The article in today's Inquirer Magazine about Anne d'Harnoncourt, director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, refers to d'Harnoncourt's weekly visiting her mother, Sarah C. d'Harnoncourt, at a retirement community in Bucks County. Sarah d'Harnoncourt died on Tuesday, after the magazine article had been written and printed.
Running an art museum is like ruling a small, quasi-parliamentary nation: You hold some of the power and all of the responsibility. The job, from providing clean bathrooms to fostering scholarship, is as practical as it is cerebral.
You must balance the budget, cultivate strategic friendships around the world, provide security, develop educational programs, and encourage public participation, while endearing yourself to the mayor, the governor, and anyone else who can help your institution - or make your life miserable.
A museum director, entrusted with nothing less than the treasures of human existence, is a cultural Janus, conserving the past and pioneering the future. You must negotiate, even beg, for everything, yet never appear desperate, for that would undermine the dignity of the office and lessen the respect you must have to get what you need.
You have help, of course. There are trustees, accountants, teachers, media liaisons, curators, community relations directors, building superintendents, and tuxedoed diplomats, all in your service. Without your careful supervision, however, confusion would reign, the endowment would tank, and the richness of millions of lives would be diminished.
Few have done the job with as much grace and competence as Anne d'Harnoncourt, director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where she has reigned for 20 years, since she was 38.
"Comfortable in her skin," is how she's often described, as well as elegant and shrewd, exuberant yet restrained, refined but not snobbish.
"I don't think I've ever known anyone who has the goodwill of so many people who work under them," says Benjamin Hammond, a former ex-officio member of the Art Museum's board representing contributors.
Agnes Gund, president of the Museum of Modern Art, describes the 6-foot d'Harnoncourt as a czarina.
"She's so down-to-earth," says Kevin Rudolph, a 34-year-old waiter who used to work in the museum restaurant. "I've heard her give a lot of speeches. She never talks above anyone's level. "
"Anne is not a devious person," says Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. "There is a lot of politics [in the field]. And a lot of political intrigue. "
Peter Marzio, director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, says, "She could run General Motors if you turned her loose on it. And she doesn't even look like she's trying. . . . She's irresistible. "
"Her wishes are tempered by rationality," says former Mayor Edward G. Rendell. "She doesn't ask for the impossible - and because she's just so likable, it's hard to say no to her. She's been proven so right so often. "
Some observers believe d'Harnoncourt's sublime self-assurance is genetic. As the only child of Rene d'Harnoncourt, director of the Museum of Modern Art from 1949 to 1968, they say, she was bred for the job. D'Harnoncourt dismisses the idea: "I always thought I might become a historian or write poetry. "
Even so, her devotion to the museum is so profound that the boundaries between her personal and professional lives blur. Her husband, Joe Rishel, whom she met in the 1960s when they were both at the Art Institute of Chicago, is the curator of European painting before 1900, and the de facto chief curator of the PMA. Nearly all their friends are connected to the art world.
In the receiving line the night of the museum's 125th anniversary dinner, d'Harnoncourt welcomed guests as if to a family affair. "Happy birthday to us!" she said, with unabashed corniness. "We're 125 years young! "
Over the years, other museums - notably the National Gallery in Washington and the Museum of Modern Art in New York - have tried to lure d'Harnoncourt away. Among the incentives these jobs offered was a substantial increase in salary. The National Gallery director, for example, makes $447,718, while d'Harnoncourt's total PMA compensation comes to $250,000, which is below the 50th percentile for directors of museums with budgets greater than $20 million. (The J. Paul Getty's director is the highest paid at $1.4 million; de Montebello makes $1.13 million. )
Yet she has declined. "She needed to continue to be in a general museum," says her friend Katharine Lee Reid, director of the Cleveland Museum of Art. As a "modernist," d'Harnoncourt is unusual in the breadth of her interest, Reid says. "That tells you about where she lives in her heart. She needs to be in a place that's bigger than she is. . . . She finds something very stimulating and renewing about being in a museum where you're dealing with Indian art and European painting. "
D'Harnoncourt says that her main reason for staying is that her heart and soul are invested here.
"I don't even bother asking her anymore," says Nancy Nichols, of the executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles. "I consider Anne one of the best museum directors in the country. And she won't leave Philadelphia. She's really committed to the city. "
That commitment can sometimes make her sound like a civic Pollyanna.
