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.

From the beginning, Hawley made it clear she didn’t intend to remain at the Gardner long. “She told us she was much too entrepreneurial to ever stay anywhere more than three years,” says a former employee.

Indeed, she wasted no time implementing the changes she was hired to make. Hawley spent $8 million installing an HVAC system to stop the condensation that was sometimes forming within the galleries, sending water down paintings in rivulets. She began spending money on conserving paintings and, to raise the profile of the museum’s concert series, secured big-name performers. Hawley called upon her experience in the public sector to tap into foundation grants, using them to launch artist-in-residence programs and partnerships with area schools.

Meanwhile, the museum’s trustees had finally started reaching out to well-connected philanthropists like Arnold Hiatt and Ann Gund, wife of architect Graham Gund. They in turn helped attract others, like Vin Ryan, chairman of private-equity firm Schooner Capital, and Bill Poorvu, a real estate investor. By the early 1990s, the museum’s donor roster looked like a who’s who of prominent Bostonians. Hawley herself helped bring in Barbara Hostetter, who with husband Amos, the billionaire cable-television entrepreneur, oversees the $1.1 billion Barr Foundation, the wealthiest charitable organization in the state. Between 2000 and 2007, the Hostetters distributed more than $285 million to hundreds of civic causes, including some $8.6 million to the Gardner, its biggest museum beneficiary.

Here in Boston, to a unique degree, deep-pocketed supporters are essential to a museum’s health. The city has more cultural nonprofits per capita than Chicago, San Francisco, or even New York, according to a 2003 report from the Boston Foundation, yet tends to provide less public funding for the arts than those places. Instead, our city’s nonprofits are historically dependent on private donations (40 percent of the Gardner’s annual budget comes from fundraising). Of course, securing those donors requires giving them new reasons to part with their money. That was a key insight the Gardner picked up during its first-ever fundraising campaign, which it launched in 1992, just as Hawley’s fresh programming was gaining momentum. Hoping to somehow raise $13 million over the next seven years, the trustees were shocked when they brought in twice that.

The Gardner’s conundrum, Hawley explains, is that it needs fresh programming to stay relevant. “You cannot galvanize a community to give money to an institution that’s just passively sitting there,” she says. “That’s the problem. The donors would shrink away.” And yet the only way the overcrowded museum can continue those programs is to move them into a new building. “There really isn’t,” she says, “a plan B.”