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Her art came first

Anne d'Harnoncourt's labor of love.

Lee Rosenbaum

is an art commentator and blogs

as "CultureGrrl" for

If Anne d'Harnoncourt, who died last Sunday, had any enemies, I never heard of them. She had the rare ability to defuse political and cultural controversies with irresistible charm, intelligence and good humor.

There were two reasons for her ability to remain largely above the fray. She had a sympathetic appreciation for the sincerity and legitimacy of different viewpoints. And she made her administrative decisions for all the right reasons: to serve the art-driven mission of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the institution she had so ably directed since 1982; and to enhance the cultural life of the city she loved.

In this era, when business smarts seem almost as crucial a credential for art museum directors as a grounding in art history, her roots as scholar and curator (not to mention her family roots, as the daughter of a former director of the Museum of Modern Art) informed everything she did.

When I chatted with her over lunch just a year ago about the plans for the museum's new Perelman Building, it seemed that what most excited her was not the additional gallery space but the expansive new library for both scholars and the public. For her, museum leadership was always a labor of love. In my blog, CultureGrrl, I noted she was paid significantly less than other major (male) art museum directors. Afterward, she greeted me with a cheerful "Hello, SalaryGrrl!" She seemed not to care very much about the money.

Not to say she wasn't keenly aware of her stature as this country's highest-ranking female in her profession. Female art museum directors are a sorority whose members keep tabs on one another.

Two recent major Philadelphia controversies best illustrate d'Harnoncourt's skill in smoothly navigating choppy waters: the Barnes relocation and the rescue of Thomas Eakins'

The Gross Clinic


Although the Philadelphia museum could only stand to benefit from the Barnes Foundation's move from Merion to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, d'Harnoncourt wisely kept a low profile on this contentious subject. When I directly asked about her position, she sidestepped: "I'm interested, and we want to help however we can." Then she hastened to express her admiration for the Paul Cret building that housed the collection.

Most memorably, she played a crucial role in the successful, if costly, campaign to keep

The Gross Clinic

in Philadelphia. The painting was on the verge of being jointly purchased from Thomas Jefferson University by the National Gallery of Art and Alice Walton's Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark.

I was present for one of d'Harnoncourt's moments of greatest glory - the celebratory love fest, embracing the entire city, that she hosted at her museum for 1,800 of

The Gross Clinic

's closest friends - donors who had helped make the $68-million rescue possible.

I myself expressed impolitic disapproval on radio of that rescue. In comments April 23 on WHYY, I criticized the sale by the Philadelphia Museum of three other museum-quality Eakinses to help pay for

The Gross Clinic

. I said the institution had done "an inappropriate thing as responsibly as possible: They assessed their collection and determined what they thought they could best afford to lose."

D'Harnoncourt's diplomatic rejoinder: "You don't part with anything by Eakins eagerly, but it keeps in the city of Philadelphia forever, in the public domain, this great,


work of art!"

No one in Philadelphia or in the American art world will part with Anne d'Harnoncourt easily. Her description of

The Gross Clinic

could be even more appropriately applied to her: She had "a powerful national significance, rooted in [


] home city."