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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Emily Rafferty

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-03-31

Emily Rafferty is the inside woman.

Call her that, and the president of the world's largest art institution, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, laughs. Just moments before, she and the reporter had exchanged views about a current hit, "Inside Man." The movie dramatizes a heist, a topic that understandably doesn't elicit enthusiasm from Ms. Rafferty, not when she needs to monitor 2 million works of art - some of them 5,000 years old, many of them priceless, and all of them treasured - in a 2 million square-foot showcase.

"The responsibility of my job is very real - and I accept it," Ms. Rafferty said yesterday. "I had wanted the job, and I am sometimes awed by it. But my energy and enthusiasm never flag."

Her enduring enthusiasm is for the care and nurturing of cultural institutions - which is why it could be argued that the Met's 80-member board made an exquisite decision when it invested Ms. Rafferty with the presidency of the 136-year-old museum 15 months ago.

Her predecessors came from the outside - William Macomber and William Luers had served as diplomats, and David McKinney had been with IBM. But Ms. Rafferty is a lifer.

That is to say, she's spent virtually her entire professional life at 1000 Fifth Avenue - 30 of the last 35 years. Her previous five years were spent in Boston working with David Rockefeller Jr., and at the Institute of Contemporary Art.

It could be said that even that sojourn, after her graduation from Boston University - where she majored in African and Middle Eastern history - suggested an inevitability about returning to her native New York City, where she'd grown up as one of five daughters and a son of Walter Kernan, a corporate lawyer, and Leslie Hadden.

"When I came back to New York, I was absolutely certain that I wanted to work at the Met," Ms. Rafferty said yesterday.

The only job that was open at the time was that of a development officer, and Ms. Rafferty had no clue as to what it involved. She soon found out.

"It was all about raising money, and developing good relationships on behalf of the museum," Ms. Rafferty said.

Institutional fundraising was in its infancy at the time, and Ms. Rafferty saw her job as an opportunity to not only explore the field but also introduce innovations.

In ensuing years, she built a reputation not only in fundraising but also strengthening the Met's membership (which is now 130,000). She also became popular on the lecture circuit.

And her leadership abilities came to be widely noticed, not the least by the Met's board and its successive chairmen, among them Arthur Ochs Sulzberger and James Houghton, the current head and a man who has often publicly expressed his admiration of Ms. Rafferty.

Ms. Rafferty long ago learned to take such encomiums in stride.

"I'm naturally comfortable with leadership," she said. "I was brought up to believe that it's important to find what you love to do, to find your passion - and then make your life around that. I simply cannot imagine being in a job that I didn't like. I cannot imagine being bored."

She's unlikely to be bored at the Met. The museum - which has an annual operating budget of $172 million - is more a city-state than a cultural institution. Its external influence is so enormous that even Ms. Rafferty - who's a canny practitioner of the art of discretion - is moved to say that there's no institution quite like it.

"My job involves working for an institution whose language of art and culture crosses all national boundaries," she said. "The language of art and culture prevails because its becomes a bridge of communication. At the end of the day, the Met can be seen as an institution that operates in a very, very big world, and is a force in that world."

Consider this: The Met has 2,500 full-time and part-time employees, and more than 1,000 volunteers. It enjoys an endowment of $2.1 billion, the biggest of any museum in the world. If Ms. Rafferty and her boss, museum director Philippe de Montebello can be deemed cultural czars, then the 150 curators who populate the 18 curatorial departments could certainly be considered commissars of the institution.

Many of them are so sought after as lecturers and researchers globally that whenever Ms. Rafferty hears about a violent incident overseas she worries that one of her wandering tribe mates might be in that place and get hurt.

As the Met's president, of course, Ms. Rafferty needs to do more than worry about peripatetic colleagues. She is responsible for supervising areas as development, membership, technology and information services, human resources, merchandising, communications, legal affairs, government relations, finance, security, and construction.

That means her work days typically start at 7:30 in the morning, and often don't end until late in the evening.

Early yesterday, for example, Ms. Rafferty met with the editor of Vogue, Anna Wintour, who is chair of the Met's Costume Institute benefit this year. Then she met with a management training team. After that, she attended a weekly meeting with senior staff members. There were calls to donors. There was a call from the Met's chief of security. There was another meeting concerning funding proposals and strategic issues.

All that was before lunch with a reporter at The Four Seasons.

There is, in fact, almost always a working lunch on weekdays. There's almost always a working dinner, with several must-go-to social events in the pre-prandial and post-prandial hours. There's frequent travel on behalf of the Met. There are weekend trips to her Catskills home with her husband, John Rafferty, a partner at Ernst & Young. There is time spent with her grown children, Nicholas and Sara.

So, the reporter asked, what explains her energy?

"Genetics plays a role," Ms. Rafferty said. "But you also generate your own energy if you really enjoy what you do, if you look forward to turning each corner, if you like learning about new things every day of your life. My life beyond the walls of the Met - particularly my close friendships, education, music and theater - generates its own energy. The responsibility of ensuring stability for the institution while adhering to the highest standards of excellence - that generates energy, too."

Then she looked down at the table as the plates were being cleared.

"There's one more thing - you generate special energy if you're a happy person," Ms. Rafferty said.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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