THE CONTROVERSY HAS faded, and the gleaming new wing is almost ready for opening day.
Anne Hawley, director of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, sits in her new office on a recent afternoon, her window overlooking two artist-in-residence apartments. Nearby, workers furiously install finishing touches, from shelves to fresh sod, for an expansion more than a decade in the making.
Hawley, wearing one of her trademark long scarves, is about to meet a pair of donors to offer a behind-the-scenes tour of the building, which opens to the public Jan. 19. Designed by famed architect Renzo Piano, the $114 million new wing more than doubles the Gardner’s footprint.
She praises the team behind the expansion, the fruit of a $180 million fund-raising campaign. She singles out board president Barbara Hostetter for encouraging patience during its extensive planning. And she raves about Piano, particularly for his willingness to be flexible during the design process. The museum’s concert hall, for example, is at least its fifth iteration.
For Hawley, the project exemplifies her long-term approach: It demanded patience and suggestions from a variety of sources. It required reams of documents and numerous hearings, as the museum made the case that moving ancillary activities into a new building - everything from the restaurant and gift shop to the coatroom, staff offices, conservation and education spaces, plus a new concert hall - would in fact help preserve the 108-year-old palace built by Isabella Stewart Gardner.
Sure, Hawley weathered some criticism - attacks for leading a project that some say went against the very wishes of the museum’s founder. But the stock market meltdown three years ago presented more of a challenge, Hawley says. She struggled to sleep until her doctor prescribed Ambien. She replaced a development director in the midst of the Gardner’s fund-raising campaign. Even now, she grows tense as she talks of 2009, when plans teetered on the edge of uncertainty.
“None of it really makes sense,’’ Hawley says, explaining the process of raising money for such a project. “To work like this, to take the kind of journey it is, can be awkward and messy and disquieting.’’
There were times when Hawley, stressed and tired of pressing for funds, would go into the galleries for inspiration. Titian, Rembrandt, and Michelangelo reminded her why she was doing this.
And then, somehow, she found the money. To date, the Gardner has raised $145 million of its $180 million campaign goal.
“In one call, I got the name of someone who is so inaccessible, nobody had been able to reach her,’’ Hawley remembers. “I just kept calling and calling her cellphone, maybe 15 times over a week, and left her messages. I was coming out of a meeting and the phone rang and it was this woman. She said, ‘I know you’ve been trying to reach me but I’ve been difficult. I’m sorry, I don’t think we can do much . . . but I’ll give you $1 million.’’
In Boston, a city where museum directors have become increasingly higher profile, Hawley is a quiet voice. She’s not as brash as Jill Medvedow, director of the Institute of Contemporary Art, nor as regal as Museum of Fine Arts head Malcolm Rogers. Yet she’s been in her position considerably longer than both of them, having started at the Gardner in 1989.
During her tenure, the Gardner installed a climate control system, improved security, created programs for contemporary art and education, and increased the endowment from $27 million to $108 million.
In describing her leadership style, Hawley, 68, speaks of her desire to work with others and remain in the background.
“I’m a very different kind of director,’’ she said. “I don’t really like to put myself out there as ‘the one.’ ’’
Rogers, who has watched the Gardner grow from just around the corner, says he admires Hawley’s poise and quiet confidence. He also notes the difference between his position and that of Hawley.
“There’s one big woman at the Gardner,’’ he says with a laugh. “That’s Mrs. Gardner. It’s good not to upstage her.’’
To hear Hawley describe it, there’s a direct line from her childhood in Iowa to her position at the Gardner. Growing up, she remembers lying on the floor of her living room listening to her aunt play Beethoven sonatas while a summer breeze billowed the curtains into the air. Her mother loved poetry and art; her father ran the family farm.
After studying English at the University of Iowa, Hawley earned a master’s in urban studies at George Washington University and worked at several nonprofits before moving to Boston.
In 1977, she took over the Massachusetts Council on the Arts and Humanities, now known as the Massachusetts Cultural Council. During her 12-year tenure, the agency’s budget reached its highest level ever.
“What people saw her do at the arts council was have a vision, work with a broad base of people, and see change happen,’’ says Susan Hartnett, executive director of the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, who has known Hawley since the late ’70s. “When she was hired at the Gardner, it was about an organization that was loved but needed to move into the new world.’’