Over lunch one day in the museum restaurant, she gushes, "Philadelphia as a whole is on such a roll! It is rediscovering itself! Its view of itself has really deepened and changed over the past 25 years. . . . I see a kind of determined energy on the part of the city and region. . . . It's a wonderful place to grow up, for artists to study. "
She pauses to order a salad, and ice cream for dessert. "Please don't tell them it's for me," she begged the waiter. "They always scoop out too much when they know it's for the director. "
Then back to the city. "Sure, there is a lot of poverty, but that's not unique to Philadelphia. Those are fundamental urban problems. . . .
"I actually really believe that Philadelphia is like Paris. There are many very good reasons why French visitors love Philadelphia. It's so beautiful. There's so much culture. . . . " From a politician, such a spiel would sound self-serving. From d'Harnoncourt, the optimism seems natural, sincere.
D'Harnoncourt is not the first woman to lead the PMA (renowned Degas scholar Jean Boggs served as director from 1980 to 1982), and about half the art museum directors in the country are women. But she remains one of only two among the top 10 - Reid in Cleveland is the other. As one woman curator has put it, "the field is testosteronic. "
For d'Harnoncourt, sexism is a nonissue.
"Museums have always had strong and effective women in a variety of roles," she says. "Trying to worry about the negative is much less helpful than trying to develop and construct the positive. "
Remarks like these, delivered in her throaty, Julia Child alto, have a powerful persuasiveness. You may not believe what she says, but you believe that she does.
More than once, d'Harnoncourt has been accused of being controlling. She is a perfectionist whose attention to detail can be exasperating. (She once had a staffer draft a report 17 times. ) Her sense of time is elastic; she often runs late. She can be confoundingly opaque and has a bewildering way of double-talking when it suits her purpose.
Mark Rosenthal of Christie's auction house succeeded d'Harnoncourt as curator of 20th century art at PMA in 1983, a few months after she became director. According to rumors, his departure six years later was prompted by d'Harnoncourt's having imposed her will, taste and power in his curatorial territory.
Rosenthal denies this and says he has nothing but the greatest admiration and warm regard for his former boss. "I'm a fairly strong-willed person myself," he says. "It was inevitable that occasionally we would disagree. " But he says she never bullied him into any decisions. "She's a leader. She always has been, and it's what she's phenomenal at doing. "
D'Harnoncourt's office is a kind of three-dimensional self-portrait. The room, hidden off a corridor that is used as a rotating gallery, is cluttered with books and papers. It is unassuming, aside from a few serious works of art, including a Balthus painting of a woman asleep at her desk.
The single large window is barred with decorative ironwork. An orchid leans hungrily toward the light. Behind it are two hand-made plates, one painted around the rim with "Money Wanted," the other with "More Money Wanted. "
At 6:30 p.m. d'Harnoncourt slips into a reception of young interns who have volunteered over the last five summers. She stands before a portrait of an aristocrat in a stiff collar, assumes a semi-balletic first position, and calls out loudly, "Yoohoo! Woohoo! "
The interns hush.
"For those of you who are new, you will probably never have laid eyes on this strange person. I am Anne d'Harnoncourt, the museum's director. . . . I first walked into this museum in the fall of 1967 as an assistant to two curators . . . which just goes to show you that if you get hooked on museum work, one way or another you tend to return. "
She speaks for a while, then says, "I'm dying to know if being here one summer made some difference! " But she can't stay at the reunion to find out. She's half an hour late for a reception for new donors.
Leaving, d'Harnoncourt bids the interns "Re-une! Re-une! " She laughs, "And I'm so grateful there are so many of you to re-une! " Then she sweeps out of the room and back to her office.
"Flying blind is what I normally do, but. . . . Where am I going? " She rustles through her piles of stuff, which includes a publication from toutfait.com, an online journal of Marcel Duchamp studies. The PMA owns the world's most comprehensive collection of the artist's work. D'Harnoncourt is an expert on Duchamp and was a close friend of his widow. "Ah!" she exclaims, "here's the names of all the people coming to the party. "
She shows me a red paper fan she bought in Japan the week before. "What's lovely about it is that it works so well," she says, demonstrating. She made the trip to visit sites designed by the Japanese architect Tadao Ando, who will be doing the new Calder museum in Philadelphia.
