The Miracle on Quincy Street

The Sackler Museum Opens After Years of Controversy

Miracles are still possible.

For those who dreamed of building an addition to the overcrowded Fogg Art Museum, the opening of the Arthur M. Sackler Museum--after nearly ten years of planning that included a temporary cancellation--is nothing short of miraculous.

When Seymour Slive, former director of the Fogg Art Museum began planning an addition, it was not merely a luxury.

"The Fogg had already been overcrowded for more than a generation--it was really bursting to the seams," Slive said.

Various plans for additions were considered, and when the Allston Burr Lecture Hall became obsolete with the building of the Science Center in 1972, "We felt that we would move heaven and earth to get that site," Slive said.

Originally, the plan was simply to renovate Burr Hall, but because of a number of generous donors, most notably Arthur M. Sackler, the museum staff decided in 1977 that they would aim for a new building, Slive said.

"(Sackler) saw our need, and he started to help us, though originally in a more modest way--he planned on giving a small pavilion," Slive said.

"But when he discovered the magnitude of our holdings (in storage) and our desperate need for additional space, he decided to go all the way," he said.

The next step was finding an architect, and James Stirling was chosen in 1979 over 70 others.

By the end of 1981, about $7.5 million had been raised for construction, although the lowest construction bid was $7.8 million. In addition, building costs were rising by about 1 percent a month.

Because money was needed to finance construction and operating costs, a desperation plan was conceived whereby the Fogg would sell a portion of its artwork to provide the needed funding.

The plan was greatly criticized in the art world.

A 1982 Crimson story reported that The Association of Art Museum Directors--a national organization of leading curators--sent a telegram to President Derek C. Bok on January 23, officially opposing the plan and charging that such a sale violated an important aspect of museum administrators' written ethics.

But with $16.2 million successfully raised--$7.5 million of which was for consruction costs--the problems still seemed surmountable. It looked as though an additional building, though still underfinanced, would soon be built.

Then, on February 2, Bok cancelled the project.

He told The Crimson at that time that a shortage of construction and operating funds led him to cancel the extension. The decision was also based on widespread concern that the plan for a limited sale of several Fogg pieces would be extremely controversial.

The Crimson also reported that Bok had doubts about whether Stirling would be able to adhere to his prescribed budget.

"We looked over the whole project and it seemed that the risks and burdens were just too great to proceed," Bok said at the time.

"With inflation, cutbacks in government aid to higher education, and the rapid rise of tuition, it didn't seem prudent to take on a new building," he said.

Harvard art-lovers were angered and disappointed by the announcement. "We absolutely need the building. We simply can not go on the way we are now. The disappointment was extraordinary, especially since the decision was so unexpected," said Professor of Fine Arts and Fogg Curator Konrad J. Oberhauer, echoing the sentiments of others in the Fine Arts Department.

Slive released a statement at the time, saying, "The Fogg has been dealt a blow from which the museum and the university it exists to serve may never recover."

Other critics had harsher words.

Ralph F. Colin, a member of the Fogg Visiting Committee and a leading museum fundraiser, wrote a letter to Bok in which he said, "There seem to be only two alternatives. Either a) You are unaware of the Fogg's role and importance as are the other five members of the Corporation, or b) Being aware, you are unwilling to go to bat and if necessary lay your job as president on the line to accomplish what needed to be acomplished. You may therefore take your choice as to whether "ignorance" or "ignominy" more aptly describes the basis of your behavior."

"The fact is that Harvard's decision will, I assure you, cost it much more than $3 to $4 million in lost financial support in the future," Colin wrote.

Others echoed Colin's statement that the decision to cancel the project would result in serious financial loss to the university. Slive told The Crimson that $11 million of the $16 million already raised would have to be returned.

However, George Putnam '49, then treasurer of the Corporation, said that Slive's $11 million figure was "absolutely fictitious," and said that only $1.1 million would have to be returned.

At first, the Fogg supporters did not know what to do next. "Suddenly all the rules of the game have been changed," said Oleg Grabar, chairman of the Fine Arts Department. "After three long years of work, we're back at square one."

But about ten days after Bok announced his decision to cancel the museum addition, he informally indicated to Fogg officials that he might reconsider--provided the museum could raise more money.

On February 22, less than three weeks after Bok announced the cancellation, hope was renewed when he recommended that the Fogg could proceed with its planned extension as long as the museum raised an additional $3 million by March 15, and another $3 million over the next three years.

Museum officials were once again optimistic about their chances of saving the project, saying an additional $1.5 million had already been raised at the time of Bok's announcement. By March 13, an additional $2.5 million had been pledged.

"What started as a firestorm has turned into a firm resolution to get this thing done. I've been at this for five years and I don't want to lose now," Slive told The Crimson.

When March 15 arrived, supporters of the new art museum had ample reason to welcome the day--$3.1 million had been pledged since the February cancellation. It appeared once again that Harvard would get a new art museum.

"I've been on the road with my tin cup for many days, and I know what a supreme achievement this really is," Slive said on the day the fundraising success was announced.

Indeed, "the miracle on Quincy Street," as Slive calls it, had been achieved.

As a token of his appreciation, Slive said that he gave a tin cup to each of the people who helped to make the miracle happen. "The tin cup was a symbol of the whole operation because we literally had to beg for money," Slive said.

"We really were surprised to discover how much love there was for the Harvard art museums. In a time of crisis we got tremendous support from everyone from students to major benefactors," he said.

Slive emphasized that without Sackler's continued support throughout the crisis, the new museum would not exist today. "He had the opportunity to pull out, and he didn't," Slive said. Sackler's contribution to the Harvard University Art Museums totals $10.5 million.

The anger and animosity of 1982 seems to have been washed away by the excitement of the opening of the long-awaited museum.

"It's all forgotten and is all history, now," Slive said last week. "As a historian, I take the long view--it's all ancient history now."

"The events of 1982 were depressing, and I think some of us lost a little faith in Harvard at the time. But on the whole it's behind us now, though not entirely forgotten," said Grabar.

"In some ways it even had good effects, because I think that as a result people started to talk about the problems, issues, and difficulties with having a rich museum at a University," Grabar said.

Bok last week called the decision to go ahead with the project "positive," and said, "It solved our space problems, which were severe."

Communications with the Fine Arts Department have improved, largely as a result of a better administrative structure which has remained since it was needed at the height of the controversy, Bok said.

Oberhauer agreed that communications are improved, saying there is now "a much better understanding of us in University Hall, and a much better understanding of them, as well."

"The positive result is that the museum was built, and now it's opening," he added