When Hawley arrived, the museum was seen as stagnant and sleepy, a place more concerned with looking back at Gardner’s legacy than doing much to build on it. Making matters worse, on a March night in 1990, thieves stole 13 artworks valued at up to $500 million - the most famous unsolved art theft in history.
Hawley’s supporters say that through a painstaking planning process and fund-raising campaign, she has brought the Gardner into the modern era. The new wing, they say, will protect the palace from the wear brought on by the steady increase in attendance and staff size since Gardner’s death in 1925. Offices were installed in former closets. The entrance could be cramped and overflowing. And in 2000, the museum studied its popular music program, which hosted concerts in the Tapestry Room, a charming space but one not suited for large crowds. The report’s conclusion: “Build more space or radically cut your program back,’’ says Hawley.
From then on, seating for concerts was reduced from 325 to 250 seats. And Hawley and her board began work on their expansion plan.
“The Gardner was sort of a very little cult jewel, and I don’t think that sat all that well with Anne,’’ says Kathy Halbreich, deputy director at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and former contemporary art curator at the Museum of Fine Arts. “She wanted to make it useful and compelling to a much larger audience.’’
The expansion hasn’t pleased everyone. Members of the Gardner staff, some of whom still work there, lobbied museum board members, regulatory commissions, and even the state attorney general’s office to stop the project, Hawley says. Some neighborhood activists and preservationists remain upset about the plan. They point to Gardner’s famously restrictive will, which sought to protect her 1903 Venetian-style palazzo from changes. And they say Hawley has not properly understood Gardner’s legacy.
The dismay largely centers on the destruction, two years ago, of a 1907 Carriage House on the Gardner grounds. In recent years, it had been used for storage and as an apartment for visiting artists.
After working with Piano, the Gardner decided it couldn’t build a new wing to address its needs without moving the Carriage House. Hawley says she never wanted to knock it down, but relocating it would be too expensive.
“The cultural legacy of Mrs. Gardner has been diminished with the destruction,’’ says Trevor Fairbrother, a freelance curator who has worked with the Gardner and may do so again.
For her part, Hawley says she didn’t mind the criticism from people like Fairbrother.
“I actually think it’s good to have so many people who care so deeply,’’ she says. “From my days in the public sector, I learned that any time you walk into a room, you’re going to have proponents and opponents.’’
Hawley does remain hurt by a small group of staffers who, she says, never discussed their concerns directly with her. “I always thought we’d encouraged open conversations,’’ she says. “I couldn’t understand why they couldn’t be a part of that.’’
Early one recent morning, Hawley gathers five senior staffers for a meeting at the Tavern, a more than century-old social club in Boston’s Theatre District.
Hawley, who seems to know her Boston history like the bluest Brahmin, takes them through the club, which has counted Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry James, and now Hawley as members.
She stops at a framed photograph of the artist Ignaz Gaugengigl.
“He was a German whose work wasn’t allowed in most museums because of World War I,’’ Hawley says, adding with pride, “Mrs. Gardner bought it, so it’s now in the museum.’’
The meeting starts. Oliver Tostmann, 38, the new curator of the collection, outlines plans for his first exhibition in the new wing, focused on Swedish artist Anders Zorn.
When he finishes, everyone chimes in. Landscape curator Charles Waldheim says the show could be better focused. Education curator Peggy Burchenal questions Tostmann’s decision to put the word “seduction’’ in the working title. Does it trivialize the show? Music director Scott Nickrenz, munching on a doughnut, simply seems floored to learn that a couple of drawings Tostmann showed are in the Gardner’s collection.
Hawley scrolls through her BlackBerry and takes notes, then presses Tostmann on an issue of concern to her. She wants him to understand the importance of creating fresh scholarship.
“What new thinking about Zorn are we bringing to life?’’ Hawley says. “We really have to be sure that we’re ringing a bell on that.’’
Tostmann listens closely, and then, eager to please his colleagues, agrees to changes in response to their criticism.
His quick responses are not what Hawley is looking for. She holds up her hands to suggest patience. Tostmann’s show isn’t opening until 2013. There’s plenty of time for planning, for getting everything just right.
“Let’s not make any decisions yet,’’ she says. “This is all up for grabs right now.’’