Three Major Museum Directors in Boston Are All Stepping Down

Anne Hawley of the Gardner Museum made her announcement Wednesday, just weeks after Thomas Lentz said he's leaving the Harvard Art Museums. Malcolm Rogers announced his forthcoming retirement from the MFA last year.

anne hawley gardner museum

Gardner Museum director Anne Hawley. / Photo by John Dean Provided

The tides are turning in Boston’s museum scene. As of now, three directors of three major museums in the area are now on their way out.

On Wednesday, Anne Hawley, director of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, announced that she would step down after 25 years at the helm.

During her tenure, Hawley has overseen major exhibitions, renovations, and other projects and programming that have carried the Gardner Museum into the 21st century. Highlights include much-needed conservation and preservation upgrades, the new wing designed by renowned architect Renzo Piano, and the establishment of the Gardner as a beloved cultural hub in the city, not just for fine art, but for music, fashion, horticulture, and other disciplines. She’s established numerous successful new programs, from the artists-in-residence program to concert series and much more.

To give context to how long Hawley has been leading the museum, consider this: she started in 1989 as the fourth director ever of the Gardner, and the infamous theft of 13 precious works from the museum took place in 1990. Twenty-five years after that heartbreaking loss, Hawley is still optimistic about the artworks’ recovery, and even more so about how far the museum has come in the last quarter century.

“The Gardner Museum was never intended simply to be a repository for Mrs. Gardner’s collection,” Hawley said in a press release. “It is meant to be a place bursting with life, stirring the imagination, unleashing creativity. It must be a lively center of art and culture, a place of learning for students, a patron for artists, musicians, and scholars. Today, thanks to the efforts of an incredible staff and dedicated trustees and overseers, the museum fulfills Mrs. Gardner’s vision while embracing the present and the future with hope.”

Hawley will step down at the end of the year, and the museum’s board of trustees has formed a committee to find Hawley’s successor.

And the Gardner is not the only museum in town now in need of a new leader.

Thomas Lentz

Harvard Art Museums director Thomas Lentz. / Photo by Stephanie Mitchell Provided

Hawley’s announcement comes less than a month after Thomas Lentz, the director of the Harvard Art Museums, also announced his plans to leave the newly renovated museums July 1 after joining the university about 12 years ago.

Lentz started in 2003, when he began strategizing the museums’ structure both from a curation and management standpoint. He struck new collaborations, oversaw an abundance of acquisitions, and there’s no doubt that Lentz’s crowning achievement at the Harvard Art Museums was spearheading the massive renovation and expansion of the museums, which reopened in November.

The Harvard Art Museums—comprising the Fogg, Busch-Reisinger, and Arthur M. Sackler Museums—all now live in one state-of-the-art facility that, like the Gardner’s new wing, was designed by Renzo Piano and company.

“The museums have been taken apart and put back together again to create a new kind of teaching facility that is already realizing its potential, so in large part our goal has been accomplished,” Lentz told the Harvard Gazette. “The enormous talents of our staff will help to facilitate the work we do with faculty, students, university partners, and the public. And with the support of a superior senior management team, the next director will be building on a strong foundation.”

Like Hawley, Lentz offered no particular reason in the announcement as to why he’s stepping down, though a New York Times report suggests it’s a personal decision and that he’s simply taking the next step in his career.

And guess what? He’s not the only one.

Malcolm Rogers mfa

MFA director Malcolm Rogers. / Photo by David Yellen for ‘Top of Mind’

You might say this string of major museum director departures started with Malcolm Rogers, who announced last year that he would retire after a 20-year run as the director of the Museum of Fine Arts.

During his tenure, like Hawley and Lentz, Rogers oversaw countless acquisitions, major renovations, and opened up the MFA to become a more accessible, integral part of the community.

After his announcement last year, Rogers gave us a tour of some of his favorite works at the MFA, saying, “I could stay here all my life, in a way, but life is a matter of choices. … In 15 years I’ll be 80, and I think it would be nice to have another phase in my life. I’ve changed the museum here, made many friends here, and so on, but 20 years is a long time to be the dominant influence on one institution. Someone else may bring a different tone, a different theme, different ideas.”

Prior to his departure, Rogers has been focusing his efforts on fundraising and marketing for the MFA. To celebrate his legacy, the museum has hosted a free community day in his honor as well as a few lectures. Later this month, Rogers will host a lecture about his favorite acquisitions at the MFA called “Director’s Choice: 20 Years of Acquisitions.”

If three makes a trend, then this sudden exodus of museum directors certainly begs the question, “Why?” However, it would seem that the timing is purely coincidental. Regardless, Rogers, Lentz, and Hawley are all departing on a high note—each will leave their undetermined successors some pretty big shoes to fill.