Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum director Anne Hawley broke the hearts of Boston art lovers earlier this year when she announced that she would be stepping down from the post she has held for the past 26 years.
The Gardner was in an anemic state when she took her post in 1989: Attendance was dwindling, and both the building and its treasures were in dire need of repair. In her first six months on the job, two thieves dressed as police officers entered the museum and stole over $500 million worth of art—art that has yet to be recovered.
Despite these early challenges, Hawley brilliantly transformed the Gardner from a dusty mausoleum to a bustling cultural epicenter.
As her time at the Gardner comes to a close, Hawley graciously reflects on her proudest achievements, new generations of art lovers, and, of course, the theft.
Hawley, on behalf of art lovers everywhere, we salute you.
Which of your achievements at the Gardner are you most proud of?
Thank you for telling me how much you love the Gardner. Your testament is one of the achievements I am most thrilled about. To have a new generation finding pleasure and fulfillment in the experiences only the Gardner Museum can give is what I sought to do. For I think that the mysteries and the meaning of life can be found and experienced through great art. It helps you ask and answer the questions of “Why am I here? What is the meaning of this journey? How can I contribute to this mystery of life?” I sought to bring the great legacy of the founder’s patronage of art and artists back to life, to give the public the chance to have this engagement with art. When I arrived, I found the museum a tomb, and I leave it a lively cultural center as it was at its beginning. The preservation of the building and its great collections and the new addition by Renzo Piano provide the sensuous beauty to transport the visitor to a place of dreaming while the artists, musicians, scholars, curators and museum teachers offer lively engagement with the living arts and ideas.
Due to the theft, you were severely tested during the earliest days of your tenure. What was going through your head at the time? You could give a master class in composure.
When I arrived at the museum the morning of the theft, I found the museum had been violated. Staff members were in shock, and I must admit that when I saw what had happened that I too was in a state of shock, flooded with anger and a determination that this was not going to destroy the museum nor defeat it. It was, and is, a tragic loss, not just to the art world and the visiting public, but to culture as a whole. Imagine if Shakespeare’s tragedy of Hamlet was stolen from our culture, or Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, or the songs of Louis Armstrong—vanished to never be known again. That is what the thieves did. They stole a part of civilization. We have never lost hope that our works will find their way home again.
Survival of the arts is contingent upon the interest and support of younger generations, and you have done a lot to encourage young art lovers. Has this been a particularly important initiative for you?
Yes, of course! In many ways, but two important programs are great examples: Our School Partnership Program engages deeply with our neighborhood schools. Students visit many times during the years, and our museum teachers also go into their classrooms. We use a pedagogy called “Visual Thinking Strategies” to engage them deeply with looking at art. All their looking is at the real works, not reproductions, and the learning is all done through asking questions, not lecturing. It starts like this: small groups of around nine students with a museum teacher sitting in front of, say, El Jaleo. The teacher says, “Let’s just take a moment and look at this picture; run your eyes over it and just look.” Then after about 30 seconds, which can seem like a long time, the first question is asked: “What do you see?” and from the students’ responses other questions are built. You should come see this in action! It is powerful. The second initiative was actually conceived by the under-30s on the museum staff who pushed us to think of a special night for the 18-35[-year-old] young people who live in Boston. You have to listen to all staff and take their ideas as you formulate your programming. They worked closely as a team and proposed Gardner After Hours, and the museum first engaged the former artist in residence Danijel Zezelj to produce an edgy poster announcing it. It has evolved into a program now called Third Thursday, where there is special evening programming every month on the third Thursday: music, making things in the studio, special participatory tours and more.
What’s next for you?
Ah, a great question. I’m not making any decisions until after I’ve taken a break!
To what extent, if at all, will you remain involved with the Gardner?
It will always be in my heart.
If you could only impart one bit of advice to your replacement, what would it be?
If you could ask Mrs. Gardner one question, what would it be?
I would ask her how she thought about the Gothic Room (the gallery in the museum with the Sargent portrait of her) when she installed it. Could she tell me what she was composing?
If you could take any of Mrs. Gardner’s paintings with you when you leave, which one would you take?
WOW. I’ve never thought about such a thing. That’s hard because the Gardner Museum was really conceived as a total work of art. The pictures, sculpture, and architecture are all of one piece: one work of art that she created… So one would have to take the whole museum!