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The art of leadership

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By Merrill Wolf

In February 2005, Emily Kernan Rafferty assumed a position some would say she was born to occupy.

After a childhood spent nearly in the shadow of New York’s revered Metropolitan Museum of Art, she became its president – the first woman and the first museum insider ever appointed to the job.

Rafferty’s new position entails supervising all areas of museum administration, from development, membership and human resources , including 2,500 employees, to technology, finance, government relations and construction.

She reports to the museum’s director and chief executive officer, Philippe de Montebello.

Bolstered by a 29-year career at the Met and a social pedigree that makes her perfectly at ease among current and potential museum benefactors, Rafferty seems undaunted by the responsibility of running arguably the world’s leading arts institution.

She credits her rise through the development office with giving her both the skills and knowledge to do her new job well.

To lead any organization effectively, Rafferty says, “it’s essential that you understand the mission … and know the institution extremely well. From that point of view, people who are in development are extremely well positioned.”

Last month, Women in Development, New York, honored Rafferty with its annual Woman of Achievement Award, citing her as an example of “women’s increasing rise to leadership positions in nonprofit organizations by advancement through the development department.”

                 Emily Kernan RaffertyJob: President, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Born and raised: New York City

Age: 55

Education: B.A., Boston University

Family: One of six siblings; husband; son, 25; daughter, 21

Last book read: The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century, by Thomas L. Friedman

Hobbies: Travel, visiting cultural sites and museums, hiking

Next vacation: Family trip to Morocco

Brenna Sheenan Mayer, president of the 650-member group and vice president for college advancement at the College of New Rochelle, says that tendency reflects both a gradual breaking of the glass ceiling limiting women’s opportunities, and the increasing importance of the fundraising function.

Nowadays, Mayer says, “leaders of nonprofit organizations have to know fundraising.”

Rafferty downplays her gender as a factor in museum trustees’ decision to appoint her president.

“I don’t think they went out looking for women,” she says. “They were looking for the best person for the job at this time for the museum. … I happen to be a woman who was ready to take the job.”

Rafferty’s long career in arts administration began with her first job after college. As an assistant to philanthropist David Rockefeller Jr. in Boston, Rafferty had the opportunity to learn about a wide range of arts organizations and other programs with which Rockefeller was involved. Thanks to his position as manager of public relations for the Boston Symphony, for example, she spent three summers running the children’s program at the Tanglewood music center in Lenox, Mass.

“It was an enormously important introduction to the world of arts and arts administration,” she says, “and I came upon it by luck. I was in the right place at the right time.”

After a couple of years with Rockefeller and a stint as deputy director of education at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, Rafferty returned to her native city in 1976.

She made a bee-line for the Metropolitan Museum, which was just blocks from her family’s Park Avenue apartment and somewhere she had always wanted to work.

Beginning as an administrative assistant in the development office, she worked her way up over the course of the next three decades, helping to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for the museum in the process.

In that period, Rafferty says, she has witnessed significant changes at the venerable museum, shaped by the outside world. She cites factors such as security concerns, the legal environment, technology and financial accountability.

Rafferty does not foresee upcoming changes in the museum’s overall mission or curatorial approach but does expect “shifts in how we communicate, including increasing use of the Internet.”

An important focus of her work in the next few years will be a major capital campaign that will lead to the opening of several new exhibition spaces.

In that effort, Rafferty will no doubt draw on the qualities she says have been most important to her success — organizational skills, a high level of energy and sincere interest in what she’s doing.

Perhaps most important – given the number of high-society benefits and other parties she will likely organize and attend – will be her people skills, which she says are crucial both inside and outside the museum. Good relationships with staff throughout the institution help her understand its breadth and thus represent the museum appropriately to diverse audiences.

It’s fun, too, she admits: “The people dimension will always be a favorite aspect of my job.”

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