A soft breeze blows through the air as Tom Lentz, director of the Harvard Art Museums, walks down a ramp and approaches a spot he’s grown to appreciate. It’s a perch high above the dusty crater that will, sometime late in 2013, be the epicenter of a $350 million renovation and expansion of the university’s museums.
This spot is where Lentz takes trustees, donors, staff members - anybody who is interested in seeing just how massive a project the university has undertaken.
It’s also important to stand here because, frankly, it helps explain the sometimes confusing structure of the Harvard Art Museums. There are actually three museums. The Fogg Museum, in a building on Quincy Street since 1927, was the first. The Busch-Reisinger Museum, with a focus on German art, was housed after 1991 in a building connected to the back of the Fogg, facing Prescott Street, which is parallel to Quincy. Then there’s the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, built in 1985 with a focus on Asian art and located across the street, on Broadway. That will change when the project is complete and the Sackler, Busch-Reisinger, and Fogg are all under one roof, accessible by both Quincy and Prescott streets.
“When you stand here, you can begin to see it take shape in terms of volume and the mass of our building,’’ says Lentz. “It’s very dramatic.’’
The Fogg has served an as important center for museumgoers, drawing on the Harvard Art Museums’ extensive collection of about 250,000 objects. But the building has needed work for decades. There was no climate control, the roof leaked, and all of its major systems - from electrical to plumbing - were outdated. Meanwhile the Busch-Reisinger, when built in 1991, had serious structural problems, Lentz has said. The Fogg’s interior has been largely gutted and is being rebuilt, while its central courtyard has been preserved. The Busch-Reisinger was knocked down and removed completely to make way for the construction.
When the new Harvard Art Museums complex opens, it will feature five floors for visitors, with a total gallery space of 43,000 square feet - an increase from 31,000 square feet for the three museums in the past. There will also be a new cafe, a restaurant, and a 300-seat auditorium. Museum leaders are particularly excited about the expanded study centers - where visitors can make requests to examine works in the collection - and expanded curricular galleries, where students and faculty will mount exhibitions.
In preparation for the construction, the Fogg and Busch-Reisinger museums closed in 2008. Five years is a long time for museums to be shut down, even if the smaller Sackler space remained open for exhibitions. During that time, Lentz lost some staff, including a number of curators, and there were moments when morale wavered. But those who remained say that the negative energy drained away as the opening date moved into focus.
“We’re giddy in the halls these days,’’ says chief curator Deborah Martin Kao. “This is the fun part, the culmination of so many years of waiting.’’
For the past three years, staff have been working to redefine the way the Harvard Art Museums will operate and how they will rehang the collection in the new complex. The work takes place in Somerville, in a former factory building that’s become the Harvard Art Museums’ satellite location, housing staff, artworks, and the museums’ conservation lab.
The heart of the operation might be a single room. This is where models of the complex’s future galleries rest on tables, and tiny versions of artworks - with magnetic backing - hang on the miniature walls. Curators meet and play museum with the tiny paintings and sculptures.
One major difference for visitors will be what they see when they enter from Quincy Street. The first galleries will focus on contemporary art.
Curators are also excited that the space for temporary exhibitions will increase from 2,000 square feet to nearly 8,000 square feet.
“I can’t think of any aspect of the museum that hasn’t been completely taken apart and put back together again,’’ says Lentz.
Over the past decade, plans for the Harvard Art Museums have not always gone smoothly. In 2002, Harvard dropped plans for a new museum on the banks of the Charles River in Cambridge, after neighbors objected. Harvard then attempted to create a contemporary art museum on land the university owns in Allston. That plan advanced far enough that, by 2006, Harvard had selected a spot on Western Avenue for a building and hired architects. But late in 2007, the university decided to hold off on that project.
That decision cost Lentz one of his most respected curators.
Helen Molesworth had been hired in 2006 to serve as curator of contemporary art. In 2010, she jumped to the Institute of Contemporary Art, where she is now chief curator.