"Shall we go? "
Outside the home of Richard Jaffe, cochair of the Museum Associates - donors of more than $1,500 a year - d'Harnoncourt meets an elegant woman leaving the party. "Oh, Valla Amsterdam! Let me give you a hug! "
Amsterdam, a longtime arts patron, says: "If I'd known you were coming, I would have stayed longer. " She asks about Rishel.
"Joe's in Valencia trying to put together a major exhibition with the Louvre. "
"Well, he wouldn't have trouble if you were there! " Amsterdam says.
D'Harnoncourt laughs. "Oh! He does very well on his own. "
Inside the house, she is surrounded by people kissing her, asking questions, introducing her around. She passes on the wine and takes a glass of Pellegrino. A waiter pops open a cigar box.
"May I offer you a crab cigar?" he asks, showing her crabmeat rolled in paper-thin pastry.
"No, thank you," she says, and turns her attention to the large painting of a nude hanging in the living room. "That's a Liz Osborne," she tells me. "A wonderful Philadelphia painter. She has a wonderful sense of color. "
Another waiter comes by. "Beggar's purse? " She looks quizzically at the tiny bundles. "Golden caviar with sour cream and scallions, wrapped in dough," he explains.
"Oh, that sounds lovely, but not just yet. "
She moves deeper into the crowd. Some people are talking about Marion "Kippy" Stroud Swingle, the founder of the Fabric Workshop, a PMA trustee, and one of d'Harnoncourt's dearest friends.
"She's larger than life, that Kippy," one man says.
"Anne, of course, is the most interesting," a woman says.
"Oh, no," d'Harnoncourt demurs. "Kippy is more interesting. She still has her edge. I've lost my edge. "
Another waiter offers, "Smoked chicken quesadillas? "
D'Harnoncourt turns the conversation to the need for museums to constantly acquire new works of art. "People say, `Oh, the museum has so many. Why does it need another? ' But works of art have a conversation with one another. It's not just one more. It's a whole mixture!
"In 1937, we got the great Cezanne Bathers. In the 1960s, we got Renoir's Bathers in [Mr. and Mrs. Carroll] Tyson's collection [of impressionist and postimpressionist art]. Twenty years after, when Jean Boggs had the opportunity to buy the great Degas After the Bath, she seized it. Together, these three paintings generate so many ideas. So many connections. You could talk about them, think about them, forever! "
Another waiter comes by. "Alsatian flatbread with pears and gorgonzola? "
No takers. He moves on.
" `Why do we need another? ' That's an ignorant comment," one donor scoffs.
"Not really, though," d'Harnoncourt says soothingly. She likes to take the edges off sharp comments. "Museums do have so many works of art. "
Later, Jaffe takes d'Harnoncourt on a house tour. She admires a print, but advises, "You really ought to have that re-matted. "
On the second floor she notices Jaffe's family snapshots on a bulletin board. "My mother is 971¼2," she says. "This is what I should have done for her! " The elderly Mrs. d'Harnoncourt lives in a Bucks County retirement community, where her daughter tries to visit at least once a week. "I got her a bulletin board and she said: `That's much too big. ' But the other day, when I was visiting, she said: `You know, you had the right idea! ' "
"Crab cigar? " The waiter has found her again. This time she takes one, laughing. "My goodness! It's delicious. "
Art challenges you. It requires you to think, to question, to analyze and ponder. Some people find it intimidating.
Years ago, museum directors didn't worry much about attendance. The job was simpler: to make sure the art was as fine and well-conserved as possible. No one complained that the Philadelphia Museum of Art, sitting on its throne at the top of the Parkway, was imperious. It appeared regal, not remote.
Today, cultural institutions must defend themselves against charges of elitism. Under d'Harnoncourt's direction, and with considerable help from Robert Montgomery Scott, who managed the museum's business for a decade before he stepped down in 1996, the PMA has done that. Since 1992, annual attendance has grown from 582,000 to 942,000, and membership has increased from 24,000 to 47,000. In that same period, the endowment has risen from $74 million to $185 million. A $50 million capital campaign was exceeded by $10 million (another campaign, with a goal of $200 million, is well under way), and the building was refurbished. This year, the museum acquired the Reliance Insurance building across Kelly Drive, which will provide new office space and badly needed room to display permanent collections.
