After more than a decade at the helm of the Harvard Art Museums, Thomas W. Lentz, the Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot Director, will step down on July 1. Lentz spearheaded the renovation and expansion of the museums, a multiyear project that united the Fogg, Busch-Reisinger, and Arthur M. Sackler Museums under one shining glass roof designed by the award-winning Italian architect Renzo Piano. Lentz spoke to the Gazette about his tenure, his work with the museums, and his future plans.
GAZETTE: Can you give us a snapshot of your last 10 years here?
LENTZ: The last 10 years have been exhilarating but also something of a grind. This was a long, complex project, and I feel very fortunate that I worked with a group of people who were dedicated, who understood what was at stake, who understood the long-term goals and mission of this great institution, and most importantly who were willing to roll up their shirtsleeves and go to work. When I look back on my decade-plus here at Harvard, I will probably remember the people I worked with more than anything.
GAZETTE: What was your biggest hurdle in working on the new Harvard Art Museums?
LENTZ: Probably the biggest hurdle with this project was getting people to understand and accept the necessity of change. We wanted to build a museum that could be useful for 21st-century users and used in creative, imaginative ways. Everybody loves the notion of change in the abstract, but change always seems to be something that’s happening somewhere else. So for us, the reality of change was complicated. As with everything in this museum, it was a collaborative process. We talked and debated and argued things ad infinitum, but those conversations and that understanding for the necessity of change is what allowed us to build this new kind of art museum.
GAZETTE: What do you think when you see people streaming through the front door?
LENTZ: I hope that when people walk in they immediately think of the old museum and recognize elements and experiences of that old museum, but at the same time they also recognize this is different. It’s more transparent. It’s more accessible. I actually have begun to view it as a kind of giant, transparent classroom, and that’s one thing that our architect, Renzo Piano, brought us. It’s now a much more open and light-filled space, and it also makes visible what used to be hidden away here. I can remember early on Renzo saying, “You have great collections, you do important things: Why is it hidden away?” We didn’t want this to come across as a static treasure house or a kind of closed academic bunker. We didn’t want people feeling they needed to have an advanced degree to walk through these spaces. We wanted it to be more open, accessible, dynamic, and clearly connected to what happens here at Harvard in terms of not just the curricular or cognitive life of the University, but also the social life of the University. Walking through the courtyard, it’s now clear that it really is a new kind of public space on the Harvard campus, and it’s a very beautiful space, at that.
GAZETTE: What do you see for the future of the Harvard Art Museums?
LENTZ: We have a new museum that will train future leaders in art history, conservation, and conservation science, helping form new curators and new art historians. This is a place where close looking and thinking about works of art will always be enshrined; it’s always at the core of our mission. This is a place where new ideas about works of art and new ideas about museums will be hatched. We have three museums with collections of world importance. We have a talented staff here. This is the birthplace of conservation and conservation science in the United States. And this is a place that is supposed to push the ball down the field. It’s supposed to advance knowledge and thinking about museums and works of art and the role they can play in advanced education. So, at the end of the day, my hope is that the Harvard Art Museums will be much more tightly woven into the fabric of what a Harvard education means.
GAZETTE: What’s next for you?
LENTZ: I’ve been here for almost 12 years and I think this is a natural time to step down. I am originally from out West. And I can say it now: I don’t like cold weather. So I am probably going to head West somewhere. What I want to do is take a deep breath for a while.