Molesworth, in an interview, says that when the Allston project dissolved, she was left with “what felt to me like a much smaller platform than a new building devoted to modern and contemporary art.’’
Looking back, she says that anyone might have predicted that those early years after the Fogg and Busch-Reisinger closed down would have been difficult.
“Anytime an institution goes through a transformation like that, it’s wrenching,’’ Molesworth says. “Museums are full of people who are deeply visual and fetishists. They like to walk through galleries and see things. When they can’t, they get upset.’’
Over the course of more than three years, seven curators left for reasons including retirement, the end of term appointments, and moving from assistant curator to head curator positions at other institutions, according to Daron Manoogian, director of communications for the Harvard Art Museums. Over the same span, five new curators were hired, says Manoogian, who states that this is not an unusual rate of turnover.
Lentz acknowledges that he faced some internal resistance to change, including the reorganization of 10 curatorial areas into three new divisions: Modern and Contemporary Art, European and American Art, and Asian and Mediterranean Art. He also faced questions from staff about a push to raise money for the building project.
Lentz remembers, in particular, a senior curator whom he will not name - and who has since left, he says - standing up during a meeting after the museums closed to complain that fund-raising concerns had taken precedence over art and research.
“I stood up and said, ‘I really have to correct what you have said here,’ ’’ Lentz recounts. “I did feel that senior curator was essentially throwing down the gauntlet. I felt that question was intentionally meant to derail the planning process.’’
Ivan Gaskell, one of the longtime curators who left the Harvard Art Museums, says he had many concerns about the organization’s direction. He ticks off a list of problems - from the way Harvard treats its curators to what he feels is a lack of connection between the university’s many museums - that he didn’t feel would be remedied through the new project.
“I don’t get the impression that the thinking about this has been on a high enough level,’’ says Gaskell.
He particularly found the exits of longtime curators disheartening. These included Harry Cooper, the former curator of modern art, who left to become head of modern and contemporary art at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and Peter Nisbet, the former curator of the Busch-Reisinger Museum, who became chief curator at the Ackland Art Museum at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“A museum is not in the first place a collection of things, of objects,’’ says Gaskell. “It’s people. You get it the wrong way around if you think it’s about a collection. You can have the greatest collection in the world, but if you don’t have the people to do great things with the collection, you may as well not have that.’’
Even Lentz concedes that he didn’t know exactly what he was in for when he started at Harvard in 2003. But his frustrations began to dissipate once he and his staff were able to focus on the new plan for the museum complex. He found support from Emily Rauh Pulitzer, who donated $45 million to the project in 2008 along with 31 works of art by Picasso, Modigliani, and Giacometti. He also found the staff and university faculty excited about the idea of beefing up the connection between the galleries and classrooms.
“I’d be hard pressed to think of many museums that can hook up with the kind of educational resources we have at Harvard,’’ says Lentz.
And while the museums remained closed, Lentz and his staff staged exhibitions at the Sackler. Susan Dackerman, hired by Lentz in 2005 as a curator of prints, said that she probably would not have had time to create her current show, “Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe,’’ without the construction project.
Dackerman, who is married to Molesworth, said she never considered leaving. In creating “Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge,’’ she worked with more than a dozen Harvard students on the show’s catalog, a deepened connection with the university on which she hopes to build.
“Everyone feels really good and optimistic about where things are going and what’s possible, and the planning for the reinstallation has been reinvigorating,’’ says Dackerman. “I think that in the beginning, when people didn’t know what was going to happen, there was some apprehension. But over the last two years, the path has been laid showing us what’s going to happen. It has just made people feel a lot more secure.’’
Molesworth, watching from the ICA, says she’s particularly impressed with Lentz.
“He did something that no one was able to do at the art museum,’’ says Molesworth. “He came into an institution, Harvard University, that has all the byzantine trappings of the Vatican in terms of its bureaucracy, and he got all his ducks in a row to renovate the museum. Nobody else was able to do that.’’