Meanwhile, city funding has dropped from $4.6 million (in 1992) to $2.25 million, where it has remained since 1994.
The pressures on the director to raise money and build the collection are intense. One of d'Harnoncourt's recent coups was the promise of Alvin Bellak, a former vice president of the board, to bequeath his acclaimed collection of Indian art to the museum. Other museums, including the Met, had courted him, but d'Harnoncourt's charm helped sway his decision. "People give to people," he explains.
(Watching d'Harnoncourt beguile a prospect one afternoon, Bellak laughed. "I collect collections. Anne collects collectors. And right now she's collecting Bernie Spain," cofounder of the Spain's card shops and a collector of early modern sculpture and Asian art. )
Unlike her predecessors, she can't stop there. It's up to her to reach out to communities, to serve children, schools, and the public.
This, d'Harnoncourt says, suits her fine.
"There's no point in being snobbish or standoffish. The whole point is to bring people in. . . . Museums are magical. People need magic in their lives. They're eager to spend time getting out of themselves, out of your own thoughts and preoccupations. . . . Everybody needs to slow down sometimes. To have an encounter with a work of art slows you down, like a book. "
Her dedication to improving the museum's diversity is sincere, says Ben Hammond, the former board member.
"I once spoke up at a meeting where the board had just approved the purchase of one of Duchamp's `ready-mades' - his famous urinal - for $1 million," Hammond says. "I understand its importance, but I said that nothing has been done of comparable weight in African American art. Anne took it to heart and has marshaled every curatorial resource she can to expand the collection of African American art. "
In the last five years, d'Harnoncourt has added 65 works by African American artists, and is planning a major retrospective of printmaker Dox Thrash in October. She has also recruited Hammond, along with former Philadelphia school superintendent Constance E. Clayton and board member Ragan Henry, to serve on a committee to increase the number of African American donors.
Her efforts to reach the city's disadvantaged children have been earnest as well. The museum's education department runs after-school programs, helps set curriculum standards for the visual arts, and has established distance-learning programs that can be accessed by computer. Through a grant, artists are sent into schools to work with art teachers and their students.
Still, the PMA has had difficulty integrating itself into the life of the inner city. At a recent reception for art students, an 18-year-old first-prize winner from one of the programs confessed that, until this year, he had never visited the museum.
Stories like this trouble d'Harnoncourt. She believes that the earlier children are exposed to art, the better they can be shown new and expansive ways to think.
Her own childhood in Manhattan was steeped in art. She grew up in a building that overlooks Central Park and was filled with intellectuals, musicians, scientists, writers, blacklisted Communist sympathizers, and artists. (Film critic Pauline Kael was a neighbor, as was poet Adrienne Rich. ) She attended the Brearley School and studied history at Radcliffe.
Her father was an Austrian count of French descent, with genealogical ties to the First Crusade.
But don't jump to conclusions, d'Harnoncourt warns. "In those days, Austrian counts were a dime a dozen," she says. When her father left Europe in the 1920s to start a new life in Mexico, it was because political upheaval and economic disaster had wiped out his inheritance. A competent painter, he became an expert on both Mexican and American Indian art and served in the Office of the Interior and as vice president of the Museum of Primitive Art before moving to the Museum of Modern Art.
"My parents were very idealistic and very thoughtful, people grounded in ideas about public service," d'Harnoncourt says.
For all their intellectual heft, they remained warm and unpretentious. "My father's idea of pure relaxation was to watch the Mickey Mouse Club. "
He was killed by a drunk driver in 1968. By then, d'Harnoncourt was working as an assistant curator.
Her mother, whom she believes she takes after, was fiercely independent and bright, she says. "For her to have ended up not only the wife of a museum director, but the mother of one, was a cruel fate. " Asked to explain why, she mumbles, "Oh, you know . . ." and changes the subject. We are caught in one of her conversational eddies, in which she avoids answering questions by delivering a head-spinning round of eloquent gibberish.
"I'm good at that," she says impishly.
D'Harnoncourt and her husband are not an obvious match.
He cooks, she doesn't. He loves to drive, she doesn't know how to. He's flamboyant, and, at work at least, she's not. "You wouldn't go tell her, `Oh, Anne. I had a terrible day with the dog and had to go to the vet,' " one curator says. "Not that she wouldn't be concerned, but there's a reserve there. Whereas Joe, you could tell Joe about your dog. "
During vacations, d'Harnoncourt is content to swim and read books. "But after a few days, Joe is always saying there's another ruin to see! Or a temple! He's the engine that drives me," she says. "Always wanting to go and do. "
Together, they have a genial balance. (And they're great dancers. ) "They enjoy each other's company so much," says Sara Jackson, a close friend from Radcliffe. Every summer, d'Harnoncourt, Rishel and friends retreat to Jackson's house on Martha's Vineyard for a week or two.
D'Harnoncourt and Rishel both love animals and talk now and then about getting a dog. "But we're out too much of the day," she says. "And night. "
That is also, in part, why they never had children. "It wasn't a deliberate decision; it's just sort of what happened," she says. "It's something I feel very wistful about. We both love children. . . . But life is very full. You roar along, get caught up in life, and the issue of stopping and saying, `This is the time to stop and focus elsewhere for a while.' . . . " She pauses, and her eyes brim with tears. "It's not always inevitable. We were deeply absorbed. Our values are very much shared. "
This summer marked their 30th anniversary. (Their 25th passed without their noticing it. )
"Anne is not just good and honest and dignified," Rishel says. "Of all the things going around working to dehumanize civilization, she has done a pretty good job of holding it together rather than breaking it up. "
Sandra Horrocks, the museum's former publicity director, says: "There is this sweet, simpatico relationship between them. " At their dinner parties, they seem to reverse roles. "She becomes the housewife; he's like the orchestra leader, making sure everyone gets a drink. "
One thing never changes, though. "The conversation is always about art," Horrocks says. "Always, always, always about art. "
On Father's Day, d'Harnoncourt has just bid a decorous good bye to Makiko Tanaka, the first woman foreign minister of Japan, who stopped by the museum for a quick private visit. D'Harnoncourt sits down for the first time in hours, to squeeze in an interview. Her long graying hair, which she cuts herself, has escaped the bobby pins that keep her bun in place.
Although she loves to shop, she rarely has the time. Asked where her favorite stores are, instead of naming any, she says, laughing, "Oh, Milwaukee. Or Tokyo. "
In press reports and wisps of anonymous gossip, she has been described as opaque, imperious, an expert in "studied neutrality," but d'Harnoncourt sees none of this in herself.
"I have the feeling I'm always too transparent! If someone is talking in a meeting and I'm worried, it shows on my face. "
You can see through Anne d'Harnoncourt about as easily as you can through Duchamp's deceptively simple Large Glass, which the PMA owns. Light filters through but only partially illuminates. In a 1987 New York Times review, Large Glass was described as "packed with down-to-earth allusions and yet difficult to decipher. " The same is true of d'Harnoncourt.
Spend hours with her, and you'll hear her talk comfortably about everything from how Jell-O jiggles to the wisdom in Benjamin Franklin's visage. Follow her to a 14th-century painting, The Legend of Saint Sylvester, and watch her clap with joy.
"Yeehee!" she says, savoring the details. "There they are! These guys have all expired because of the poison of the dragon's breath. "
What does she want from life? "I want people, and I mean everyone, to be moved by art, because I think of it as such a remarkable experience. A revelation. . . . The desire to share that is an important mission - although I don't think of myself as a missionary, but as someone who enjoys these things and wants others to enjoy them as well. "
She seems unguarded. And yet you come away with the feeling that she is keeping the best parts of herself to herself.
"I don't think of myself as mysterious," she says. "Why do people think so? I have no idea. "
This elusiveness and her exacting nature are reminiscent of Duchamp. Evan Turner, the PMA's director from 1964 to 1977, says d'Harnoncourt "has a very Duchampian mind. . . . The importance of every factor in a decision cannot be overemphasized. The implications of every move. "
"Will she correct your observation?" asks Robert Montgomery Scott. "No, she won't. She'll discuss it for three-quarters of an hour until you forgot what it's about. "
In the years when they shared the management of the museum, Scott says, he and d'Harnoncourt got along well. "There was a built-in tension between someone like Anne, who was brought up as a curator, and me, who was concerned with the bottom line. But we wrote up a treaty and got on remarkably effectively. . . . We didn't have any major rifts. . . . Both of us felt the PMA had to get off its pedestal. Both of us felt it should be involved in the city. "
With a great deal of help from Paul Cézanne, they began to make it happen.
"Cézanne was such a wake-up call," says Diane Dalto, the former cultural director for the city. The 1996 exhibition, which took six years to organize, drew 548,000 visitors and generated $122.5 million in tourism. For the first time, the city's tour bus, the Phlash, included the museum on its route.
"Anne really taught us the potential value of the museum to the city," says Rendell, who was persuaded to change his mind about eliminating the museum's funding. D'Harnoncourt grew to be an important player in city affairs, consulting and serving on committees that dealt with cultural affairs and events far beyond the museum's scope.
"People not only like to be around her," Dalto says, "they feel the work they're doing is validated if Anne is involved in it. "
Scott agrees, but says her forcefulness "has its positive and negative effects. " (Rendell says: "The only question if we danced would be how long would it take her to lead. ")
D'Harnoncourt was rumored to have pushed Scott out, using her offer to head the Museum of Modern Art as leverage. Both of them say the story is nonsense.
"I would never do something like that. It's just not me," she says.
"I felt I had probably given [the job] all that I could," Scott says. "I didn't think I had much more to contribute. "
Not that d'Harnoncourt begged him to stay.
There are no hard feelings, Scott says. A little bruise, perhaps.
"You know, she never stops talking," Scott notes. "We had a women's committee meeting here the other day, and Anne took over my house. She was leading everyone around as if she were the host, and I said, `You can force me out of the museum, but you can't force me out of my house! ' " Scott laughed. "I'm usually more polite than that. "
D'Harnoncourt "laughed and said, `I know, Bob. You're always telling me I talk too much. ' Then we quite cheerfully sat together and had lunch. "
In early June, the museum guest book shows visitors from Wales, Louisiana, Romania, Sacramento, Sunnyvale, Denver, London, Cinnaminson, British Columbia, Singapore, Chile - and one Debbie Repko from Lansdale ("Absolutely Coolio! Loved the contemporary!").
The men and women walking in over the red carpet tonight do not sign in. A good number already have their names engraved around the museum and in the glossy annual reports.
The occasion is the opening of an exhibition of the architectural achievements of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. The architectural community has shown up en masse, along with a broad range of museum supporters, business people, bankers, academics, politicians and socialites.
"There's a lot of money here tonight," a security guard whispers, surveying the pounds of diamonds, yards of silk, and astonishingly bad toupees.
D'Harnoncourt arrives late, in black patent-leather pumps, a black silk jacket, and a flowing skirt. Two structural engineers introduce themselves. "Thank goodness for you!" she says. She poses for a publicity shot with Venturi, Scott Brown and PMA chairman Ray Perelman, then rejoins the receiving line. She tells one guest, "Wait till you see the show! " And another, "It's great to be able to showcase a local treasure! Bless you! "
One staffer watching admiringly explains: "It can take five or 10 years to organize an exhibit, but it takes 20 years to build the relationships. "
Half an hour later, when d'Harnoncourt is supposed to be giving her formal remarks, she is still welcoming visitors. Finally, an assistant ushers her into the gallery - where she resumes the chat-and-greet.
Tony Atkin, who designed the exhibition, thanks her for the extravagant bouquet she sent.
Her husband joins her, and as Denise Scott Brown passes, Rishel bows and says, "Felicitations, Madame! Felicitations! "
An associate tells d'Harnoncourt she's got to get to the main staircase - now. D'Harnoncourt fishes in her purse, looking for her notes. "I'm ready anytime," she says. Making her way through the crowd, she says, "I know the most important thing about openings is not making speeches. It's to schmooze, but speeches are de rigueur. "
She strides to the podium and begins speaking, rarely referring to her notes. "What keeps any museum young is to exhibit artists who stretch the imagina-tion. . . . "
A waiter drops a tray and she laughs. "Oh! A cymbal crash! "
In less than five minutes, she has finished her remarks: "You don't want to hear from me. You want to hear from the principals. "
Then she applauds both the audience and the artists. After all, she works for them.