When Anne Hawley became director of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1989, pretty much everything was in decline: the attendance, the collection, and the budget. Now, good luck squeezing into the museum’s sparkling new wing by Renzo Piano on the weekends. Leave it to an Iowa farm girl to revive and remake a Boston landmark.
BOOKS: Isn’t what you call the living room in your new wing a reading room?
HAWLEY: Yes. The living room is filled with bookshelves as well as the front entry hall. We have books on art, music, and gardening. There’s some fiction. The books are there for people to peruse and then leave around, like you would in in your home. We reshelve them.
BOOKS: Have you gotten to peruse those books?
HAWLEY: Not those books. I always have a pile of books I’m reading. I recently said to my husband if I don’t have enough reading time in the week I feel like I don’t have enough oxygen. But it’s so hard to find the time.
BOOKS: Has that been easier since you opened the new wing?
HAWLEY: No, but I finally gave myself permission to read on the job. Now I will read certain books at work because I need to.
BOOKS: What have you read for work that you liked?
HAWLEY: There’s this incredible exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum, “The Renaissance Portrait.’’ The catalog has wonderful essays on portraiture and 15th-century Italy.
The catalog has a list of books in the back, which I burrowed into. I read the biography of Caterina de’ Medici, “The Tigress of Forli’’ by Elizabeth Lev. It’s well done. I picked up a fascinating biography of Lorenzo de’ Medici, “Magnifico’’ by Miles Unger. That led me to “The Swerve’’ by Stephen Greenblatt.
BOOKS: What do you like to read at home?
HAWLEY: I love fiction but I’ve kind of hit the wall with it because I haven’t found anyone I’m excited about. I’ve been on such a biography jag. I recently read “Diaghilev’’ by Sjeng Scheijen, which I liked. I just started a biography on Marco Polo by Laurence Bergreen.
BOOKS: How long have you been reading biography?
HAWLEY: We were pursuing finding a biographer for Gardner. That really got me started. That was about 15 years ago. I must have read 30 biographies a year then. Walter Jackson Bate’s biographies on John Keats and on Samuel Johnson were true standouts.
BOOKS: Do you read more than one book at a time?
HAWLEY: I tend to read five or six, all stacked up by my bed. If I’m not exhausted I will burrow into something heavy. When I’m tired I read something easy, like the Marco Polo biography. Or I read about gardening. I love reading the Royal Horticultural Society’s monthly magazine and Hortus, which has articles by eccentric British writers who are cranky and funny. Or I dig into fun classics like “The Education of a Gardener’’ by Russell Page. I also read poetry.
BOOKS: Which poets do you read?
HAWLEY: I don’t venture out much. I read a lot of Rilke in different translations. I like Rosanna Warren, a local poet. Her most recent book is “Ghost in a Red Hat.’’ My mother read poetry to me when I was growing up in Iowa.
BOOKS: What did she read you?
HAWLEY: She was a teacher, so the classics, Keats, Shelley, and Wordsworth, but also children’s poetry like “Elsie Piddock Skips in Her Sleep’’ by Eleanor Farjeon. It’s about a little girl who can skip rope all night long. It’s the most wonderful poem. It also took 45 minutes to read. It was a ploy of mine to get my mother to read that at nap time because by the time she finished she would have fallen asleep and then I wouldn’t have to take a nap.