This article was previously published in the special edition, ALUMNAE (December 2018).
Engulfed by art at a young age, there is no doubt not only that Anne d’Harnoncourt was curious about its many historical paths and theoretical features, but that creativity ran in her veins.
A graduate of Radcliffe College, Massachusetts, with a BA in History and English Literature, d’Harnoncourt moved to London where she undertook an MA in nineteenth-century painting at The Courtauld, where she found the field of expertise in which she would excel – Marcel Duchamp’s life and work. During just one year studying here, she worked at the Tate Gallery, preparing full catalogue entries for Pre-Raphaelite paintings and drawings.
Photograph by Matt Rourke
Immediately upon returning to the States she joined the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the Philadelphia Museum of Art as a curatorial assistant, in which capacity she was given first-hand experience with Duchamp’s work, organising his last major installations (Étant donnés) before his death in 1968. After two years at the Art Institute of Chicago, d’Harnoncourt returned to the Philadelphia Museum in 1972 as Curator of Twentieth-Century Art, co-organising many exhibitions including the major retrospective of Duchamp’s work in 1973. Under her curatorship, the museum’s contemporary collection thrived, with her wit and charm navigating the acquisition of some incredibly important works by artists from Jasper Johns to Sol LeWitt and Agnes Martin, among many others.
Given her success with twentieth-century art, it is no surprise she was chosen to succeed Jean Sutherland Boggs as Director of the museum in 1982 – at the age of only 38 – and at the same time took on the role of Chief Executive Officer. Under her leadership, the museum not only presented numerous exhibitions and retrospectives but also, at her instigation, the museum’s ninety galleries were fully redeveloped, making d’Harnoncourt the first woman in this position to oversee a project costing over five hundred million dollars.
She remained at the helm of the Philadelphia Museum of Art until 2008, when the international art world was shaken by her sudden death. Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Phillipe De Montebello, spoke about the unexpected loss of his friend and colleague describing her as “a guiding light of the museum community”. It is true, the artistic community has suffered a great loss of this influential, innovative woman, but it is vital to note that the work she did had a great and lasting effect on us, both as viewers and as students – she is remembered as a particularly transformative figure, manifesting strength in her very name, and for that, we owe her our utmost thanks and respect.