Celebrating ....

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Thursday, 5 June 2008

Exchange: II

What Anne d'Harnoncourt found
in Philadelphia (and vice versa

Back in 1988, while researching a profile for Town & Country magazine, I spent a few weeks shadowing Anne d'Harnoncourt. As things turned out, one 24-hour stretch was all it took to tell me everything I needed to know about the Art Museum's late director (and subsequently president).

One Thursday night that year, Anne hosted a buffet dinner for 1,100 guests at the museum to celebrate the opening of a highly touted show by the German über-artist Anselm Kiefer. Less than 24 hours later she showed up at a small local gallery for the intimate opening of a show by Tom Chimes, then a little-known Philadelphia artist whose work she had admired for years.

Anne moved comfortably between the glitzy world of arts patrons and the grungy world of working artists for one simple reason: She genuinely cared about art. Whatever the milieu, she was so unpretentious that an outsider would never have guessed that she was the closest thing we had in this country to a royal personage in art circles: a leading expert on Marcel Duchamp (whom Anne met in her youth); a personal acquaintance of legendary art figures from painters like Georgia O'Keeffe to collectors like Nelson Rockefeller; and the daughter of René d'Harnoncourt, who ran New York's Museum of Modern Art from 1949 to 1968.

Anne was indeed an uncommon combination: A first-rate scholar (a rarity among museum directors) who looked (at six feet in flats) like a head of state but was easygoing and approachable. Although only the Met in New York and the National Gallery in Washington are clearly larger than our Art Museum, when I tailed her 20 years ago it was widely assumed that Anne would soon be snapped up by another, wealthier museum— perhaps her father's old stomping ground, the MOMA in New York. But what ultimately drove Anne was neither money nor prestige nor power but art, and so she perceived what others in the art business overlooked: Philadelphia's unique role as an incubator for visual art.

"What makes the visual arts in Philadelphia so stimulating," she told me then, "is their long history, which is somehow tied up with innovation. In the 18th Century, you have Charles Willson Peale painting pictures to hang in the museum he founded here and exhuming mastodons for its great natural history exhibit. Then you get the great days of the Pennsylvania Academy, of Thomas Eakins and a lot of amazingly adventurous lesser-known artists of the early 20th Century. The Philadelphia public today is very receptive to the kind of demanding art that appeals to the mind as well as to the eye. In the late '70s, when we did our big show of art in France under the Second Empire, it really had a great success. It did better here than it did in Paris. There are a lot of art schools here; there are a lot of bright and talented young artists; there's a very active art scene— which, of course, makes a difference for a museum in its midst."

With characteristic modesty, Anne neglected to include herself in this Philadelphia pantheon. Like Philadelphia, she too was unique and won't easily be replaced. Her sudden and untimely death is a genuine civic tragedy. On the other hand, the fact that this New Yorker chose to pusue her passion here for 36 years is cause for celebration. She flourished in Philadelphia, and consequently so did we.