The Lady of the House

Isabella Stewart Gardner left strict orders: The palazzo she built on the Fens should never, ever change. But museum director Anne Hawley has some strong ideas of her own. Inside her radical—and risky—plan to propel the beloved institution into the 21st century.

At the time of her hiring in 1989, Anne Hawley was an improbable choice for director of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Unlike her three predecessors, she was not an art historian and, more important, not inclined to regard the job as a static, curatorial undertaking. The first woman to hold the position, Hawley had studied English and voice at the University of Iowa, just 20 miles from the farm where she’d grown up. When it was clear that the soprano would never become the opera singer she’d hoped to be, Hawley moved east, earned a master’s degree in urban studies from George Washington University, and took a succession of jobs at nonprofits in DC. In 1974, she arrived in Boston, where she founded the nonprofit Cultural Education Collaborative. Three years later, Hawley, then in her early thirties, was appointed executive director of the state cultural council, a public arts-funding program. (It was widely speculated that had Michael Dukakis won the presidency in 1988, Hawley would have been tapped to run the National Endowment for the Arts.)

Hawley’s work at the council won her a reputation as a master networker and a dogged fundraiser. “Anne was someone who found it easy to ask for money,” says a former Gardner employee. By 1989, money was exactly what the museum desperately needed.

Over the previous two decades, the Gardner had wilted under the well-meaning but inadequate care of the Brahmin trustees who filled its board. Attendance had been in free-fall since the 1970s, and by the time Hawley was hired, the museum was running a six-figure annual deficit. All the while, the stodgy Yankee pride that had kept the board from soliciting donations was threatening the museum’s treasures. Paint was reportedly flaking from Botticelli’s The Tragedy of Lucretia, while a Rembrandt self-portrait had nearly disappeared beneath a layer of grime. Though the trustees had been able to cobble together the $13,000 it would cost to clean the Rembrandt in New York, the plan had to be scuttled when they couldn’t find the $10,000 they’d need to insure the painting on its journey.

Ironically, the inaction reflected just how large Isabella Stewart Gardner loomed in the board members’ minds. Out of respect for the woman they invariably called “Mrs. Gardner,” they resisted making even the most basic changes. Gardner had handpicked her original trustees, granting them lifetime appointments that were then typically passed down through their families. “Several trustees said to me, ‘It’s very difficult for anyone who knew her to pick up and [make changes],'” Hawley recalls.