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A gallery of masters, soon to be gone

From left to right: Malcolm Rogers of the Museum of Fine Arts; Anne Hawley of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum; and Thomas Lentz of the Harvard Art Museums.
From left to right: Malcolm Rogers of the Museum of Fine Arts; Anne Hawley of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum; and Thomas Lentz of the Harvard Art Museums.Globe Staff/File Photos

It was late January 2009, months after the global financial crisis hit, and Anne Hawley was facing a crisis of her own.

Hawley, director of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, had been working with the world-famous Italian architect Renzo Piano for five years, planning an addition to the original Fenway palace housing Mrs. Gardner's illustrious collection.

It wasn't going well. Piano was worried about the project's finances and had told her he wouldn't continue until he had a firm commitment that the project would be built. At that stage, Hawley already had $75 million in pledges, but she needed more, and the fund-raising environment was suddenly dire.

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Then came a break. Hawley was summoned to the Beacon Hill home of Amos and Barbara Hostetter, one of Boston's wealthiest couples and key patrons of the museum. There, she joined a select group of Gardner Museum trustees and their spouses. Out of the blue, Barbara Hostetter introduced a man named Gerard Senehi.

Senehi, who calls himself a mentalist, is a talented magician who performs slick, sleight-of-hand tricks for corporate and other clients. At the Hostetters, a trustee was asked to take off his watch and hold it in his palm. "Senehi looked hard at the watch, and it slowly rose in the air," Hawley would later write.

"The mentalist had made his point: the impossible could actually happen!" wrote Hawley. "At the end of the evening, the board leadership announced that they were putting up a 14 million dollar challenge in which they would match donations, dollar for dollar."

Hawley got her extension built. And after 25 years at the helm of the Gardner, she last week became the third director of a major Boston-area art museum in the past year to announce an intention to resign. The others are Thomas Lentz, director of the Harvard Art Museums, who will step down from his post in July after more than a decade, and Malcolm Rogers, who has led the Museum of Fine Arts for more than two decades.

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All three directors will be defined in large part by the expensive building projects they took on, and — against tough odds — pulled off. All three will leave behind expanded museums with new wings, new ways of showcasing collections, and new amenities for visitors. And all three museums are now looking for new leaders who can, in their own ways, pull rabbits out of a hat — and make donors' wallets open wide.

Hawley had the comfort of knowing she wasn't alone in her struggles with Piano. Lentz had been dealing with the same architect since becoming director at Harvard in 2003. After a series of false starts, he and Piano were together planning an expansion and renovation of the old Fogg Museum at 32 Quincy St. in Cambridge.

But then, in the wake of the financial crisis, Harvard University's endowment plummeted. Lentz was left butting heads with Piano, and with a great deal of fund-raising to do — at the worst possible time.

Over at the MFA, meanwhile, Malcolm Rogers was in a similar situation. He had locked in half a billion dollars in pledges to build a new Art of the Americas Wing (designed by Norman Foster) and support other projects before the crisis hit. But now he had to hope these promises would hold.

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Ultimately Rogers unveiled the MFA's new wing in 2010. Hawley celebrated the Gardner's expansion in 2012. And Lentz's expanded Harvard Art Museums complex opened last November.

Hawley's anecdote, generously shared in a new book called "Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum: Daring by Design," gives a rare insight into the world today's museum directors have to negotiate — and seduce — if they want to succeed in the challenges they set themselves.

Earlier in the planning process, before the financial crisis hit, Hawley "had fun," she reports, working with Barbara Hostetter, then the museum's board president, trying to persuade others to chip in. "[We] often made our meetings adventurous by arranging gondola rides, hosting picnics, and even hiding in a tree to ask for a gift from a trustee seated on a garden bench below."

Museum director salaries in the United States can be generous, making the leadership of major museums here an attractive prospect to candidates from Europe, the UK, Canada, and Australia, where museums are generally state funded and salaries lower.

But financial compensation comes at a price, and it would appear that any candidate who really wants a job here needs to picture herself or himself perched in trees, warmly applauding mentalists, and pleading for money year in and year out.

More than $800 million went into the projects completed at the MFA, Harvard, and the Gardner. More than that amount again has been spent (combined) on recent expansion projects at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown (2014), Colby College Museum of Art (2013), Yale University Art Gallery (2012), Shelburne Museum (2013), Addison Gallery of American Art (2010), RISD Museum in Providence (2008), Currier Museum of Art (2008), Institute of Contemporary Art (2006), Smith College Museum of Art (2003), and Peabody Essex Museum in Salem (2003).

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Other projects are ongoing or upcoming at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College, Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College, Danforth Art in Framingham, Yale Center for British Art, Portland Museum of Art, and Peabody Essex Museum (again).

For museum directors hoping to have their tenure defined as a success, it seems that ambitious building projects are virtually compulsory.

But of course, there is much more to the job of leading a museum. There is the need to continue to build collections and to conserve and learn more about the collection one already has. There is also the expectation that you will organize exhibitions that are exciting and add to our understanding, offering new opportunities for pleasure and knowledge and thought.

More broadly, a museum director needs to honor what she or he has inherited — to realize that a museum is about more than what its board has most recently defined as its "mission" — education or outreach, or whatever the latest buzzword dictates. Rather, a museum is a treasure house of memories, of ways of thinking and feeling about the world, many of which may seem out of date or bizarre, but all of which add to our sense of possibility, rounding out our sense of what it is to be human.

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There are ways to make museums better, more welcoming, and more purposeful that have nothing to do with bricks and mortar and all the endless fund-raising required by expansions and renovations. And they all begin, I suspect, with what is loosely called the culture of the institution in question.

This is obviously something directors play a huge role in cultivating. It may indeed be their profoundest responsibility. It requires, among other things, being seen to care about the things that really matter, and getting others to feel the same way.

One hopes that any successor to Hawley at the Gardner, for instance, might build on her achievements by beefing up the exhibition programming (and especially the caliber of the contemporary art shows). She or he might also help us better understand that Gardner's museum was not just the product of a charismatic personality who loved the Red Sox and wore fabulous dresses, but of a whole intellectual milieu, which was in many ways even more fascinating than Gardner's personal biography.

Similarly, Rogers's successor at the MFA might push on with rationalizing the different collection areas — right now they are very fragmented — and doing everything possible to bring out the MFA's unique strengths, especially in Asian and Egyptian art. At Harvard, Lentz's successor needs to very smartly hire some senior curators, and keep the museum on mission when its current honeymoon period ends.

The problem, of course, is that money is always needed simply for ongoing operating costs. It can seem easier to attract big sums — and beef up the endowment while you are at it — if you have a sexy new project to promote, preferably with a star architect involved. Inevitably, your operating costs increase as a result (more space means more energy, maintenance, and more staff), and the need for more funds becomes greater.

The solution? It's often a new building project.

Boston is not always described as a generous town when it comes to philanthropy. But the success of so many new building projects over the past 20 years suggests otherwise.

In a competitive environment, it makes sense that museum directors should have to persuade benefactors of the worth of their institutions, and the legitimacy of their financial needs.

But wouldn't it be sweet if more of those donors also saw genuine worth in providing ongoing funds that strengthen the muscles, bones, and nerves of those museums instead of always waiting for new limbs to sprout?

Related:

Gardner Museum director Anne Hawley to step down

Tom Lentz to step down as director of Harvard Art Museums

MFA director Malcolm Rogers to retire

Malcolm Rogers: Adding up 20 years at the MFA

2014 Museums Special

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