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.

Isabella Stewart Gardner left a lasting impression on everyone she met. A larger-than-life Bostonian, she was actually a product of New York City, born in 1840 to a clan that had made its first fortune importing textiles and its second supplying iron to railroads. In 1860, she married Jack Gardner, the Brahmin scion of one of Boston’s last great shipping families. Gardner wasn’t a beautiful woman, but she brought a spirit of cosmopolitan glamour to Boston’s polite society. She caused a stir by smoking cigarettes in public and made her devotion to the Red Sox known by wearing a headband reading “Oh you Red Sox!” to the symphony (where, it was said, seats near hers commanded a premium). Gardner happily watched her mythology grow, even if it meant letting false accounts of her exploits go uncorrected in the press. After she paraded a borrowed circus lion at the zoo, she was tickled to hear rumors that she kept lions at her Beacon Street home. “Don’t spoil a good story by telling the truth,” she told a friend.

Gardner began to buy the work of Old Masters in the 1890s, and quickly distinguished herself as one of the world’s great art collectors. She and her husband regularly traveled the globe, sending home art and architectural pieces from monasteries and the dusty showrooms of dealers. If Gardner liked something, she would pursue it until it was hers. When she took a fancy to Titian’s Rape of Europa, then owned by a British nobleman and now considered perhaps the finest work of Renaissance art in America, she authorized her buyer to pay whatever price necessary. The Gardners came to think of their Back Bay house as a living museum, but as the collection grew so did the need for more wall space. Shortly after her husband died in 1898, Gardner bought a patch of land overlooking the Muddy River in the as-yet-undeveloped Fens. It was the one place in Boston that must have reminded her of Venice, where the couple had often summered.

Gardner spent three years building a palazzo fit for the Grand Canal to house her collection. Naturally, she was an exacting client, managing the process to such a minute level that her architect would later defer credit for the design to her. When the workmen painting the courtyard walls failed to achieve the effect she wanted, the society doyenne simply hiked up her dress, scaled a ladder, and showed them how to do it herself. She ran her finished residence, dubbed the Palace, as a salon, hosting dancers, famous painters like John Singer Sargent, and noted writers like Henry and William James. When she opened the doors to the public, which she would do several times a year, she’d roam the halls keeping watch. “‘Don’t touch,’ she had cried out angrily at intervals—whether anyone were touching anything or not,” wrote one of her biographers.

A view of the Titian Room, with art arranged just as Gardner instructed. (photograph courtesy of the isabella stewart gardner museum, boston)

For decades after her death, museum guards whispered that Gardner’s ghost regularly returned to make sure her wishes were being followed. But more binding than any supernatural presence has been her last will and testament. In the 14-page document, Gardner explained in painstaking detail just how her museum should be managed. As an added measure of protection, Gardner selected its first director. “She did not want [the trustees] to give the impression that they were in the driver’s seat and might seek to impose their own ideas rather than adhere strictly to hers,” a relative wrote in 1971.

The museum, Gardner decreed, should remain open “for the education and enjoyment of the public forever.” And yet if the trustees ever bought new art, or even tried to change the “general disposition” of the works already there, she mandated a dramatic response: Harvard College would take control of the property, sell the art collection at auction in Paris, and keep the proceeds. Gardner would rather see her creation destroyed than altered.


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.”


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.”