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Editorial: Anne d'Harnoncourt, 1943-2008

Philadelphia's loss

For more than a quarter century, Anne d'Harnoncourt made an indelible mark on the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Her star power and pizzazz didn't go unnoticed throughout the culture world. More than a few times, there was fear that she might be lured away to run even bigger-name museums in New York or Washington.

It was Philadelphia's great fortune that d'Harnoncourt stayed and made a great museum an international showcase.

As museum director and then as chief executive, she launched more than a decade of blockbuster exhibitions - beginning with the smash-hit Cezanne show in 1996. After taking the reins from the flamboyant Robert Montgomery Scott, she increased attendance, opened a 173,000-square-foot gallery and workshop annex last fall, and mounted the massive $590 million gallery expansion and renovation of the main museum now under way.

That makes her sudden and unanticipated death all the more shocking, and a true loss for the city. One observer in philanthropic circles called it "a real bolt from the blue." More so since d'Harnoncourt, 64, clearly was in her prime as a museum director.

Her zeal will be hard to replace.

Not only had she already put her mark on the museum by renovating more than 100 galleries, d'Harnoncourt also was directing the Frank Gehry expansion of the main building that will yield sprawling new galleries, a sculpture garden and a long-needed parking garage.

The makeover maintains the museum's rich history while securing its future.

A year from now, she would have been basking in the international spotlight of a special showcase exhibition the Art Museum was chosen to mount at the renowned Venice Biennale. A curator by training, d'Harnoncourt also made her mark one painting at a time: never more so than 18 months ago, when she stepped up to help save Thomas Eakins' masterpiece

The Gross Clinic

from being sold by Thomas Jefferson University.

With her imposing, patrician bearing, d'Harnoncourt moved easily among the wealthy arts patrons who are the heart and soul of museum financial support. Yet she also put the Rocky statue on the museum steps, and once offered an Everyman primer on the appeal of Impressionism, saying simply, "It's a dreamscape; you want to place yourself in it."

D'Harnoncourt's success in making the Art Museum a jewel paid far-reaching dividends. The Cezanne exhibit showed the powerful allure of blockbuster events, and still serves as the template for boosting tourism and showcasing Philadelphia. In that sense, d'Harnoncourt was the perfect 1998 recipient of the Philadelphia Award, which honors someone advancing "the best and largest interests of the community."