Q&A with Anne Hawley

On the eve of the Gardner Museum's wing debut, we get a peek into Anne Hawley's world of trying not to breach Isabella's will.

anne hawley
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum begins a new era on January 19 with the grand opening of its 70,000-square-foot Renzo Piano–designed wing. It’s the first major change to the Fenway institution since it opened in 1903 — after all, Mrs. Gardner’s will forbids altering the collection. (If the will is breached, Harvard gets everything.) Anne Hawley, museum director since 1989, let us in early.

So will it be different art in the new wing? You can’t move anything from the original building or else they come and arrest you, right?
Harvard will try to close us down and collect! But there’ll be a gallery in the new space where we will do projects — the first one is with a contemporary Scottish artist. The art can go over for exhibitions, but it needs to come back to its regular place.

Is there a time limit for how long it can be moved? Until someone from Harvard says…
No. We don’t let anybody from Harvard in here!

Some people feel very passionately about that woman’s will.
I run into people who basically think of themselves as Mrs. Gardner’s agent on earth. It makes my job very interesting.

So tell me about the glass hallway between the original building and the new wing.

It’s what everybody’s looking at, how to connect to this building and not lose the magic. The buildings are 50 feet apart and have this glass link. Once the trees outside grow over, it’s going to become a forest in here, so you’ll be in the new, light building. But as you walk through, slowly the light will dim and the eyes will adjust and you’ll be in this cloister in the original building.

The whole thing was pretty controversial.
This went to the state supreme court. Gardner’s will says that we shouldn’t move any object permanently, so we petitioned.

Did you anticipate all of the blowback? The Mission Hill neighborhood group practically marched on the museum.
All of our immediate neighbors supported us and Mission Hill is a mile and a half away, so yeah, it was a surprise. It can be good to be challenged, but their position was to do nothing. And if we did nothing, this place would go out of  business. Nobody’s going to give annual gifts to a place that’s not doing anything.

The new building really does feel much lighter than the original.
Well, yes. We didn’t want to imitate the building and make something faux—it had to be authentic of its time. Renzo Piano said, “The building we build has to be respectful of the palace. It has to be smaller and it has to sort of kneel to the palace.”

Did the opposition to the wing add a lot of pressure to the process?
It did. It dragged out our timeline, which cost us money. It took so much time, endless hearings. One of the people in the Mission Hill group testified that the museum was all about death and that Mrs. Gardner set it up because of sarcophagi. I mean, we do have a few sarcophagi, but I just didn’t know what to do with that.

Gardner was famous for micromanaging her architect when she built the original palace. Did you channel her spirit at all?
No, I don’t go there. That’s not my persona. Mrs. Gardner was basically her own architect. She would come in and move the door, she would tell the workers to stop and redo things, she fired all the bricklayers one day. We’ve been not nearly as difficult.

So no arm-wrestling matches with Piano?
This has been a wonderful relationship. You know how they say the best writing is the spontaneity in the fifth draft? This is the fourth version. We went through all these other proposals and we would push back and he would give us something better. So this has been not a wrestling match but a real tennis match.

What are you most excited about with the opening?
Having the space to do concerts in a really world-class music hall. And we have two apartments for the artists on site. I think that is just going to pulse the work of our place so much.

Did you get a good security system in the new building?
Yes. It can see you right now.