Anne d’Harnoncourt

Jane Golden
Graham S. Finney

Born in Washington D.C. and raised in Manhattan, d’Harnoncourt was introduced to the artistic community at an early age by her father Rene d’Harnoncourt, who was the legendary director of the Museum of Modern Art (1949-1968). As a girl she met many famous artists, including Marcel Duchamp and Georgia O’Keefe, but dreamed of a career as an actress or politician, later as an historian or poet. After studying European history and literature at Radcliffe College, d’Harnoncourt turned her gaze toward art.

S he gained experience working at the Tate Gallery in London, while earning a Master’s degree in art history at the Courtauld Institute of Arts. In 1967 she was hired as a curatorial assistant at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA).

Five years later, d’Harnoncourt was appointed curator of modern art at PMA, after working as assistant and associate curator of modern art at the Art Institute of Chicago and at the PMA, respectively. A specialist on Marcel Duchamp, she co-organized a 1973 retrospective on his work, which then traveled to the Museum of Modern Art and the Art Institute of Chicago. D’Harnoncourt created special rooms displaying the work of Duchamp and the sculptor Constantin Brancusi. As curator, and later as director, d’Harnoncourt acquired numerous works of contemporary art, bolstering a weak area in the museum’s collections. Her “enormous charm and warmth” helped her build close relationships with several contemporary artists, including Jasper Johns and Ellsworth Kelly.

In 1982 d’Harnoncourt was appointed director of the museum, while Robert Montgomery Scott was named president and chief executive officer, in charge of administration and finance. The task before D’Harnoncourt and Scott was to revive a once great museum now in dire straits—with attendance at less than half of its peak year of 1970; reduced public hours and most galleries closed more often than open; a yawning budget deficit of $800,000 and a depleted endowment; a divided, demoralized board; reduced staffing and a disgruntled guard force; and a much heralded air-conditioning and humidity control system that had caused substantial damage due to leaks and flooding. Her appointment was greeted with enthusiasm by many board members and staff, although tongues wagged that she would be her husband’s boss—Joseph Rishel, curator of European painting before 1900.

D’Harnoncourt and Scott ran the museum together until 1996, when Scott resigned and she assumed the position of chief executive officer. The two got along reasonably well, although she had a way of taking charge without being impolite about it. His greatest concern was the bottom line, although both of them agreed that the museum needed to reach out and engage Philadelphians. As director and CEO, d’Harnoncourt was the only woman to head an art museum in the US with a budget over $25 million. Under d’Harnoncourt and Scott, and then under d’Harnoncourt until her sudden death in 2008, the museum experienced a dramatic rebirth.

Annual attendance increased from 400,000 in 1980 to roughly one million in 2008, while the price of admission rose sharply (although first Sundays remained free). The museum’s fiscal situation, including its endowment, went from anemic to robust, even though the city cut its funding to the museum by about 50%. The museum’s 200 galleries were open for perusal, and many had been renovated. Educational programs and community outreach were much expanded, including a partnership with the Mural Arts Program.

D’Harnoncourt hired ambitious, creative curators and put them in charge rather than the marketing department, resulting in numerous, well-researched, sophisticated exhibits of all sizes. “She’s taken the place to a new level, far above what it’s been in the past,” noted Ray Perelman, board chairman, “The atmosphere in the museum is almost electric.” The Cezanne retrospective in 1996, the first retrospective of his work in the United States in sixty years, drew 778,000 visitors to the museum during its three month run—record attendance for an exhibit in the museum’s history. Several successful major exhibits followed including retrospectives of Salvador Dali and Frida Kahlo.

D’Harnoncourt led the Philadelphia Museum of Art through two financial campaigns—the first one raised 64 million dollars (1986-1993) and the second one raised 246 million (2001-2006). The funds enabled d’Harnoncourt to renovate and expand the museum. The most notable addition was the opening of the Perelman Building in 2007 (home of prints, photographs, costumes and textiles, modern and contemporary design, and the library and archives). D’Harnoncourt embraced the museum’s all-encompassing collections as the museum’s great strength, and undertook an aggressive acquisitions campaign (via purchase or more often donation), adding 80,000 art objects. One donor joked that while collectors acquired art works, d’Harnoncourt collected collectors.

Reporter Melissa Dribben, who shadowed d’Harnoncourt for a few days, described her as a whirlwind of art talk, whether chatting with board members, potential donors, staff, or interns. She often spoke of paintings having conversations with other paintings, of the context and meaning of specific works of art. Her unbounded enthusiasm for art, her vision for the museum, her charm and grace, combined with the museum having become a happening place, revitalized with exhibits and new works – explain why d’Harnoncourt was amazingly successful at persuading people to donate money and art to the museum.

As an advocate of displaying art created by local artists, d’Harnoncourt acquired, along with the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the famous Thomas Eakins painting, “The Gross Clinic,” for $68 million, preventing it from being expatriated. She explained: “It’s a painting that really belongs in Philadelphia- his presence still resonates here.”

Kia Feindt & David Haugaard

Sources: William Grimes, Obituary, New York Times, June 3, 2008; Dinitia Smith, “At Home with Anne d’Harnoncourt,” May 30, 1996; Kate Taylor, “Art World Mourns Anne d’Harnoncourt,” New York Sun, June 3, 2008; Bob Warner, Nicole Norfleet, Becky Batcha, “In d’Harnoncourt’s Death, City Loses a Treasure,” Philadelphia Daily News, June 3, 2008; “Leaders of Mural Arts Program and the Museum of Art to Receive 1997 Philadelphia Award,” PR Newswire Philadelphia, April 16, 1998; Lee Sorensen, “Anne d’Harnoncourt,” Dictionary of Art Historians,'harnoncourta.htm. The following are from the Philadelphia Inquirer: Maryanne Conheim, “Buried Treasures,” May 24, 1981; Conheim, “Jeann Boggs: The ‘Star’ with Mixed Reviews,” May 24, 1981; Conheim, “Profile,” June 18, 1982; Conheim, “Art Museum a Year Later: A Fresh Look,” Jan. 30, 1983; Edward J. Sozanski,” “How Long can the Art Museum Subsist on Bread and Gravy?” Feb. 6, 1983; Sozanski, “Philadelphia’s Irreplaceable Treasure,” June 3, 2008; Sozanski, “Witness to a Long and Lustrous Leadership,” June 8, 2008; Melissa Dribben, “Museum Quality – Anne d’Harnoncourt,” Aug. 12, 2001; Alfred Lubrano, “Two Art World Women to Share Philadelphia Award,” April 9, 1998; Peter Dobrin, Obituary, June 3, 2008; Dobrin, “Appreciation from the World of Art,” Sept. 8, 2008; Dobrin, “Signature Campaign Honoring Museum Legend,” April 25, 2009; Editorial, “Anne d’Harnoncourt,” June 3, 2008. The following are collected from Philadelphia Award Records: Series 4 (Miscellaneous), Box 20, folder 4: press releases.