Magazine article Artforum International

For the People: Ann Temkin on Anne d'Harnoncourt (1943-2008)

Magazine article Artforum International

For the People: Ann Temkin on Anne d'Harnoncourt (1943-2008)

Article excerpt

NOW AND THEN, as a curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I found myself speculating about what Anne d'Harnoncourt might have done had she not followed in her father's footsteps as a museum director. University president? Supreme Court justice? Or US ambassador to the United Nations? For reasons I don't quite understand, this game intrigued me, as my imagination delivered her diplomacy, eloquence, and erudition to sectors of American life sorely in need of them. Perhaps it was just fun to know well someone who was fully credible as a star in any of these roles.

What these musings reflect, certainly, is that Anne was as much a civic as a cultural leader in her adopted home of Philadelphia. In such a city, it would have been easy for the museum to have remained an austere Greek temple on a hill, an elitist oasis aloof from the problems--Anne would have called them complexities--of its metropolitan surroundings. But as a committed democrat, Anne was determined to make hers a palace of the people, whether that meant Monet and Chagall exhibitions that lured those who knew little about art, or Jacob Lawrence and Beauford Delaney shows that attracted large African-American audiences. Local artists were a valued element of the calendar, with major retrospectives dedicated to such Philadelphians as Sidney Goodman and Thomas Chimes. And Anne's involvement in the city's culture extended far beyond the museum's walls. She was an energetic behind-the-scenes actor in decisions involving the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and the never-ending travails of the Barnes Foundation, as well as a key voice in fellow organizations like the Fairmount Park Art Association and the Fabric Workshop and Museum. David Brownlee, chair of the History of Art department at the University of Pennsylvania, put things in proper perspective by noting that with Anne's passing, Philadelphia had lost one of the greatest cultural leaders in its entire history.

Despite Anne's dedication to an inclusive mission for the museum, populism could not trump intellectual rigor or scholarly adventure. Not a shred of cynicism accompanied her plans for shows with mass appeal, and there was never a question that they deserved anything less than first-rate scholarship; indeed, one sensed that she took contrarian delight in serious attention paid to the oft-maligned Renoir, Dali, or Wyeth. At the same time, Anne carefully threaded these crowd-friendly shows among exhibitions that were of guaranteed fascination only to the curators who proposed them and to a small circle beyond--whether devoted to Hon'ami Koetsu, Barnett Newman, or the colonial arts of Latin America. She appreciated the curator's curator as much as the artist's artist, and she always had faith that others would be converted.

Anne's leadership drew on remarkable reserves of unfailing good humor. It was virtually impossible to hear her speak unkindly about her colleagues, friends, or patrons. On any issue other than those of ethics and integrity, she granted endless miles of slack. It was almost unnerving--how could she choose to see the good side of even the laziest staffer, the nastiest critic? One effect of this, of course, was that Anne made you anxiously see yourself as petty and mean-spirited. But the other was that her example actually improved your own personality. If, on the one hand, we curators sometimes needed to be cranky among ourselves just as a reality check, on the other, we also realized that generosity and optimism could be learned behaviors.

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I came to understand that Anne's worldview was a matter of both nature and nurture when I spoke to people about how her father ran the Museum of Modern Art in New York from 1949 to 1968. His kindness and fairness were legendary, as was the gentle reason he brought to a tumultuous period in the museum's history. Much has been made of Rene d'Harnoncourt's background as an Austrian aristocrat, and of the old-world glamour this lent him and, in turn, his daughter. …

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