Museums and Collections
Thomas Lentz to Leave Harvard Art Museums
Thomas W. Lentz, Cabot director of the Harvard Art Museums, today announced that he would step down at the end of the academic year—a surprising and apparently unexpected development that comes less than three months after the November 16 gala reopening of the wholly renovated, reconfigured museums complex. The more than decade-long reconstruction and consolidation of the collections in a new space built in, around, and above the original Fogg structure, with extensive teaching and conservation facilities included, was the focus of Lentz’s work since his arrival in late 2003. (Read his director’s letter on the museums’ multiple roles here.) An expert on Islamic art (specifically, Persian painting), he earned his Ph.D. at Harvard in 1985, and immediately before returning to Cambridge to assume the museums’ directorship had served as director of the Smithsonian Institution’s international art museums, including the Freer and Sackler galleries and the National Museum of African Art.
In a statement, Lentz said:
After more than a decade of work at Harvard, and with the renovation and expansion project fully realized and its programming for our diverse audiences successfully launched, I feel this is the appropriate time for me to step down as director of the Harvard Art Museums. I will remain in my position through July 1, and the University will immediately begin a comprehensive search for my successor.
I came to Harvard thinking much of my work would be centered on infrastructure issues at our historic building at 32 Quincy Street. While that did occur, what we really pursued was something quite different: a complete re-imagining of our institution and its re-alignment with the academic mission of Harvard University.
We have always believed in the intrinsic power of original works of art, how they encourage us to look closely and engage us deeply in discussion and debate. We always knew the museums and our collections could be used to teach in new and different ways to support all disciplines.
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.
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.
Of his future, he said only, "After more than a decade of hard, but rewarding work, I look forward to taking some time off before I take on the next challenge."
In “The ‘surfer dude’ who rebuilt the Harvard Art Museums,” Geoff Edgers of The Washington Post (who covered the arts for The Boston Globe before his recent relocation) recently recalled the task facing Lentz when he was hired: the Fogg complex was “in desperate need of an overhaul. Ceilings leaked, the plumbing was dangerously outdated and curators, trying to protect artworks without proper climate control, found themselves shuffling floor fans through galleries.” Perhaps tellingly, Edgers then reported,
On a recent weekday, Lentz, sitting in a conference room outside his office, did not sound like he was in the midst of a victory lap. Instead, he offered a confession. After all the time and money, after sitting on countless committees and giving more than 100 tours, he wouldn’t mind chatting about something else.
“We’re tired of talking about it because we’ve talked about it for such a long time,” Lentz says. “And part of the exhaustion is the fact that we’re doing this at Harvard. Which is a place full of a lot of bright, ambitious people. There is no shortage of ideas.”
Sidewalk superintendents were able to appreciate the enormous complexity of the construction project on a tight spot, but that understates the challenges Lentz overcame. Three separate institutions (the Fogg, the Busch-Reisinger, and the Sackler musuems) had to be melded. Because plans for a separate, large-scaled contemporary art museum in Allston or on Western Avenue in Cambridge had fallen by the wayside, and given the need to accommodate extensive teaching and conservation facilities, the exhibition space made available by excavation and new construction (while preserving the Quincy Street façade and the iconic Calderwood courtyard) amounted to only 43,000 square feet—just 13,000 square feet more than previously available: not a great deal, given the 250,000 objects in the joint collections. Managing all that; effecting a design with Renzo Piano, the architect; securing regulatory approval; pursuing the fundraising and getting approval during the financial crisis and recession; and coping with extensive construction delays once the work began cannot have been easy.
Edgers describes Lentz as “no museum-world MacArthur, rejecting what he calls the ‘heroic model of a museum leader’ and tak[ing] pride in noting that he organized dozens of study groups during the planning and construction process.” He continued:
Lentz talks constantly about collaboration, mentioning how he has appreciated working with the directors of other Harvard museums during the project and is proud to have incorporated works from their collections into galleries. He also doesn’t want to take credit for the project.
During a recent interview, Lentz walked a reporter to an office where deputy director Maureen Donovan and chief curator Debi Kao were meeting. They stood by, slightly awkwardly, as he talked about how “this project could not have been done without them.”
Donovan, in an interview later in the afternoon, disagreed.
“He was the first director who stopped everybody in their tracks when he came here and said, ‘We have a plan’ and really galvanized the staff behind that thinking,” she says. “Nobody else had really done that before.”
Read the news announcement here. A search for Lentz’s successor is to begin immediately.