Anne d'Harnoncourt settled into her new job as director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art on July 1, 1982, two months before I arrived in town to address the formidable challenge of writing about art for this newspaper. I had never set foot in the Art Museum. Nor had I ever heard of the woman who would become the cultural conscience of the city and its distinguished ambassador to the rest of the world.

At least I recognized the name. Anne's father, René d'Harnoncourt, directed the Museum of Modern Art from 1949 until 1968. Like his daughter, who died unexpectedly last Sunday, René suffered an untimely act of fate - he was killed by a drunken driver near his summer home on Long Island, shortly after retiring at 67.

I didn't imagine 26 years ago that I would witness such a lengthy and remarkable stewardship, otherwise I would have kept more complete files. (As it developed, I couldn't find my d'Harnoncourt folder when I needed it on Monday.) I also never thought that I would chronicle its end.

Then as now, I paid far more attention to art and artists than to museum personalities. I knew very little about Anne d'Harnoncourt's predecessors or the history of the museum. On my first extended visit, I do recall being impressed by the breadth of the collection, especially the period rooms on the second floor.

The Art Museum that d'Harnoncourt took over - in partnership with new full-time president Robert Montgomery Scott, who managed the business side until he retired in 1997 - was somewhat sleepier than its counterparts in other large American cities. In part, that was because Philadelphia itself had yet to become as energized as it is now.

Yet during the 1980s, under d'Harnoncourt's leadership, the museum staged several major exhibitions that made national and even international ripples. These began with a survey for American sculptor Jonathan Borofsky in 1984, organized by Mark Rosenthal, d'Harnoncourt's successor as curator of 20th-century art, subsequently renamed Modern and Contemporary. (Borofsky's sculptural installation, "Humanity in Motion," fills the 120-foot-tall atrium of the new Comcast Center at 17th Street and JFK Boulevard.)

Rosenthal was a prime example of how d'Harnoncourt encouraged curators to initiate exhibitions they considered timely and important, regardless of what their box-office impact might be. Rosenthal subsequently organized a highly acclaimed show for German artist Anselm Kiefer in 1987, as well as the Jasper Johns exhibition that represented the United States at the Venice Biennale in 1988. Johns won the grand prize as best artist.

The museum will reprise its Venice triumph in summer 2009 with a show in the American pavilion for Bruce Nauman, being organized jointly by the two curators who now share d'Harnoncourt's former job - Michael Taylor, who oversees modern art, and Carlos Basualdo, in charge of contemporary art.

D'Harnoncourt valued the role that curators play. When the Art Museum director's job came open in 1979, she declined to be considered because, she reportedly said, she was devoted to working directly with the art itself. When offered the post a second time, in 1982, she initially demurred again, then changed her mind. "In a sense, one doesn't lose one's field, one gains a museum," she said. "But it is a major decision about one's life."

During the last decade of her tenure, she expanded the curatorial ranks significantly, at a time when other museums were cutting back. Her decision in 2004 to divide the responsibilities of her former department has invigorated both modern and contemporary programs. The "Notations" exhibition series that Basualdo inaugurated after being appointed in 2005 is a prime example.

The fact that curators continued to be influential at the Art Museum was something that became more evident - and unusual - as the years passed. The so-called Boston Massacre of 1999, when a new director at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, dismissed several senior curators, proclaimed a new business plan for American museums. Some directors, eyes on the bottom line, took more control of exhibition planning.

D'Harnoncourt chose the higher road. In addition to Basualdo, she added a high-profile consulting curator in Modern and Contemporary (Robert Storr) and a new curator in Arms and Armor. Recent curatorial hires include specialists for Korean art and American craft. Previously, she had created a senior curatorship for Prints, Drawings and Photographs.

Only recently did I appreciate how resolute d'Harnoncourt had been in maintaining curatorial integrity. She did this because she was passionate about art in all its myriad incarnations; in her museum, art would always take precedence. Pandering to popular or commercial taste was discouraged.

Although she respected tradition, d'Harnoncourt wasn't hobbled by it. Over the last 15 years the museum has accommodated evolutionary trends in current art practice such as video and installation in a measured, sober manner. She apparently believed that a comprehensive art museum is not the place for experimentation, fads or novelty; it is a place where judgments should be deliberate and where exhibitions should make sense within the context of the institution's collections and history.

This became more apparent during the 1990s. The museum's biggest box-office success ever took place in 1996, with the Cezanne retrospective that traveled to London and Paris. Nearly 549,000 people saw the show in Philadelphia. The museum made money, but it also established a standard for blockbuster substance that it hopes to repeat with another Cezanne-themed show early next year.

D'Harnoncourt hit full stride after Scott retired in 1997 and she became responsible for both sides of the museum operation. By then it was clear to me that Philadelphia had been blessed with an exceptional talent. Not only was she smart, clear-eyed and persuasive, she was also supremely diplomatic in all sorts of situations.

She could be both candid and discreet simultaneously, as I learned during interviews over the years. These sessions never seemed like work but more like sparkling conversations with a friend who shared one's enthusiasm for magnificent art.

The last eight years were especially productive. The museum acquired the former Reliance Standard Life Insurance building across Kelly Drive and expanded and reconfigured it into something the museum has long needed, a place to regularly display costumes and textiles, photographs and sculpture. The new Perelman building, named for its major benefactors, stands as a notably intelligent and stylish addition.

A 125th-anniversary capital campaign, carried out over several years at the turn of the century, produced $246 million for the endowment and, equally important, 264 gifts of art for the collection. The number, quality and significance to the collection of these gifts testify to the esteem in which d'Harnoncourt was held and to the magnitude of her accomplishments.

D'Harnoncourt died with her most ambitious project, a $590 million expansion and renovation, still in its early stages. A parking garage going up behind the main building will support a sculpture garden on its roof. Architect Frank Gehry has been engaged to expand and renovate the main building to make visiting a more pleasant and edifying experience.

A week after the fact, it's still difficult to grasp that d'Harnoncourt will not have the safisfaction of seeing this grand design realized. Her death was so sudden, so arbitrary, that I periodically re-read her obituary to convince myself that it happened.

I am privileged to have known her professionally, to have been able to observe her exemplary museumship and connoisseurship unfold before my eyes. One can only hope that the museum's trustees and staff will find a way to maintain the momentum and spirit of optimism and achievement that she communicated to so many Philadelphians during her career.

Contact contributing art critic Edward J. Sozanski at 215-854-5595 or esozanski@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/edwardsozanski.