Directors muse

Sebastian Smee, A gallery of masters, soon to be gone, The Boston Globe 15 February 2015

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.

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.

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.

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.

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