Campus & Community

Lentz to step down

6 min read

For more than a dozen years, he directed the Harvard Art Museums through a massive reimagining and relaunch

After reimagining and successfully rebuilding the Harvard Art Museums, and more than a decade at the helm, Thomas W. Lentz, the Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot Director, will step down on July 1.

The announcement comes two months after the successful launch of the Harvard Art Museums’ new facility, which was designed by the Renzo Piano Building Workshop. The redevelopment was spearheaded by Lentz, and founded on the decade of collaborative planning that he inspired and helped lead.

“Tom Lentz has made an extraordinary and enduring contribution to Harvard by leading the transformation of the Harvard Art Museums into the magnificent ‘teaching machine’ that opened last fall,” said Harvard University President Drew Faust. “His vision did not just include the creation of exhilarating new spaces, but the reconceptualization of the place of art — and the museums’ treasures — in the curriculum and in the life of the University and its wider community.

“Tom never faltered in his dedication to this project, overcoming organizational, financial, and myriad other challenges with unrelenting — and quietly understated, yet compelling — zeal,” Faust added. “He leaves a legacy that will benefit us all for decades to come. He has earned both our profound gratitude and our deepest admiration.”

Excerpt from Harvard Art Museums: The Light Machine

The renovated and expanded Harvard Art Museums reopened on Nov. 16, 2014 with a new building designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano that unites the Fogg Museum, the Busch-Reisinger Museum, and the Arthur M. Sackler Museum under one shining glass roof. For more about the renovation, visit Art’s Shining Future.

Last Nov. 16, the reinvigorated and newly integrated Harvard Art Museums, which include the Fogg, Busch-Reisinger and Arthur M. Sackler museums, opened to the public. The 204,000-square-foot facility contains new public pathways through the historic Calderwood Courtyard, more than 50 galleries and public spaces, a 5,000-square-foot art-study center, a gift shop and café, a 300-seat lecture hall, and glass-walled laboratories for the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies under a pyramid-shaped glass roof.

The facility contains multiple platforms to support Harvard teaching and learning and now has 40 percent more gallery space, enabling substantially more of Harvard’s 250,000-piece art collection, one of the country’s largest, to be viewed by the public.

“We have always believed in the intrinsic power of original works of art — how they encourage us to look closely and engage us deeply in discussion and debate. We always knew the museums and our collections could be used to teach in new and different ways to support all disciplines,” said Lentz.

“The museums have been taken apart and put back together again to create a new kind of teaching facility that is already realizing its potential, so in large part our goal has been accomplished,” Lentz continued. “The enormous talents of our staff will help to facilitate the work we do with faculty, students, University partners, and the public. And with the support of a superior senior management team, the next director will be building on a strong foundation.”

Appointed director in 2003, Lentz arrived at a time when the University was on the cusp of academic and administrative change. For years, University officials had been discussing ways to address the pressing infrastructure needs of its aging museums at 32 Quincy St., but questions remained about where, when, and how. Faust, who was appointed president in 2007, brought a new focus on the arts as an integral part of the intellectual life of the University. The art museums’ role consequently became even more critical to the University’s core mission of research and teaching.

“Tom’s vision for the museums encompassed much more than infrastructure improvements. He wanted to ensure that they took their rightful place at the center of University life, seeing them as integral to teaching and learning, and relevant to all disciplines,” said Provost Alan M. Garber. “He reconceived the role of a university art museum in advanced education in the early 21st century, and, by extension, the role of the art museum in the broader culture in the early 21st century. He has overcome daunting obstacles in bringing his vision to life in the new building, succeeding brilliantly, and he’s left us a powerful roadmap.”

Early in his tenure, Lentz paused design work on a new museums facility to undertake a years-long strategic planning process. The outcome was a University-endorsed vision for an innovative, interdisciplinary arts laboratory where original works of art would serve as engines for inquiry.

In addition to the new facility, Lentz and senior management oversaw important operational improvements at the museums, including the realignment of the curatorial divisions to encourage more collaboration and cross-pollination of the collections. Put in place was a new organizational structure that included a Division of Academic and Public Programs, charged with building bridges to teaching and learning for faculty, students, and the public. The museums’ staff also worked with faculty and administrators to create a plan to leverage the new facility’s spaces and programs to support teaching and learning, a plan outlined in a white paper titled “A Sketch of the New Harvard Art Museums.”

“From the moment he arrived as director, Tom inspired us all by the example of integrity, work ethic, analytical thinking, collaboration, and deep intelligence he brought to the project. And he is not afraid to make decisions, which was essential to bringing us to today,” said Deborah Martin Kao, chief curator and Richard L. Menschel Curator of Photography. “He is the type of director who always deflects credit for his many, many achievements, while simultaneously encouraging his staff to be creative and to bring forward best ideas. I think these attributes fundamentally changed the institution, and today they inform every aspect of the way we work together to achieve the goals and meet the ambition of our research, teaching, and learning mission.”

Lentz served on University committees to break down barriers and create more space for faculty to engage the art museums’ strengths, collaborating with new academic and programmatic partners and inviting their collections and programming to be featured at the museums. Numerous works from the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography, for example, are now featured in the University Collections Gallery. Also promoted was the unique and important role that conservation and conservation science plays within the art museums, and its central role is underscored in its new laboratories and the museums’ inaugural exhibition, “Mark Rothko’s Harvard Murals.”

Lentz also worked tirelessly to garner financial backing for the renovation and expansion project. With the support of gifts totaling more than $250 million, the project is viewed as one of Harvard’s most successful fundraising campaigns for a capital project. Meanwhile, Lentz and the curatorial staff developed an acquisition strategy that would significantly strengthen the collections. They also introduced important collections through promised gifts, such as the Feinberg Collection, approximately 300 exquisite Japanese screens and hanging scrolls, and through the strong support of longtime donors, such as Emily Rauh Pulitzer, who provided significant funding and has given many major works of modern and contemporary art to strengthen the collections.

Harvard will immediately begin a comprehensive search for the museums’ next director.