Thomas W. Lentz

Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot Director of the Harvard Art Museums

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Interview by Heidi Legg

What's on your DESK?

We can guess what’s burning on your desk. Why did you decide to take on this major renovation of the Harvard Art Museums?

I certainly knew I'd be renovating when I said yes. I have to confess I never really thought I'd come back to Harvard, where I did my graduate work. As a native Californian, I hate cold weather, but I remember how my experiences here as a student really shaped the way I think and look at the world.

My personal vision is to use this extraordinary collection that Harvard has to create new kinds of teaching and learning experiences for students, faculty, and the public.

The opportunity to create a physical facility that actually encourages and promotes different kinds of experiences and learning environments is something very few other museums can do. With Harvard’s extraordinary resources, we actually draw on intellectual and research resources from the rest of the university that are virtually unparalleled among museums.

Over the last several years Harvard has begun to slowly integrate the new undergraduate curriculum with a much greater emphasis on object-based  and interactive learning. We will have a number of features that encourage what we think has always been a hallmark of this institution and that is close, sustained looking and working with original works of art. With art, we can teach in different ways than the rest of the university, and our brand new facility will help create these new kinds of teaching and learning experiences.

We have the greatest art history library in the country. So, for us, it's how do we take these extraordinary resources that Harvard has and put them to more effective and creative use, especially in terms of Harvard's educational mission?

How will we interact with the work?

We said, 'let's really figure out who we are, what is it that we do, and how we fit into this very rich museum ecology in Boston,' because there's no point in us trying to be a kind of reflection of the MFA, and we can't be like the Gardner with their own history. What we have is this extraordinary collection attached to a very powerful university and we have set out to create new experiences.

We firmly believe that at the beginning of the 21st Century, where the visual is so privileged and so foregrounded, and  there is so much information and knowledge conveyed in visual terms, that there is an enormous role for an art museum that can be nimble, that can be accessible, and that can actually be encouraging in terms of bringing people together with these experiences. Ultimately, what we want to do is bring people together with works of art.

Why did you choose Renzo Piano as the architect?

Renzo is obviously a highly skilled and very experienced architect and our project demanded somebody who has sensitivity to historic structures.

The ultimate goal of this project is not only the renovation of the old structure and bringing that up to modern day standards, but to create a new wing and space that melds with the former. (Lentz led me through Renzo Piano’s very cool model of the new design.) There's a glass seam that literally separates the new from the old. All that is left of the old building is the brick skin, which was held up with massive steel exoskeletons, and the courtyard encased in steel with Styrofoam. We put an artificial roof on it to protect it during the renovation. We removed a number of additions to the back of the museum going back over several decades and this new wing takes its place. We actually excavated about sixty feet.

Is there a new name for the new wing?

The entire structure is The Harvard Art Museums and within that, there'll be identification of the three museums.

What happens to the Sackler building?

The building remains and the Sackler name will stay on the old building, but the museum moves over into this new space.

We're attempting to bring our three great museums, their incredible collections and talented curatorial staff together, under one roof, with one destination. We strongly believe that these great collections will actually begin to talk to one another. Through that we think we can begin to deal with all of the kinds of visual, historical, and intellectual linkages between those collections whether it's between Asia and Europe or Africa and America, and so on and so forth.

Known for signature style, what is the one thing that identifies Renzo in this renovation?

There are probably two things. Renzo brings a great sensibility regarding materials to all of his projects. One of Renzo's materials is clearly light. He's not what I would call a radical contemporary architect. He's really a kind of High Modernist, but he's very radical in one sense – in the amount of light that he brings into buildings, into art museums in particular, and I have to tell you that light is both your good friend and your enemy in an art museum.

When we talk about light coming into the building, it's always natural, controlled light. So, people may think there's a kind of glass roof or a glass lantern on the building but inside that glass lantern is a double-shading system - one for heat gain, one for light control - so we can modulate the light that comes in.

And the second?

I think people will take note of the material and skin he has used on the new wing. It is actually wood that has only been given a light stain and a light wash. It's Alaska Yellow Cedar, which oddly enough is not from Alaska, is not really yellow, and is more of a cypress than a cedar.

We've been working with a wood forensic scientist for almost five years. His job was to tell us why wood fails and I'll spare you the long story, but we chose this wood for its durability and its efficiency. It’s virtually impervious to insects and moisture; it can hold shape when it's milled and has a very long life. It is designed to last the life of the building and what we don't want people to think is we just sort of nailed some wood siding to the building. It's actually in the form of what they call a pressure-equalized rainscreen. It actually sits off the surface of the building so air circulates around it. Moisture can never be trapped inside and Renzo, famous for doing tests and prototypes, has spent a long time thinking about this in Genoa, in Somerville, and here.

We’re quite pleased with the final exterior product and once it's re-landscaped, I think people will appreciate the play of light and shadow across that wood at different times of the year and different times of the day. I've noticed that depending on the time of day, depending on where you're standing - this big glass roof right there - it looks different. Sometimes it disappears.

Will we still have the Fogg courtyard?

The courtyard for generations has been viewed as sort of the symbolic and emotional heart of the museum in people's perceptions, but the reality is it was in many ways anything but because you would essentially be drawn into the courtyard and then you would say, 'what do I do now?'

One thing we've asked Renzo to do is not only make our building more functional and more logical, but make it more transparent. Not simply the building but our program in the building, and the center of that effort on the part of Renzo has really been the courtyard. All of a sudden it really does become the center of the museum because one thing you can do now, you can actually circumambulate the courtyard. You could never do that before.

When you're standing in the courtyard now, you'll be able to look right out through the top of the building. This whole volume inside becomes what he calls 'the light machine.' I can remember early on in the project, Renzo would walk into the courtyard and he'd look up at that dirty, broken, cracked ceiling light and say, 'I can give you much better light than this.'

