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Tom Lentz to step down as director of Harvard Art Museums

Thomas W. Lentz, director of the Harvard Art Museums.
Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff/File
Thomas W. Lentz, director of the Harvard Art Museums.

Just two months after overseeing the completion of a six-year, $350 million renovation, Tom Lentz, the director of the Harvard Art Museums, has announced his intention to step down.

The news comes as a surprise to some in the museum world who thought Lentz might stick around to enjoy the fruits of his many years of labor. But to others in the know, the announcement is no surprise at all.

Lentz, 63, took up the position in 2003, and in the intervening dozen years has been put to the test so many times and in so many ways that many people marvel he lasted so long. He is set to depart on July 1; a search for his replacement begins immediately.

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He leaves in his moment of triumph, with one of the world’s great art museums — home to more than 250,000 objects across all cultures and periods, and many individual masterpieces — hugely enhanced after years of often grueling effort.

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“He’s done a wonderful, wonderful job,” said Michael Conforti, the director of the recently renovated Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, and a Harvard graduate. “It’s not exactly been a smooth ride, but he’s pulled it together, and he’s done it unbelievably elegantly. It is an extraordinary achievement.”

According to Drew Faust, the president of Harvard University, Lentz “not only reconfigured the physical spaces” of the museum, “but also changed our understanding of the place of the Harvard Art Museums in the university, and indeed in the world.”

Praising Lentz’s determination to emphasize the museum as a “teaching machine,” with highly visible conservation spaces, a large art study center, and galleries devoted to changing displays by teachers and students, Faust confessed herself “a tremendous admirer” — and a great fan of Lentz’s sense of humor.

A tall, white-haired Californian who loves the outdoors, Lentz speaks in a drawl so steady and relaxed that he can often sound bored with himself. He declined to talk with the press yesterday, but in a letter sent out to the Harvard community, he summarized his experience: “I came to Harvard thinking much of my work would be centered on infrastructure issues at our historic building at 32 Quincy Street. While that did occur, what we really pursued was something quite different: a complete re-imagining of our institution and its re-alignment with the academic mission of Harvard University.”

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Before moving into museum administration, Lentz was a specialist in Islamic art. He organized an exhibition on 15th-century Persian art during the reign of Timur (otherwise known as Tamerlane) with Glenn Lowry, who went on to become the director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Lentz’s public manner, both urbane and self-effacing, veils a streak of unbending determination. When he arrived in Cambridge from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., Harvard’s storied art museums had endured years of dysfunction. The old Fogg Art Museum on Quincy Street, which held the bulk of the collection, had a leaky roof and no proper climate control, putting precious artworks at risk and making visits to the museum uncomfortable.

Its storage spaces were overcrowded, and its original, 1927 electrical and plumbing systems were still in place. If it was not overhauled, quickly, the museum — a home to masterpieces by Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Pollock, and countless others — would not be reaccredited, according to a 2007 report in Harvard Magazine.

The Busch-Reisinger Museum, dedicated to Harvard’s collection of Germanic art, was ensconced at the time in a 1991 building tacked onto the back of the Fogg, and suffering from structural problems. The Arthur M. Sackler Museum, devoted chiefly to Asian art, was across the road in a building designed in 1985.

Lentz’s job was to find a way to yoke all three museums together, while acknowledging their separate histories and safeguarding some degree of autonomy. He had to revamp — really, to gut — a beloved old building in the process: a massive project for which the Italian architect Renzo Piano was hired.

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Early in his tenure, Lentz had further goals. Having completed his doctoral degree at Harvard, he was mindful that the university’s art museums lagged behind when it came to contemporary art, and was determined to commit resources to this area.

Taking up an idea initiated by his predecessor, James Cuno, Lentz twice tried to establish new satellite museum buildings in Allston where modern and contemporary art might be highlighted.

But the urgency and ballooning costs of the Fogg renovations made it clear that two simultaneous building projects would be overambitious. All of Lentz’s energies went into the Quincy Street renovation.

The project required finding a facility that could house the collection and the museum’s administrative offices during the renovation period. Lentz and his staff installed a display of highlights from the collection in the Sackler galleries, and moved the rest of the collection to storage in Somerville. They had to get permission to knock down the Busch-Reisinger building, and to make necessary alterations to the neighboring Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, famous for being the only building in the US designed by the great modernist architect Le Corbusier.

Lentz had to navigate his way through Harvard’s byzantine bureaucracy, resolve numerous conflicts with Piano’s team, and raise huge amounts of money even as Harvard’s endowment plummeted in the wake of the global financial crisis of 2008. He had to unite the three museums not only physically, but also administratively and conceptually, trying all the while to keep the institution engaged with its essential business, and frustrated curators happy.

Debi Kao, the museum’s chief curator, yesterday described Lentz as “an extraordinarily authentic person,” a “problem solver” who appears “egoless,” and likes to deflect attention away from himself.

Jock Reynolds, the director of the Yale University Art Gallery, said yesterday he has known Lentz “for decades.” Reynolds, who recently oversaw Yale’s own widely acclaimed expansion and renovation, says that Lentz was “excited and challenged to take on the renovation of his alma mater [museum]. Both of us have had arduous projects to undertake that were challenging but very rewarding. And we both had to do it in the teeth of recession.

“My main message,” says Reynolds, “is just to congratulate him. He’s shown tremendous patience and perseverance.”

Kao echoed that sentiment. “It’s one of those days,” she said, “when you just want to stand up and give him a standing ovation.”

More coverage:

Special section: Harvard Art Museums

Interactive graphic: Making Harvard’s art accessible

Architecture review: Cramming at Harvard Art Museums

Art review: Harvard Art Museums offer dazzling artworks, savvy curation

Expansion unveiled at Harvard Art Museums

View from the Harvard Art Museums’ Calderwood Courtyard

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.