Power Lunch: Anne Hawley

The longtime leader of Boston’s jewel-box museum has seen the institution through its best and worst times. Now she’s saying goodbye.


Photograph by Ken Richardson

Anne Hawley had been director of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum for just six months when thieves raided the building and took 13 priceless artworks in March 1990. In the 26 years since, she has rallied the institution and pressed onward, bringing modern security and climate control to Mrs. Jack’s collection—while also adding a glassy new wing full of changing exhibits, performances, and programs. Hawley’s stewardship of the Boston institution has made her a fixture in the city’s arts community. Now 72, she will retire from her post at the end of this month. Hawley met Erick Trickey for coffee on the patio of the museum’s Café G and a walk-through of the Gardner’s first floor and courtyard.

When you arrived in 1989, what needed changing?

The Gardner Museum was preserved in time when I got here. It had a tiny staff. It didn’t do any programming. It did do concerts. The conservation program was in high gear. The collection—the paintings, the objects—that was in great shape. But there wasn’t anything going on for the public other than the great collection.

In Gardner’s day, she always had artists here, from Okakura Kakuzō, a Japanese artist and curator, to the wild and wonderful Ruth St. Denis, one of the inventors of modern dance in America. I took the blueprint from the legacy: Bring the artists back, get scholars back in here to interpret the collection and make exhibitions for the public. Make the music program much better—curate it. Get back to the lush Victorian look in the courtyard, rather than a more Mediterranean, minimalist look.

Which changes provoked the most backlash?

Internally, the artists in residence. For museum people, dealing with a living artist isn’t something they’re used to. Half of the staffers were really enthusiastic, and half were really not. Externally, a portion of the members and the audience felt these programs made the museum too crowded and too noisy and not the place they loved, which was this quiet, reflective sanctuary. There are times when we’re very active, but there are also days you can come and have that sanctuary.

How did the 1990 thefts change the museum?

It was a tragedy that was devastating to everybody. I decided, along with a handful of trustees, that we could not let this defeat us, and we had to even work harder toward the transformation of the museum. For Bostonians, it made them realize what they had here. Because of the world reaction, a lot of people woke up to the fact that this was a world-class collection and it needed all the help it could get.

Which of the stolen artworks would Mrs. Gardner have missed the most?

Probably the Vermeer (The Concert). It was one of the first pictures she bought. She bought it on her own in an auction in Paris, really before she had started collecting in earnest for this building. It’s sensational as a picture.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned about her while working here?

I think she deflected attention from her intellectual, serious, artistic side by making people think that she was outrageous—walking tigers, doing these offbeat things—because it was very hard for a woman to be taken seriously.

She defied what was going on in museums at the time: hanging picture galleries and intellectualizing the picture. Her approach was to draw you into the sensuous and the feeling and the reactive elements in your nature. When you’re here, you’re really inside the head of this inventive mind.

Walking tigers?

I think that never happened. But she always said, “Why spoil a good story with the truth?”

What are your plans for 2016?

I’m taking a gap year. I’m going to be dividing my time between New York and Boston, because my husband works in the New York area. I’m going to do some studying at the Goethe-Institut. I have to learn to be fluent in German because of family. Then I’m going to be doing some art courses. I’m going to do a lot of exploring about what I want to do next. I don’t want to make any commitments that are going to tie me down next year.