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
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
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
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
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
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