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.

On February 11, 2002, the Gardner’s board of trustees assembled at an off-site retreat at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge. With the museum back to fiscal health, Hawley and the trustees gathered to discuss the idea of building more space—specifically, a proposal for an addition behind the Palace. The roughly 65,000-square-foot project seemed a larger undertaking than some had expected. But Hawley, who can be a charismatic speaker, cast the moment as a rare opportunity for something grand. “Today,” she said, according to a copy of her prepared remarks, “we are at a signpost beckoning us to embark on a journey that I hope will be as bold and evocative as what Isabella Stewart Gardner set out to do 100 years ago.” Later in the day, before retiring for cocktails, the board members were given a chance to respond to what they’d heard. David Scudder, an investment banker who then helped manage the Harvard endowment, captured a shared sentiment when he spoke up. “We accept the premise that we have to build. But how much do you do before losing the visitor experience?”

With its contemplative courtyard and idiosyncratic layout, the museum that Gardner created had a singular feel. The last thing the trustees wanted to do was lose the very things that made it unique. In the 1990s, they commissioned a series of visitor surveys. “Overall, respondents don’t feel the Gardner should change,” a 1996 focus group report concluded. “There is wide knowledge of the will and…the museum is viewed as preserved history of a bygone era.”

Even as they debated the particulars of the building, the trustees plowed ahead. They had hired Robert Campbell, the Globe‘s Pulitzer-winning architecture critic, whom they now asked to help them winnow a list of architects who could design their building. Notably absent from the list was the man who eventually won the commission, the world-renowned Renzo Piano. He hadn’t bothered to respond to the museum’s inquiries.

But Hawley had quietly been in touch with Piano, talking to him by phone after wealthy Dallas art collector Ray Nasher, whom the museum was said to be courting as a donor, arranged a call. She believed the celebrity architect could be the perfect choice, and made an impassioned pitch to the trustees. Later, a construction consultant they’d hired explained that an architect like Piano would be 15 percent to 20 percent more expensive than a lesser-known one. And because Piano doesn’t bid for projects, they would have to offer him the work before he even submitted a design.

For a Boston museum, bringing in an internationally recognized architect is especially valuable. The Hub’s art community receives 60 percent of its foundation donations from out of state, and those patrons tend to support the name brands more than the institutions that fly beneath the national radar. It’s equally important that a museum not appear as a fringe player to locals: According to the Boston Foundation, of the 650 cultural organizations in the state, the half dozen with budgets over $20 million take in 65 percent of donations. By going with Piano, particularly at a time when the MFA and ICA were engaged in big projects, the Gardner would be announcing it was a major force worth supporting.

As far along as late 2004, however, several holdouts on the board still believed the museum only needed purely functional space for offices, the shop, and the café. But Hawley, backed by trustees including Barbara Hostetter, continued to push for something iconic that could incorporate a new performance hall and a special exhibit space. In September of that year, a group of trustees met to finally settle the debate. “What are we trying to create here?” asked Bill Poorvu, according to minutes from the meeting. Like his fellow trustee Vin Ryan, he puzzled over how a plan launched to address utilitarian needs had grown so ambitious. The reservations surprised Hostetter, who wondered why they’d spent years in planning only to wind up building space for more staff cubicles. The addition couldn’t be “a trailer park,” she said.

Two months later, in a meeting at the museum, the board voted unanimously to hire Piano. As Hawley and the trustees celebrated, someone ran over to the café and returned with a bottle of champagne.