and drink tequila and party into the night when he isn’t leading sessions on the museum of the 21st century. He jokes that one of his main concerns for the think tank is drowning.

We both laugh. But as we settle up and then part ways into the wee hours of Brooklyn, I can’t stop thinking about the possibility that, one day in the near future, I may be in a museum that makes me want to sing a hymn one second and hoot like I’m on a rollercoaster the next. Sounds crazy. Sounds intriguing. Sounds like something Montabonel could pull off, because he doesn’t give a shit; and, because he cares plenty, too. And maybe that’s just what the art world needs.

The Bill

2 Other Half IPAs $16
2 Tito’s Vodkas $20
Bottle Lalande de Pomerol $48
Americano $3.50
Prosciutto $5
Finocchiona $7
New York Strip for 2 $48
Shank of Lamb $24
Pan Roasted Chicken $21
Brussels Bravas $7
2 Potatoes Gratin $12
Creme Catalan $7

Total (including tax + tip) $250

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