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Director Philippe de Montebello Announces Retirement from The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Philippe de Montebello. Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Don Pollard.

NEW YORK.- The Metropolitan Museum of Art announced today that Philippe de Montebello—whose long and storied career at the Museum has spanned nearly a third of the institution’s entire history—will retire after more than 30 years as its eighth, and longest-serving, Director. Mr. de Montebello, who first joined the staff as a curatorial assistant in 1963, became Director in 1977, and assumed the additional role of Chief Executive Officer in 1998, plans to step down by December 31, 2008.

“To say that his decision marks the end of an era surely constitutes one of the great understatements, not only in the Museum’s life, but in the cultural life of the city, the state, the nation, and the world,” said James R. Houghton, Chairman of the Metropolitan’s Board of Trustees. “Philippe de Montebello’s manifest contributions to the Met span four decades bridging two different centuries. He leaves an incomparable legacy of accomplishment that has significantly enhanced the institution and brilliantly served its vast international public. No museum director anywhere has done more to expand and enrich the appreciation of art for more generations and with greater taste, erudition, diplomacy, and vision than Philippe de Montebello. As much as we regret his planned departure, we join in celebrating achievements that will sustain the Metropolitan—its collections, its programs, and its magnificent galleries—for generations to come.”

In a letter to the Board of Trustees, which was formally presented at the January meeting of the Board this afternoon, Mr. de Montebello indicated that he was prepared to remain in his post until the end of the 2008 calendar year, or until a successor is found. “I reach this decision,” he added, “confident that I leave the Metropolitan well-positioned to thrive long into the 21st century.” The Director announced his plans to the Museum’s senior staff this evening, following the Board meeting, and is scheduled to repeat the announcement to a meeting of about 500 curators and managers on Wednesday morning.

Mr. Houghton also announced today the formation of a Trustees Search Committee to begin the process of selecting a new museum Director. Annette de la Renta and S. Parker Gilbert, who both serve as Vice Chairmen of the Board, will be chair and vice chair of the committee, respectively. Committee members will be: Daniel Brodsky, Russell Carson, Robert Joffe, Susana Torruella Leval, Cynthia Hazen Polsky, Frank Richardson, James Shipp, Lulu Wang, and Shelby White. Mr. Houghton will serve as an ex-officio member of the committee.

Commented Mr. de Montebello in submitting his letter to the Trustees: “Difficult as it is to contemplate life away from an institution to which I have devoted all but a few seasons of my professional life, I know that the time is right for both my own—and the Museum’s—inevitable transition. And as much as I cherish my 40 years at the Met, and will miss it enormously, I look forward to many more years of contributing my ideas, and my voice, to the goal that has guided me from the beginning of my career: namely, the enhancement of society’s knowledge and appreciation of man’s highest artistic achievements.”

“At this juncture,” he added, “my thoughts turn with profound gratitude to the many mentors who encouraged me from my earliest days here; to the unstinting confidence and support of a truly exemplary Board of Trustees; and not least, to the dedication, professionalism, and creativity of what is absolutely the finest museum staff anywhere. If the Metropolitan Museum has set and maintained the highest standards of excellence, it is due to these remarkable men and women. Lastly, to the many friends I have made here, and to the millions of admirers this institution has attracted and inspired, I offer my warmest thanks for the gratifying opportunity to serve the greatest art museum in the world.”

Speaking for the Museum’s administrative staff, Emily K. Rafferty, President of the Metropolitan, stated: “Having worked for some 30 years alongside this Director— at first in the areas of development, membership, and external affairs, and more recently as chief administrative officer—it has been a genuine honor to help generate the resources in support of Philippe de Montebello’s vision. He has created a singular legacy that gives pride to every Museum employee, and provides enlightenment to every visitor who passes through our doors. Our pledge to him—and to our public—is to continue working tirelessly to maintain the level of excellence he has sustained at the Metropolitan.”

Philippe de Montebello: A Biography
Born in Paris in 1936 and educated in French schools through the baccalaureate, Philippe de Montebello graduated magna cum laude, Harvard class of 1958, and after receiving a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, went on to earn an M.A. in art history from the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. After beginning his Metropolitan Museum career in 1963 in its Department of European Paintings, Mr. de Montebello rose steadily through the curatorial ranks. Except for four-and-a-half years as Director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (1969-1974), he has spent his entire career at the Met, returning in 1974 to assume the post of Vice Director for Curatorial and Educational Affairs, and then becoming the Museum’s Director in 1977. He has not only served longer than any other director in the Metropolitan’s history, but has for several years ranked as the longest-serving leader at any major museum in the world. As Chief Executive Officer, he leads a professional staff of more than 300 curators, conservators, educators, and librarians, as well as an administrative staff, reporting through the Museum’s President, consisting of more than 2,300 full- and part-time employees in the fields of operations, construction, development, marketing, finance, visitor services, systems and technology, human resources, and merchandising. The museum’s volunteers now number 1,100—the largest such corps at any museum in the world.

Attendance at the Metropolitan has increased substantially since Mr. de Montebello first became Director, rising from 3.5 million in 1977 to a peak of more than 5.1 million in 2000. Despite the inevitable decline that followed 9/11, attendance has resumed an upward trend, rising to 4.6 million at the close of the 2007 fiscal year last June 30.

The Building: Expansion and Enhancement
Throughout his tenure, he has focused not only on educating and enlightening the public, but on building the collections, expanding museum programs, and enlarging and refining the institution’s physical structure. Under Mr. de Montebello’s leadership, the Metropolitan Museum has nearly doubled in size, vastly increasing its gallery space, first in the late 1970s with the construction of a series of new wings that marked the completion of a master plan for expansion, and since the 1990s under a new program of “building from within” that has seen the creation and refinement of many additional galleries inside the existing structure. Notable building projects under his aegis that moved beyond the scope of the original 1970 master plan were the creation of both the 100,000-square-foot Lila Acheson Wallace Wing for 20th-century art, which opened in 1987, and the light-filled Carroll and Milton Petrie European Sculpture Court, opened in 1990. More

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