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Alan Shestack, former director of the Museum of Fine Arts, dies at 81

Mr. Shestack served as the director of the MFA from 1987 to 1993.HERDE, TOM GLOBE STAFF PHOTO/The Boston Globe

Anticipating the kinds of exhibitions patrons will flock to before they actually realize they’d like to see those shows is among the greatest challenges museum leaders face, Alan Shestack mused in April 1987, just after he was named director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

“The hardest thing of all is to bring the public what they want, but don’t know about,” he told the Globe.

As MFA director, Mr. Shestack achieved multiple triumphs, including the 1990 Monet exhibition, which drew hundreds of thousands of visitors to the museum, before he departed in September 1993 amid a financial crisis that had been growing behind the scenes since before his arrival.

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Mr. Shestack, who finished his career as deputy director and chief curator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., was 81 when he died in his Washington home April 14.

He had been suffering from multiple health problems in recent years and there was no suggestion his death was coronavirus-related, said his longtime friend Mervin Richard, personal representative of Mr. Shestack’s estate and chief of conservation at the National Gallery.

While leading an important cultural institution that’s closely tied to Boston’s Brahmin past, Mr. Shestack took steps to diversify the MFA’s leadership and exhibitions.

In an early key hire, he brought Kathy Halbreich over from directing the List Visual Arts Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to be the MFA’s curator of contemporary art. She is now executive director of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation.

Mr. Shestack’s “tenure at the MFA was dedicated to expanding the scope and interpretation of works of art and their elegant display,” Matthew Teitelbaum, the current director of the MFA, said in a statement.

“He committed to the museum’s collection of African art with true purpose, and encouraged a deepened belief in the role that modernist and contemporary art could play within the museum’s collection displays,” Teitelbaum added. “Notably the great (and incomparable) Lane Collection came to museum while he was our director.”

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The Lane Collection comprises American modern paintings and thousands of photographs, including hundreds from Edward Weston and Ansel Adams.

At a time when the MFA’s board was all white, Mr. Shestack also advocated publicly and behind the scenes to diversify the museum’s leadership.

“I do not choose the board, of course; they choose me,” he told the Globe in January 1991. “But I have certainly let them know my feeling that the board is a little homogenized.”

Nearly all the museum’s department heads were white then as well. In the same interview, for a Globe report on the lack of diversity in the museum’s staffing and holdings, Mr. Shestack noted that change occurs slowly at institutions steeped in tradition.

“We haven’t been in the vanguard, I’m sad to say. But finally museums are getting a little social conscience,” he said, adding with a note of frustration: “I am a member of the American Civil Liberties Union. It’s hard to be a liberal and lead an institution like this.”

As part of the MFA’s statement, Ted Stebbins, who was the MFA’s John Moors Cabot curator of American paintings while Mr. Shestack was director, said that “Alan was one of the finest people I have ever known. A superb scholar, a lover of all kinds of art, a person of the highest integrity, he also had a terrific sense of humor.”

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When Mr. Shestack was tapped to lead the MFA, he was director of the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

Upon his arrival, the MFA appeared to be in relatively sound fiscal health. A retrospective of paintings by impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir left the museum with a surplus of more than $1 million in 1986, the Globe reported early into Mr. Shestack’s tenure.

Finances soured, however, and in early June 1991, museum employees were laid off, hours were cut for others, and the MFA trimmed the annual number of exhibitions to close a burgeoning deficit.

That crisis was due in part to borrowing for capital projects that dated back several years before Mr. Shestack arrived.

“I detested it,” he said in a Globe interview about the cutbacks. “I’ve been in museum work all my life. I’m 53 years old, and I’ve never laid off a person in my life.”

Born in New York City in 1938, Mr. Shestack grew up in Rochester, N.Y., a son of David Shestack and Sylvia P. Saffran.

In a video posted online, he said his years at Brighton High School in Rochester helped prepare him for his curator career, notably the French classes that proved invaluable in later years when he traveled regularly to France.

His family hoped he’d become a lawyer, but a printmaking course at Wesleyan University, from which he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1961, awakened his passion for art.

He went on to receive a master’s from Harvard University in 1963 and study in Europe for two years on a National Gallery fellowship.

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“Early on, my mentor told me that I needed to become as familiar with paintings in the great European museums as I am with my wife’s handwriting,” he told Wesleyan University Magazine in 2001.

Mr. Shestack’s first curator job included responsibility for the National Gallery’s Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection in Pennsylvania.

In 1965, he moved to the Yale University Art Gallery, where he stayed until 1985, rising to become director and an adjunct professor.

After two years in Minneapolis, Mr. Shestack began his MFA tenure, where among other endeavors he “set the stage for our 20-year relationship with the Nagoya Museum of Fine Arts Boston, and did so with a belief that our collections needed wide exposure, and deserved truly international audiences,” Teitelbaum said in his statement, referring to a sister museum in Japan. “He was a professional with conviction.”

Upon leaving the MFA in 1993, Mr. Shestack returned to the National Gallery, where he was deputy director and chief curator until retiring 15 years later.

In 1967, he married Nancy Jane Davidson, an immigration lawyer. She had been a Peace Corps volunteer and spent much of her career working with refugees seeking political asylum in the United States. She died in 2016.

“They were both kind of saints,” Richard said. “They spent a lot of time and energy and money trying to look after people who weren’t being taken care of.”

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A service will be announced for Mr. Shestack, who leaves a foster daughter, Lisa Yi Lu Feng, of Cupertino, Calif., and two grandchildren.

Mr. Shestack “was a natural storyteller,” Richard said, and those tales were told with a rich baritone voice that would have been at home on the radio — a career he had been encouraged to consider before he decided to focus on art and museums.

Richard added that Mr. Shestack “was keenly in love with art, especially prints.”

In the early 1980s, Mr. Shestack published the book “Hans Baldung Grien: Prints and Drawings,” coauthored with James Marrow.

“He was a man of passion and belief, and spoke so thoughtfully of the honor of a professional calling,” Teitelbaum said in his statement.

Ultimately, though, Mr. Shestack preferred the curator role he embraced anew after leaving Boston to rejoin the National Gallery

“I felt my role at the MFA had taken me a long way from the things I enjoy doing,” he said upon departing Boston.


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.