Philippe de Montebello, the velvet-voiced, impeccably patrician director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, seldom appears in anything other than a suit, on the left lapel of which is often fastened a tiny red pin in the shape of a rose. Presented to him in 1991, it’s an insignia of the Légion d’honneur, a distinction awarded by the French government to those who have contributed to the glory of the republic, whether by writing a best-seller, curing a disease or running an American museum that displays beaucoup de French art. Clearly de Montebello is proud of his rosette—he was born in France to a grand old family, and even after almost 60 years in New York, he retains both the rolling consonants and the regal bearing of a Gallic aristo. But beneath his lapel, hidden from view, is a far humbler object to which he’s even more attached. “This is my agenda,” he says, reaching inside his jacket and pulling out a strip of paper printed with his appointments for the day. “This,” he says, peering down at it through his rectangular, wire-rimmed glasses, “provides a certain structure to one’s life. The notion that I will get up in the morning and won’t have one of these frightens me.”
It’s a reality that de Montebello will soon have to face. In January he announced his retirement from the Met, effective December 31, 2008, or when his successor is found, whichever comes first. In the months since, the museum world has been atwitter about who might follow him into the august post—one of the most powerful positions in the art world—and, so far, the board of trustees hasn’t come up with an answer. This seems to suit de Montebello just fine; he’s not particularly looking forward to his last day. “I suspect that it will be a very difficult and heart-wrenching moment,” he says on a picture- perfect June afternoon in his office, where the view of Central Park competes for attention with the oversize Claude Lorrain landscape on the wall. “It will be kind of a divorce. The museum has been my mistress for 40 years, and I’m leaving her. Or my wife has been my mistress, and the museum has been my wife. I think I spend more time with the Met than I do with her!”
Marriage or affair—however he chooses to view it—de Montebello’s relationship with the museum began with a coup de foudre. He arrived as a curatorial assistant in 1963, straight from New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, where he was pursuing a graduate degree—“I had not applied for the job,” he points out. “They had come to fetch me at the institute”—and, with the exception of a four-year stint as director of Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts, he’s been there ever since, ascending to his current role in 1977.