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.

The Gardner trustees knew what they’d be getting into when they zeroed in on Anne Hawley for the vacant director position. “They saw her as a turnaround artist,” says Laura Roberts, a nonprofit consultant who teaches a case study on the museum at Tufts. But when new board member Arnold Hiatt, the chairman of Stride Rite shoes, first approached Hawley, she told him she wouldn’t be the right fit for an institution so opposed to change. Plus, she was deep into planning a Boston-based international art fair that she hoped would bring new artistic vibrancy to the city. “Arnold said, ‘You can do that at the Gardner,'” Hawley recalls. “And I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Well, we need to bring the Gardner back to life.'” Hawley put aside her plans and took the job.

For one of her first public appearances at the Gardner, a patrons’ dinner, Hawley dressed in a black gown with a string of pearls around her waist, evoking Gardner’s own attire in John Singer Sargent’s iconic 1888 portrait. “A breath of fresh air accompanied Anne when she first walked through the door,” Hiatt says. “She’s kind of a latter-day Isabella.”

The message the new director was sending was unmistakable: The museum would no longer be a memorial to a long-dead matron. Instead, she would channel a more dynamic vision of Gardner, and bring in the types of artists and musicians Gardner herself once hosted. Underscoring the point, Hawley encouraged the staff to stop referring to the woman by the formal “Mrs. Gardner” and start thinking of her in more-approachable terms as “Isabella.” “Her spirit was what we wanted to invoke,” Hawley says. “The problem is, the museum became her tomb after she died. I just thought that kind of way of looking at it was over.”

Corresponding with Hawley’s arrival was the decision to convert the director’s quarters into offices. The trustees had hoped to build a modest administrative wing behind the museum, but to save money, they decided simply to move the staff to the fourth floor instead. The renovation required petitioning the state attorney general for permission to deviate from Gardner’s will, and drew heated criticism from the arts community. Arguing against the project in the journal Art in America, one Wellesley College art historian ominously predicted, “The Gardner Museum will never be the same again.”

Nonetheless, the court was swayed by the argument that the change was essential to the museum’s health and should go forward—as long as modifications were reversible (hence the long-unused bathtub in the bathroom). Still, the precedent being set was worrisome to some. “There’s a concern here that once you change the will, you open the door to a lot of changes,” a museum employee said at the time. “The whole question of the fourth floor is a question of what’s going to happen to the future of the museum.”