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Director (and Voice) of Metropolitan Museum to Retire

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, January 9, 2008
Updated: Monday, January 13, 2014

Philippe de Montebello, who has led the Metropolitan Museum of Art for 30 years and has virtually become synonymous with its monumental profile, announced Tuesday that he planned to retire at the end of the year.


A patrician figure whose mellifluous multilingual voice on the museum's audio guides is known to millions of visitors around the world, he is the eighth and longest-serving director in the institution's 138-year history.

Mr. de Montebello, 71, has more than doubled the museum's physical size during his tenure, carving out majestic new galleries suited to the Met's encyclopedic holdings. Today it is the city's biggest tourist attraction, with millions of visitors a year.

Mr. de Montebello informed the Met's board of trustees at a meeting on Tuesday afternoon that he intended to leave the museum at the end of 2008 or as soon as a successor had been found. A new director has not been named, and the board said it would immediately form a search committee.

In a telephone interview, Mr. Montebello said that after a packed fall season and the completion of several big long-term projects like new galleries for Greek and Roman art and European paintings, he felt the time was right.

"After three decades, to stay much further would be to skirt decency," he said. "This has not been an easy decision — it's wrenching for me, it's been my entire life. But it's time."

James R. Houghton, chairman of the museum's board, said he was not surprised by the announcement. "It has been in his mind for some time now," he said in an interview. "It was a mutual decision and I think the right one."

Yet he added: "To look for somebody to fill his shoes will be very hard. The pool of potential candidates is smaller than it once was."

While Mr. de Montebello has won broad admiration for his stewardship of the museum, he has sometimes drawn criticism for a reluctance to embrace contemporary art and a dismissive attitude toward claims by archaeologically rich countries to objects they say were looted and sold to Western museums.

Two years ago, however, he negotiated a pact to turn over 21 classical artifacts in the Met's collection to Italy. And a dead shark prepared by the artist Damien Hirst is now floating in a tank of formaldehyde at the southern end of the museum under a three-year loan.

Asked if the board, knowing Mr. de Montebello's retirement was imminent, had drafted a list of possible successors, Mr. Houghton would only say, "We've got all sorts of lists." He declined to describe the qualities that Met trustees would seek in a new director.

(Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, chairman emeritus of The New York Times Company and the father of its current chairman, led the Met's board of trustees from 1987 to 1998 and is now a trustee emeritus of the museum.)

Mr. Houghton said that Annette de la Renta and S. Parker Gilbert, both vice chairmen of the Met board, would be the chairwoman and vice chairman of the search committee.

Mr. de Montebello said he would not serve on the panel. "I'm the last person to name my successor," he said. "It's not my role."

Mr. de Montebello said he timed his resignation carefully. "It seemed like a good moment — to step down on a high," he said, referring to 2007 as an "annus mirabilis."

Last year he oversaw the opening of nine new or renovated galleries, beginning in April with the vast Greek and Roman galleries — a museum within a museum — and ending with the opening of the expanded and renovated galleries for 19th- and early-20th-century European paintings last month. The museum also presented some 21 exhibitions, including "The Age of Rembrandt," which included the museum's entire collection of Dutch paintings and attracted 505,082 visitors by the time it closed on Sunday, and "Tapestry in the Baroque," drawing on collections from more than 15 countries.

Many of those projects were years in the making, with Mr. de Montebello collaborating closely with his curators, seeking financing and negotiating loans.

It has been a long trajectory. He arrived at the Met in 1963 as a curatorial assistant in the department of European paintings and except for four years — from 1969 to 1974, when he served as director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston — he spent his entire career there.

His ascension to director in 1977 ended a tumultuous decade at the museum. His predecessor, Thomas Hoving, was a showman who shook up the institution, staging a series of exhibitions that attracted blockbuster crowds. But he was considered an autocrat, and by the end of his tenure had alienated many staff members and trustees.

French born and Harvard educated, Mr. de Montebello exuded a polish and erudition that reassured trustees and donors even as his European style was often spoofed in the art world in his later years.

Over three decades, the institution's endowment went from $1.36 million to $2.9 billion; attendance rose from 3.5 million to 5.1 million visitors by 2000 before retreating a bit after 9/11. Last year 4.6 million people visited the museum.

Yet Mr. de Montebello became known as much for his absorption in the Met's permanent collection as for encouraging well-attended shows. Curators say he can often be found in one gallery or another peering at a Greek bust or studying a piece of richly gilded Byzantine metalwork.

Over the years he has been responsible for championing high-profile acquisitions — some gifts, some purchases, some both — like Duccio di Buoninsegna's "Madonna and Child," dating from around 1300; Vermeer's "Portrait of a Young Woman" (around 1666-67); van Gogh's "Wheat Field With Cypresses" (1889); and Jasper Johns's "White Flag" (1955).

He also managed to outmaneuver other institutions in securing bequests of entire collections, like world-class Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works amassed by Walter H. Annenberg, the former United States ambassador to Britain and a longtime Met trustee, and his wife, Leonore.

He also motivated donors to finance grand galleries that would show the permanent holdings to better advantage, creating spaces like the 100,000-square-foot Lila Acheson Wallace Wing for modern art, which opened in 1987, and the Carroll and Milton Petrie European Sculpture Court in 1990.

In the 1990s Mr. de Montebello embarked on a series of projects that involved "building from within," like the new Greek and Roman Galleries and refurbished spaces for Oceanic and Native North American Art. (Other building programs have included the expansion and renovation of the museum's period rooms and decorative arts galleries; new galleries for prints, drawings and photographs; and vast new spaces for the fast-growing collections of Asian art.)

Two years ago, he initiated a project to redesign the Met's entire American Wing, including the Charles Engelhard Court, an effort that is still in progress.

In 1989 he halted the Met practice of charging special admission prices for big temporary exhibitions, saying he felt that the fees siphoned attention from the permanent holdings and the full range of art objects at the Met.

Still, he oversaw more than his share of blockbusters, including "The Vatican Collections" in 1983; the Velázquez survey in 1989-1990; "The Glory of Byzantium," in 1997; "Egyptian Art in the Age of the Pyramids" in 1999-2000; "Vermeer and the Delft School" in 2001; and "Leonardo da Vinci: Master Draftsman" in 2003. His next act, post-Metropolitan Museum, has yet to be determined, Mr. de Montebello said. "I don't know what's out there," he said. "Surely I'd like to be an advocacy for excellence in art."

He allowed that his current job would be hard to top. "I'm the most grateful person on earth," he said. "I've had the privilege to run the greatest institution in the world. How much luckier can you be than that?"

For the museum world, one challenge will surely be to start seeing the Met and its long-term director as separate entities.

"The Met is a huge organization, and too many people have been increasingly saying to me, 'You are the Met,'" Mr. de Montebello said. "I am not the Met."
By Carol Vogel
For The New York Times




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