Arts

Chicago museum veteran to take helm at Harvard Art Museums

Martha Tedeschi, who has been named the new director of the Harvard Art Museums, in the courtyard of the museum complex.
Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
Martha Tedeschi, who has been named the new director of the Harvard Art Museums, in the courtyard of the museum complex.

Harvard University has named Martha Tedeschi, a veteran of the Art Institute of Chicago, as the new director of the Harvard Art Museums.

Tedeschi, who serves as deputy director for art and research at the Art Institute, comes to the Harvard post with deep curatorial roots — experience that she says will help her oversee museum programming that serves the university’s student population while also welcoming the public.

“It’s incredibly exhilarating,” said Tedeschi by phone. “I obviously need to do a lot of listening, but immediately I’m going to want to start talking to the staff about how we can be more inclusive, how we can help diversify the museum field.”

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Tedeschi, 57, will formally assume her duties in July. She takes over for Thomas Lentz, who stepped down after 12 years as director last July.

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A specialist in British and American art, Tedeschi inherits a museum transformed following a $350 million renovation and expansion designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Renzo Piano. The reimagined complex, which opened in 2014, united three previously independent collections — the Busch-Reisinger, Fogg, and Arthur M. Sackler – into a seamless, epoch-spanning museum that comprises some 250,000 objects, one of the largest collections in the country.

“I know excellence when I see it, and I certainly see it at Harvard,” said Tedeschi. “I’ve respected Harvard, its collections, and staff for many years.”

Tedeschi is something of a rarity in today’s peripatetic world: She has spent her entire career at the Art Institute of Chicago, where she began as a National Endowment for the Arts intern in 1982. She later became a curator in the museum’s department of prints and drawings, where she organized exhibitions of Winslow Homer’s watercolors and the work of John Marin, among others.

In her current post, Tedeschi oversees a staff of roughly 225 people across 11 curatorial departments, as well as the museum’s libraries, archives, conservation science department, and academic programs.

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“Martha Tedeschi stood out among a pool of exceptional candidates,” Harvard provost Alan Garber said in a statement. “We are pleased that she will lead the Harvard Art Museums into the future, while building on the superb work of Tom Lentz and the museums’ dedicated staff.”

Harvard president Drew Faust also welcomed Tedeschi, saying that she arrives at a moment of “remarkable opportunity.”

“Her expertise and leadership will elevate our extraordinary collections and integrate them more fully into Harvard’s intellectual life, challenging our community to grow as we seek to interpret and change the world,” said Faust in a statement. “The arts are essential to the university’s highest purposes, and I look forward to the ways in which they will continue to flourish under her direction.”

Tedeschi’s appointment also serves as the final piece in a cultural puzzle created after a triumvirate of longtime leaders at the three largest art museums in Boston and Cambridge relinquished their positions in the span of less than a year.

In August, Matthew Teitelbaum became the director of the Museum of Fine Arts, succeeding Malcolm Rogers, who had held the position for more than two decades. Meanwhile, Peggy Fogelman assumed her duties last month as the director of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, taking over for Anne Hawley, who retired last year after 25 years in the role.

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“This is a really exciting time,” said Fogelman, who added that Tedeschi “covers all the bases.” “I feel very fortunate to have this whole new generation of leaders in Boston, and I can’t wait to find ways that we can help and support each other.”

Tedeschi said she was looking forward to collaborating with others at Harvard and beyond.

“Now that the museum is beautifully there, we have to figure what the content will be, what the dialogue will be, where can we make the most impact,” said Tedeschi, who said that as a curator she has often borrowed works from the Fogg. “The big challenge is making sure we maximize the potential of what Tom accomplished. It would be a shame to not push it as far as we can. There’s an enormous potential there.”

Tedeschi said she was particularly interested in using objects in the collection to help students and museumgoers develop “visual literacy.”

“We are living in an increasingly image-saturated world,” she said. “We need to be thinking more critically about our relationship to visual information.”

At the Art Institute, Tedeschi implemented several educational programs, including a partnership with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and local universities to use objects in the museum’s collection to teach graduate students. She also supervised an undergraduate curatorial program aimed at increasing diversity in museums, and she led the museum’s push to digitize its permanent collection.

Robin Kelsey, who as chair of Harvard’s history of art and architecture department was on the search committee, admired how closely Tedeschi has worked with academic institutions in Chicago.

“I was impressed by the extent to which she combined deep experience at a public museum with a vigorous com- mitment to the museum as a springboard for teaching and research,” he said. “She really understands the mission of our museum.”

Tedeschi, who holds a Ph.D. in art history from Northwestern University, is the past president of the Print Council of America, and she sits on the board of the Association of Art Museum Curators.

She has published widely, contributing scholarly articles as well as editing and co-authoring “The Lithographs of James McNeill Whistler.”

“Martha’s talent for cultivating and inspiring creative collaboration makes her a natural fit for her new leadership role at Harvard,” said James Rondeau, president and director of the Art Institute of Chicago. “In a word, Martha defines excellence.”

Tedeschi added that while she hadn’t been looking for a new job, she found the Harvard directorship irresistible.

“Harvard won me over pretty quickly,” she said. “I’m at a stage in my career where I’m already thinking about my legacy. Harvard is by no means a stepping-stone for me: It’s a legacy.”

Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay