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Anne d’Harnoncourt dies

Anne d’Harnoncourt, leader of the Philadelphia Museum of Art since 1982, died Sunday at age 64.

Anne d’Harnoncourt won the 2007 Founder's Award. She is shown here at the ceremony with  Ruth and Raymond G. Perelman.
Anne d’Harnoncourt won the 2007 Founder's Award. She is shown here at the ceremony with Ruth and Raymond G. Perelman.Read more

Anne d'Harnoncourt, 64, who led the Philadelphia Museum of Art since 1982, died of cardiac arrest late last night at her Center City home, museum officials said today.

She recently had undergone a "fairly minor" hospital procedure, said Gerry Lenfest, chairman of the museum's board of trustees.

Norman Keyes, a spokesman for the art museum, said d'Harnoncourt was at home with her husband, Joseph J. Rishel, when she died.

The museum issued a statement around noon saying that d'Harnoncourt, the museum's director and CEO, had "led the institution with greatness and grace since 1982."

"Anne's death is a severe loss to our beloved Museum, to the world of art and to those who knew and loved her," Lenfest said in the statement.

"I have never known a person with more human attributes: She was learned, a gifted speaker, had an effervescent personality, was a great director and, above all, a deeply caring person. We will miss her greatly."

Leading the prestigious museum for the last generation, d'Harnoncourt presided over a transformation of the institution, renovating more than 100 galleries, and winning international attention for a stunning series of special exhibitions that showcased the work of artists ranging from Vincent Van Gogh to Thomas Eakins to Salvador Dali.

Last year, the museum completed a dramatic expansion with the opening of the Ruth and Raymond G. Perelman Building, across the street from the museum's dramatic location at the head of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

The new building - made possible by a long-range capital campaign that raised nearly a quarter-billion dollars since 2000 - provides state-of-the art facilities for the museum's collection of prints, drawings and photographs, costumes and textiles, and its library and archives.

Throughout her career, she charmed those with whom she worked, from wealthy museum donors to city political figures, while restoring the museum's international reputation.

"I just heard about this an hour ago and I am stunned," Mayor Nutter said this morning. He called d'Harnoncourt "just a tremendous person, full of life."

"It's a tremendous loss for the city and the region and the art world in general," Nutter said. "Anne could have worked anywhere she wanted. We were fortunate to have her."

Mary Baffa, assistant to Leonore Annenberg, chairwoman and president of the Annenberg Foundation, said that Annenberg "just loves Anne and has the highest regard for her and respect."

Bruce Toll, a trustee of the art museum and chairman of Philadelphia Media Holdings - which owns the Daily News, the Inquirer, and - said he had known d'Harnoncourt for 30 years.

"She lived and breathed this museum," Toll said. "It's a terrible loss."

At the Grand Palais in Paris 10 days ago, Toll showed his Philadelphia Museum of Art trustee card to jump a long line at the entrance, he recalled. "One thing I will tell you," he said, "If you whip out your trustee card, they put you at the front of the line. Then they ask, 'How are Anne and Joe?'"

D'Harnoncourt's husband, Rishel, is the museum's curator of pre-1900 European paintings.

In addition to being the museum's public face, she had been its life force, Toll said. "This is not someone who had an occupation just for the paycheck," he said. "She loved every room in that museum. She loved that museum like a child....Without her, I don't know how we're going to go ahead."

D'Harnoncourt was born in Washington, D.C., and grew up in New York City, where her father, Rene d'Harnoncourt, an Austrian count, spent nearly 20 years as director of the Museum of Modern Art.

"The thing that I got very strongly from him was the love of objects themselves," D'Harnoncourt said in a 1976 interview with Nels Nelson of the Daily News.

"I don't know that I have inherited the talent but I have inherited the love of working out ways to show objects that will let them make a case for themselves."

She grew up surrounded by art. Much of her early life was spent between Brearley's School, a girls' private school on New York's Upper West Side, and her father's museum, she told Nelson.

"Practically my first memories are some of the paintings in the museum, as well as the staff and the building itself, and the garden, and all the rest. I really did grow up in it."

When asked by Nelson about a possible future in the fine-arts world, she said: "I don't want to think that far ahead. I don't think of art museums in terms of career, I think of them in terms of an enormous amount of work to be done."

In 1982, she told the Inquirer that she remembered scampering through the hallways of her father's museum, "but I never thought of it as a career. I had visions of being an actress, or in government."

D'Harnoncourt graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Radcliffe College in 1965, after studying European history and literature, writing a thesis on the poetry on Shelley and Holderin, and doing additional coursework on architecture.

From there she went to London University, earning a masters at the Courtauld Institute of Art.

In London she met Allen Staley, a curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, who was researching for a new exhibition. He suggested that she apply to the museum, and in 1967 she secured a position at the Philadelphia museum as an assistant curator of painting and sculpture.

After two years, she was hired away by the Art Institute of Chicago to be an assistant curator. There she met her future husband, Rishel.

The Philadelphia museum hired her back for good in 1972, making d'Harnoncourt its curator of 20th Century art. She held the job for 10 years until she was tapped to become the museum's director.

At the time, the museum was periodically closing off galleries because it couldn't afford to hire enough guards to keep all of them open at once. The institution was eating into its meager endowment - down to $18 million in the early 1980s - to meet operating costs.

Her initial appointment as director made her responsible for the museum's artistic affairs, working in tandem with the late Robert Montgomery Scott, president and chief executive officer, who took charge of the museum's finances and administration.

In 1997, Scott retired and d'Harnoncourt took over the additional duties of chief executive officer.

She was a director of the Henry Luce Foundation, a trustee of the Fabric Workshop and Museum, and a member of the visiting committee of the J. Paul Getty Museum, among other affiliations.

"So many of my friends were in the situation of being dragged to museums as small children," d'Harnoncourt told the Daily News in 1976. "And in that sense I was very lucky, because I sort of assumed that museums were where you always went. The other thing my family was crazy about in any city was the zoo. I feel very lucky to be in a city that has a good museum and a good zoo."

Donations in her memory may be made to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Daily News staff writer David Gambacorta contributed to this report.