At the end of the day, we will have a brand new 204,000 square foot building with five levels above ground and three below.

Why should people care about what’s happening at the Harvard Museum?

One, we have an extraordinary collection that has been vastly underutilized in the past, even by Harvard. I don't think people know what we have in the collections. It’s not only one of the best collections in the country, but it has an enormous range and profound depth in Ancient Chinese art, and in my own field of Persian and Indian painting and drawing. Our European drawings and American drawings are incredibly strong as is our German Modernism - both Expressionism and Bauhaus. Our Japanese art is also very strong. I can go down each curatorial department and we have both national and world strengths.

Two, we plan to use those collections in very different ways. We have a number of new interpretive platforms in this building that are accessible, not simply [to] students and faculty, but also to the public. In the glass lantern, as we call if for now, we have something called the Art Study Center on the fourth floor.

A hallmark of this institution has always been close looking, intimate interactions with works of art and we've taken this powerful idea and made it more accessible at the top of the building. The Art Study Center is simply a physical space where, under close supervision, students, faculty, classes, even members of the public, can come and request a work of art and have a fundamentally different experience.

What is the percentage of art donated by patrons to private funding?

I don’t know but, with the exception of few museums in this country, we depend primarily on gifts and bequests of art. We are in a building campaign right now, so obviously our real focus is finishing the building campaign and we're very close.

Who are the exceptions?

There are museums like MoMA and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. They have very large acquisition budgets. Cleveland, as well, has a very large acquisition budget.

And Harvard Museums does not?

We have what I would call a modest acquisition budget. We see lots of things we'd like to acquire every year, but we don't have the budget. Over the last decade, we’ve been quite strategic about what we bring into the collection. It's a big collection with 250,000 plus objects, which is very large for a museum. It's not as big as the MFA, but still huge. In effect, Harvard has a small metropolitan art museum on their campus.

How is the contemporary art collection?

Our focus is on financial gifts right now, but mixed in with that is cultivating people to give works of art that we want in the collection. The vast majority of this big collection is historical in nature and yet we put a much greater emphasis on modern and contemporary art with the renovation. In the old building, we had about four hundred square feet dedicated to modern and contemporary art. That is not a way to move forward in the early 21st Century. Modern and contemporary art in all media gets much greater play in this renovated museum, and contributing to that has been the fact that we've been very fortunate with gifts of modern and contemporary art, which will largely be on display when we reopen.

Are all donors graduates?

Not at all. And what you'll find interesting is that out of all the money we've raised for this building project, somewhat to my surprise, only about a quarter of it is from Boston.

Does society want historical art rather than contemporary art in your museums?

I think it depends on the time and the place. There are a lot of places in the world now that have extraordinary monuments, extraordinary works of art, and they are just now becoming aware of the important role that preservation plays. On the other hand, in this country, there is a kind of mania for modern and contemporary art and that's driven by a lot of factors: true love and interest in works of art and what they represent, but a great deal is driven by investment strategies. We all know that art in many ways has increasingly been viewed as a commodity. One thing we like about this museum is the fact that we're part of a very powerful university that to some extent shields us from the market forces. While we do rely on the gate (admission tickets), ultimately what Harvard is interested in is what we can do with the collections. How can we open minds? How can we broaden horizons?

Larry Summers, who has never been mistaken as a great supporter of museums, understood what a museum could do for Harvard, as did Dr. Drew Faust who has also been enormously supportive. Summers once said to me that a lot of right, hard working, ambitious people come to Harvard. We educate them and then, in many cases, we send them out into a world they don't seem to know much about. And he’s right, because literally you walk into an art museum and it's a kind of time and space machine. You can go back in the past. You can jump across continents. So, that's what we hope this ultimately becomes for Harvard and we want the public to think they're included.

Speaking of mania and your LA roots, what is going on out West?

I think Los Angeles and, to a large extent, San Francisco, have really started to shift the balance and I don't think people on the East Coast fully appreciate or acknowledge that, but there are a lot of people out there who are doing big things, who recognize and embrace the history, the geography, and the culture of that part of the United States.

When I lived in Los Angeles and worked at LACMA, they were still looking back over their shoulders to New York and Europe and it's not that kind of a world anymore.

I very much hope we get closer links with the West coast, both in terms of what we collect in our programming and even beyond. I will tell you that one of the exhibitions we'll be doing in 2016 is contemporary aboriginal art which is something they know nothing about back here.

What types of new art will be preserved in the future?

Nobody can predict the future. I think time-based media, film, and digital technologies are garnering a lot of attention now from our conservation staff. We actually have something here at the Harvard Art Museums called The Center for the Technical Study of Modern Art; it's a program we run jointly with the Whitney Museum in New York, and it has a kind of tripartite focus - research, conservation and archives, but they're very much interested in that very question that you ask. We can’t yet mention one project that speaks to this – our opening exhibition – but stay tuned.

Are there any surprise new pieces?

There are a lot of things that I'd like to talk about that will be new additions to the collection, but I probably shouldn't talk about those yet.

What are your two favorite pieces in the collections?

Van Gogh's Self Portrait. That's what people like to come and see. And our ancient Chinese jade collection.

When will you reopen?

Fall 2014.

Can you share with us the final bill?

No. Harvard won't let us. Harvard's policy is never to talk about that.

Secret source?

Newbury Comics music store in the garage, which is quite good. Maybe I'll get a free cd the next time I go in there.

Favorite place for a drink?

Charlie's Kitchen.

DATEBOOK entry?

Getting our building turned back to us. The construction company will turn it back to us in late fall this year, and that means we're getting closer to our goal of reopening the museums next year.