the take

A Fellow Museum Director Remembers Working for Philippe de Montebello: ‘Lose the Earring’

Philippe de MontebelloPhoto: Getty Images

Current director of the Grace Museum in Abilene, Texas, former designer at the Met, and Vulture brother Dennis Kois remembers the reign of Philippe de Montebello:

For those of us who once worked for Philippe de Montebello, yesterday’s announcement of his retirement evokes memories of the man in action. In my very first week working at the Met, as a young designer, I was invited to have lunch in the Trustees Dining Room with the director. At that time only staff and trustees could eat there, and even then most of the staff couldn’t afford it: starched white tablecloths, very corporate and hushed. I was 25, still new to New York, but there I was all the same, sitting with my boss and Philippe de Montebello. I recall being concerned that I was wearing a very bright green shirt and tie with my suit, which didn’t seem very Met-like.

Over the course of my years at the museum, I saw Philippe at his finest, and not: excited and enthusiastic when we’d talk to him about a project, like the Greek and Roman wing, that got him away from the everyday drudgery of running a huge museum; irritable if his back was bothering him or we were delivering bad news; expansive and visionary when he’d go off on an aria about what museums do. But that day at lunch he was a little wry here and there but mostly just himself, which is to say, rather patrician and reserved. That afternoon my boss told me that he’d seen Philippe again, and that lunch had gone well. I asked him what Philippe thought of me. “Lose the earring,” my boss said. That was the last day I wore my very eighties left-ear-only earring.

I’ve worked for a couple different museum directors since leaving the Met, some very talented, but none anywhere near as good as Philippe. As a new director myself now, at a teeny-tiny museum in the middle of Texas, I realize that working at the Met under Philippe was like having been a minor courtier in the palace of Louis XIV. All we former functionaries will spend the rest of our days talking about our time with the Sun King. —Dennis Kois

A Fellow Museum Director Remembers Working for Philippe de Montebello: ‘Lose the Earring’