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Who’s Leaving the Metropolitan Museum? A Partial List of Retirees

Here we go again…

The above headline echos my title for a June 2009 post, reporting on the Metropolitan Museum’s staff purge during the Great Recession. So it’s with dejected déjà vu that I now regretfully report the imminent departure of some 90 Metropolitan Museum staffers, from departments including security, facilities management, retail, education, conservation, curatorial (and more). They were incentivized to leave by a voluntary retirement program, instituted to help the Met address the economic fallout from the Virus Crisis.

A partial roster of this new group of retirees was forwarded to me this week by a CultureGrrl devotee. The museum’s staff received a list of their soon-to-be ex-colleagues in the Aug. 14 issue of “Met Matters,” the in-house newsletter. I was told that the list my source sent me included only those who had given the Met permission to publish their names. (The Met’s press office, in response to my early-August query, said that it expected “to share the names of the voluntary retirements in the weeks ahead,” but I have not yet received them.)

First, the superstar—Keith Christiansen, chairman of European Paintings, who is to remain on the job until June 30, with 43 years of service and numerous scholarly exhibitions to his credit (including this one). He began at the Met as a young protégé of a previous occupant of his current seat—John Pope-Hennessy, the renowned art historian, for whom Keith’s Met chairmanship is named.

Keith Christiansen at a 2018 Met press briefing
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Keith is lead curator for “A New Look at Old Masters”—a thematic remix of the Met’s fabled collection, “creating new dialogues among the works” (in the words of of the Exhibition Overview). The reinstallations were necessitated by rotating gallery closures in connection with the Met’s multi-year, $150-million overhaul of the skylights in the European galleries, projected to be completed in 2022. Keith answered my questions about that major undertaking in 2018, when the project was first announced.

Stained, dirty skylight in Met’s European paintings gallery, pre-replacement
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

We can only hope that his recent clubbing by the thought-police didn’t drive his decision to step aside. At this late stage in his career, he may have had little appetite for defending himself against the darts of detractors. (A similar distaste for sparring with late-career denigrators might have also impelled Gary Garrels to call it quits at SFMOMA.)

Many of the retirees added their own comments to their “Met Matters” listings—fond reminiscences about the work culture that others have recently decried (possibly, in some cases, with justification).

Since the retirees may not have expected their remarks to be publicly circulated, I won’t directly quote them. But they go down as a soothing palate cleanser after the vitriol from current and former staffers who (perhaps with some hyperbole) have accused the Met and other NYC cultural institutions of “consistent exploitation and unfair treatment of Black/Brown people” and “blatant disrespect and egregious acts of white violence toward Black/Brown employees.”

I’ll confine myself to two quotes (which I’ll keep anonymous) from the list of those retiring:

—I started working as a Security Officer for The Met over 39 years ago. I remember being in the Museum for the first time and realizing that I would be working for one of the world’s finest institutions. Even as a young immigrant, this notion was not lost on me. Over four decades, I’ve been surrounded by really good folks—great leaders, colleagues, friends. I consider myself quite fortunate.

And this:

—Can you retire from The Met? I believe no matter where you work, it eventually becomes just a job, but The Met is different….To be part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is to be a part of history, not only of art, but of New York City. When you tell people, “I work at The Met,” that means something. No matter what your job is, working here is important. It’s impressive and it’s a great privilege. Take care of our Met.

And now (drumroll), below are curators (in addition to Christiansen) who are among the Met’s newly minted retirees, along with their final titles, years of service, and dates of retirement. (Those without dates retired at the end of August.)

Maryan Ainsworth, curator, European Paintings, 42 years, retires Dec. 31

Barbara Drake Boehm, senior curator, Medieval Art, 43 years, retires Apr. 30

Helen Evans, curator, Byzantine Art and Medieval Art and organizer of “The Philippe de Montebello Years,” 29 years, retires Jan. 4

Screenshot of Helen Evans addressing a Scholars’ Day Workshop on “The Philippe de Montebello Years” (The eponymous director faces the camera, at right.)

Marsha Hill, curator, Egyptian Art, 40 years

Don LaRocca, curator, Arms & Armor, 32 years​, retires Dec. 31

Stuart W. Pyhrr, Distinguished Research Curator, Arms & Armor, 43 years

Beth Carver Wees, curator of American Decorative Arts, American Wing, 20 years, retires Dec. 31

I owe a special shoutout to the person on the published list of retirees who repeatedly facilitated my reportorial pursuits—Egle Zygas, senior publicist, external affairs, 22 years. As PR people often do, she’s keeping a wary eye on me (below), standing between then Met curators James Draper (left) and Ian Wardropper (pointing) at a press preview for the 2009 Cast in Bronze: French Sculpture from Renaissance to Revolution.

My warm, fuzzy photo of Egle Zygas

As CultureGrrl readers may remember, the Met’s similarly major staff purge in 2009 (also economics-driven), under previous director Tom Campbell (now director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco), involved the voluntary retirements of some 96 employees.

What I wrote in my 2010 Wall Street Journal profile of Campbell (to which I recently alluded, here) might also apply to the situation in which current director Max Hollein finds himself:

With hindsight, Mr. Campbell now sees a “silver lining” to the turbulence of his inaugural year. He acknowledged, when asked, that the [2008 financial] crisis had given him the opportunity to appoint a hand-picked team much sooner and less controversially than would have otherwise been possible. That’s because several key senior staffers were among the 96 employees who jumped at the offer of voluntary-retirement packages when they were announced last March.

History repeats itself?

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