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

Most recently, in April 2007, the Metropolitan Museum opened its new and widely acclaimed 57,000-square-foot Greek and Roman Galleries, followed in fall 2007 by the new 25,000-square foot Ruth and Harold D. Uris Center for Education, as well as wholly refurbished galleries for Oceanic and Native North American art. Just last month, continuing the commitment to consistently renewing and improving the presentation of its collections, the Museum unveiled significantly expanded and reconfigured galleries for its renowned holdings of 19th-and early 20th-century European paintings and sculpture, including the new Henry J. Heinz II Galleries. All of these projects, along with the concurrent cleaning and Restoration of the Museum’s officially landmarked, again-dazzling outdoor façade along Fifth Avenue, were accomplished without ever closing the building to the public.

Mr. de Montebello’s other major building programs have included the expansion and renovation of period rooms and galleries for the decorative arts (culminating most recently in the November 2007 reopening of The Wrightsman Galleries); the 1993 opening of new permanent and special exhibition galleries for drawings, prints, and photographs—since supplemented in September 2007 by the new Joyce and Robert Menschel Hall for Modern Photography; the 1996 conservation and installation of the intarsia Renaissance studiolo from the palace of Duke Federico da Montefeltro at Gubbio, Italy; in 2000, the opening of the new Mary and Michael Jaharis Galleries for Byzantine art and the installation of Coptic art in an evocatively designed, crypt-like gallery carved out of found storage space beneath the Great Hall staircase; and the building of galleries for Cypriot art, ancient Near Eastern art, Korean art, and Chinese art (including the Douglas Dillon Galleries and the Astor Court, opened in 1981), as well as the Florence and Herbert Irving Galleries for South and Southeast Asian Art, opened in 1994. In 2006, Mr. de Montebello launched the current project to reconstruct, expand, and re-design the Museum’s entire American Wing, including The Charles Engelhard Court, which is currently underway, and also to begin the complete reinstallation of the Islamic collection, scheduled to open in 2011.

Ever searching with particular zeal for smaller refinements and ameliorations that he believes add immeasurably to the Museum’s presentations of art, the Director also initiated the installation of colossal statuary near The Temple of Dendur, also lowering the stone wall that previously blocked much of the view of the temple; the 2000 renovation of the 16th-century Spanish architectural masterpiece, the Vélez Blanco Patio; and in 1995, the removal of the lunette that had long obscured part of the entrance to the Tiepolo and European Paintings Galleries, making its monumental paintings visible from the Great Hall below.

Mr. de Montebello has also led the effort to redesign and modernize the Metropolitan Museum’s world-renowned conservation and scientific research facilities, each of which serves as a training ground for conservators around the world. During his tenure, the Museum’s four major conservation areas— the Antonio Ratti Textile Center (opened in 1995), together with centers for objects conservation, paintings conservation, and works on paper/photography conservation, each supported by and named for the Sherman Fairchild Foundation—as well as specialized studios for Asian art, costume, and book conservation, have been established or thoroughly upgraded. In 2004, the Director established the Department of Scientific Research, a core group of scientists who collaborate with curators and conservators throughout the Museum.

The Museum’s libraries and study centers—with a combined total of more than one million books and periodicals relating to the history of art—rank among the most comprehensive in the world. In recent years, the Thomas J. Watson Library, the Metropolitan’s main research library, has been renovated and expanded, and since 1997 includes the Lita Annenberg Hazen and Joseph H. Hazen Center for Electronic Information Resources. This new electronic resource center offers increased access to scholarly resources via CD-ROMs, the Internet, and other electronic media. And the newly re-opened Uris Center for Education includes the large, technologically equipped new Nolen Library, providing specially designed areas for use by families, students, teachers, and the general public.

In addition to conceiving and managing this wide array of projects, Mr. de Montebello has been deeply involved for more than three decades in the massive fundraising efforts required to finance the Museum’s acquisitions, construction programs, and day-to-day maintenance of its two-million-square-foot building. Late last year, the Metropolitan’s capital campaign, generously funded by both private and public contributions under the guidance of its chairman, Trustee Emeritus E. John Rosenwald, Jr., exceeded $1 billion—making it the largest such effort in its history.

The Collections, Acquisitions, Exhibitions, and Related Programs
Throughout Mr. de Montebello’s nearly 31 years as Director, the Museum has placed a major emphasis on building the collections, successfully courting donors in an effort to enhance acquisitions funding and secure collections. During this period, the Metropolitan acquired countless major private collections as well as individual masterpieces, notable among the latter: Balthus’ iconic painting The Mountain in 1982; an 11th-century gilt-bronze Cambodian deified king known as the “Golden Boy” in 1988, and Vincent van Gogh’s Wheat Field with Cypresses, purchased in 1993, both acquired through the generosity of Walter and Leonore Annenberg; the 1955 Jasper Johns masterwork White Flag, purchased in 1998; and in 2004 the much-applauded acquisition of an exquisite tempera-and-gold-onwood Madonna and Child by the early Renaissance Sienese master Duccio di Buoninsegna.

Among innumerable additions to the collections of The Cloisters, the Metropolitan’s branch museum for medieval art in upper Manhattan, have been two of the rarest and finest sculptures of their kind—the incomparable, ca. 1300 English ivory Virgin and Child, acquired in 1979; and in 1996 the ca. 1470 carved boxwood Virgin and Child by Nikolaus Gerhaert von Leiden. Mr. de Montebello’s tenure has also been marked by the receipt of a number of masterpieces from the fabled Wrightsman collection, including singular works by Vermeer (Portrait of a Young Woman, a 1979 gift), Rubens, Guercino, and other artists.

The great collections that Mr. de Montebello helped acquire for the Met include such acquisitions and bequests as: the Jack and Belle Linsky Collection of European paintings, sculpture, and decorative arts in 1982; the Berggruen Klee Collection of some 90 works by Paul Klee, donated by Heinz Berggruen in 1984; the gift of 10 paintings by Clyfford Still from the artist’s widow in 1987; The Annenberg Collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings in 1991; the Florene M. Schoenborn collection of 20th-century works in 1996; the Jacques and Natasha Gelman collection of modern paintings in 2001; the Gilman Paper Company Collection of 19th-century French, British, and American photographs; and in 2007, the Muriel Kallis Steinberg Newman Collection of Abstract Expressionist and other modern works. More

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