Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum director Anne Hawley, whose 25-year tenure began with a notorious art heist and culminated in a successful $180 million capital campaign, announced Wednesday that she plans to step down at the end of the year.
Hawley said she has been quietly weighing the decision for two years now, as the museum completed fund-raising efforts that included $114 million for the museum’s sleek 2012 expansion, designed by renowned architect Renzo Piano, and an additional $50 million to fortify the museum’s endowment.
“One should always go when you’re at the top of your game,” said Hawley, 71. “I told the board I’d stay until we finished the capital campaign, and it is done — $180 million. The new wing is built, all the curators are endowed, which was a dream I never expected to see happen. We have a new five-year plan that is so exciting. I just feel like it’s time to let a new person lead.”
The museum’s board of trustees has established a committee to conduct a global search for Hawley’s successor.
“We would have been happy to have her stay as long as she could,” said Steve Kidder, board president. “We will miss her desperately, but she’s also been very careful in her thinking to allow the next director to position the museum.”
Hawley is the third major museum director in the Boston area to announce plans to resign in the past year, following Malcolm Rogers at the Museum of Fine Arts last February and Tom Lentz at the Harvard Art Museums two weeks ago.
“She not only stabilized the building, she transformed the institution,” said Rogers. “She’s done a tremendous job.”
Jill Medvedow, who worked as a curator under Hawley before becoming director of the Institute of Contemporary Art, was similarly effusive. “Anne is an enormously important voice in the arts — not just in Boston, but nationally,” said Medvedow. “She fiercely believes in artists and ideas.”
Appointed in September 1989, Hawley inherited a sleepy museum with an aging infrastructure, an inadequate endowment, a custodial attitude toward the collection, and a conservative approach to programming. She quickly set about planning to revivify the Gardner — raising funds to install a new climate control system, rewire the building’s electrical system, and replace the courtyard roof.
“The museum needed to be brought back to life,” said Hawley. Extreme shifts in temperature and humidity in the building were a concern, and she was mortified early in her tenure when a cloud of mist formed above John Singer Sargent’s celebrated painting “El Jaleo.” “I came thinking of developing programming, but when I got there, all the structural issues — from security to electrical — it was like a makeover.”
But six months into her tenure, the unthinkable happened: On March 18, 1990, two thieves, dressed as Boston police officers, talked their way into the museum and stole masterpieces that have been valued at $500 million, including treasures by Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Manet. It remains the largest unsolved art heist in US history.
“That was shattering,” Hawley said. “We don’t often look evil in the eye, but that part of the human condition is what we’ve worked with for almost 25 years.”
She particularly misses Vermeer’s painting “The Concert.” “That picture just haunts me,” she said. “There are those musicians, sitting there making music — of course it’s a silent music — but it’s like they’re still at it, yet they’re hidden away in someone’s closet.”
Amid heightened anxieties over security following the theft, Hawley evacuated the museum several times following bomb threats. The authorities instructed her to take a different route home every night from work, warning that her daughter was not to be picked up by anyone who wasn’t known to her school.
But Hawley, like the museum she led, refused to break.
“I was not going to be defeated by that,” she said. “It galvanized people to conserve the collection. We had to transcend that horror.”
Over the next two decades, Hawley embarked on a massive overhaul of the building, conserving the collection by upgrading many of the museum’s systems and re-installing several of its galleries.
She also expanded the museum’s programming. Isabella Gardner had surrounded herself with artists, and Sargent had used the museum’s Gothic Room as a studio. Within two years of the theft, Hawley stayed true to Gardner’s philosophy by initiating the artists-in-residence program, which offered the museum’s living quarters to artists.
“Having the artists come in was such a healing thing to do,” she said, adding that the program has hosted some 88 artists. “I started the programs because they were in the DNA of the place.”
Gregory Maguire, author of “Wicked,” was among the first artists to be invited for a residency. He recalls a particular moonlit evening when, roaming the museum at midnight, guards allowed him to sing in the museum’s courtyard.
“It’s Anne Hawley amplifying what Isabella Gardner did herself,” said Maguire, who credits the Gardner residency for partially inspiring his second novel, “Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister.” “I’m devastated at the thought she’ll be leaving, but I’m so grateful we’ve had her for as long as we have.”
Hawley also began building a team of curators, creating new programs in music, education, and landscape, while hiring a curator of the collection as well as a curator of contemporary art.
“She was such a magnet,” said former board president and current board member Barbara Hostetter, who is chairing the search committee to find a successor.
Many of the museum’s exhibitions have sought to bring a fresh scholarly perspective to objects in the Gardner’s permanent collection. Others have showcased the work of contemporary artists.
“Art and the museum’s relationship with artists were some of her top priorities,” said Lee Mingwei, a former artist in residence. “It’s invigorating to have such a caring and kind mentor.”
Hawley will probably be most remembered, however, for overseeing the creation of the museum’s new wing. Opened to the public in 2012, the addition expanded the museum’s footprint by roughly 70,000 square feet, creating a new public entrance and allowing new space for concerts, a cafe, a gift shop, and other amenities.
“I don’t think she had any idea when she started that it would end up where it is,” said Hostetter. “Her greatest legacy is re-envisioning the museum for the next century in a way that’s very aligned with the spirit of Mrs. Gardner.”
That spirit was on full display on Tuesday, as Hawley roved through galleries after dark with a reporter, flashlight in hand. Her staff had been reduced by the snow. Those who had made it in had already drawn the shades for the night.
But Hawley, who after a quarter-century has developed her own theories about the museum’s namesake, wanted to talk Titian’s “Europa.”
“Everything is in motion,” she said, raking the air toward the masterpiece, which depicts Zeus’ abduction of Europa. “Look at the scales on the fish. Look at the gown, it’s just dissolving into the water.”
Hawley then pointed to a swath of fabric Mrs. Gardner had placed below the painting.
“The fabric was from one of her favorite ball gowns,” she said. “I think she was taking off her dress to enter the painting.”
Hawley says she’s looking forward to renewing her study of music — she trained as a soprano — while also delving into immersion classes in German so she’ll be more adept while visiting her husband’s hometown in Switzerland.
“I feel like it’s time, because I feel like I need a new chapter,” she said. “I’m just going to force myself to do that, and then I’m going to figure out my next move, because what makes me happiest is being able to work with creative minds and talent.”
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