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When the Arthur M. Sackler Art Museum opened its doors in October 1985, many involved in the project dubbed its completion “The Miracle on Quincy Street.”
The moniker was hardly hyperbole. Harvard museum administrators had recognized the need for an extension to the overcrowded Fogg Art Museum since the 1950s, but the proposal was slow to gain traction, says former Fogg Director and Professor of Fine Arts Seymour Slive.
After a construction plan was formed in the 1970s, it seemed that the building would finally be realized. But the project suffered setbacks—and a month-long cancellation—in the early 1980s, making the eventual opening of the Sackler all the more remarkable.
Twenty-five years later, the Sackler serves a vital role for the Harvard art community, as the museum has continued to showcase a selection of important Harvard artwork while the Fogg Art Museum—generally seen as the center of Harvard’s art collection—has been closed for renovations since 2008.
But the Sackler’s place in the Harvard art world is set to change when the renovations finish, as the museum’s collections will move to 32 Quincy Street, though the building will remain “dedicated to the arts,” according to a written statement from Faculty of Arts and Sciences spokesperson Jeff Neal.
Nonetheless, for Harvard’s proponents of the arts, the 1985 completion of the Sackler Art Museum represents an unqualified triumph.
“The Sackler certainly was a reaffirmation of the importance of the arts at Harvard,” says George S. Abrams ’54, a prominent benefactor of Harvard museums who is also a former Head Trustee of The Harvard Crimson Trust II. “I think the entire community understood that.”
IT STARTED WITH SPUTNIK
The Sackler’s construction originated from an unlikely cause: the October 1957 launch of the Russian satellite Sputnik, according to Slive.
The launch catalyzed a renewed interest in science, and eventually drove the creation of the Science Center, which was completed in 1972. Slive says the Science Center’s construction rendered another teaching complex—the Allston Burr Lecture Hall on Prescott Street—a “white elephant.” As a result, Fogg administrators began eyeing the building as a potential extension for the Fogg.
In developing the project, Slive’s fundraising efforts were complicated by Harvard’s own $250 million capital drive at the time.
“There is an unwritten law at Harvard that when Harvard is raising money, you can’t go to its benefactors,” Slive explains.
As a result, Slive had to seek out donors who did not have a historical relationship with Harvard. His search led him to Arthur M. Sackler, a prominent doctor and philanthropist, who agreed to provide funds for razing the Allston Burr building and constructing a new museum.
“Sackler’s vision was bigger than mine and was bigger than [anyone’s] at Harvard,” says Slive.
Once Sackler’s commitment was secured, a building committee was formed, and British postmodernist James Stirling was selected to design the project from a pool of over 70 architects.
AN UNEXPECTED HALT
By 1982, more than $13 million had been raised to cover construction costs and an endowment for the new museum, but the broader fiscal climate threatened to derail the Sackler entirely.
“That was a time of considerable inflation, and there was worry that the running costs—along with the attendant costs of guards and heat—would continue to rise, and ... there [wouldn’t be] enough money to cover that,” says Professor Emeritus of the History of Art and Architecture and former acting director of the Fogg John M. Rosenfield.
Ultimately, responding to financial concerns, then-University President Derek C. Bok interrupted a meeting of the Faculty of Fine Arts on Feb. 2, 1982 to announce that he was cancelling the Sackler project.
Bok’s decision resulted in an “international scandal,” drawing condemnation from across the University and beyond, Slive says.
According to a 1985 Crimson article, Ralph F. Colin, a member of the Fogg visiting committee, wrote to Bok at the time, saying that the President was either “unaware” of the Fogg’s significance or “unwilling to go to bat” to defend the institution.
“You may therefore take your choice as to whether ‘ignorance’ or ‘ignominy’ more aptly describes the basis of your behavior,” Colin continued.
By Feb. 22, Bok changed course, and announced that the building project could continue as long as the museum raised an additional $3 million by March 15 and another $3 million over the next three years.
With just three weeks to raise the capital, Slive began seeking large donors in order to meet the target.
“That was very painful. I had been out ... raising money. Then the goalposts changed and I had to raise more millions, and I was given a deadline,” Slive says.
Nonetheless, he managed to raise $3.1 million by March 15, ensuring that the Sackler project could continue. As a token of his appreciation, Slive distributed powdered sugar shakers—the closest thing he could find to a “tin cup”—to the half dozen donors who had helped him meet the fundraising target.
The shakers were engraved with the words “The Miracle On Quincy St. 15 March 1982.”
For the students in the Class of 1986, who arrived at Harvard the following autumn, construction at the site of the Sackler was ongoing throughout most of their college careers.
But as the building took shape near Memorial Hall, not everyone was pleased with what they saw being built at the Sackler. The design of the building—including its light and dark brown-banded brick exterior, irregular window placement, and the two large pillars flanking the entrance—received mixed reviews from the Harvard community.
“The building itself was very controversial at the time. It was very striking,” says Tobias M. Lederberg ’86, adding that one oft-heard quote about the building was, “Someone better put some Ivy on that real quick.”
In a 1984 Crimson article entitled “Warehouse or Museum?” Stirling’s unorthodox exterior was described as “gorgeous” and “hideous” by Rosenfield and Sackler security guard Michael Pelham, respectively.
“Design students and professors come over from Gund Hall to laugh at it,” added Pelham in the article.
Uncertainty about the design was compounded by Harvard’s inability to secure community approval to build a proposed bridge over Broadway Street that would have linked the Sackler and the Fogg, Rosenfield says.
Local citizens charged that the connector—which would also have served as a way to transport artwork—would block out sunlight, detract from its surroundings, and might even be a traffic hazard. A vote on the proposal by the mid-Cambridge Neighborhood Association led the Association to adopt no formal position on the bridge, though the majority of members were opposed to the plan.
University officials decided to indefinitely postpone the building of the bridge, and Stirling finished construction of the building with the Fogg and Sackler still not visibly connected.
But despite the controversies, Slive says he was thrilled with the completed museum, which represented the fruit of a decade’s worth of his efforts.
“People are very critical of new architecture,” he says. “You can argue that it looks like a warehouse. But I found it brilliant.”
ENJOYING THE ARTS
Despite the complications that had marked its inception and construction, the opening gala at the Sackler was, by all accounts, a joyous affair.
“We had a big ball,” Slive says of that October night. “Sackler came with a big red sash [and] my assistant ... wore a wonderful hat which was a model of the building. There was so much to celebrate.”
Abrams says the opening represented an “exciting moment” for the art community.
“There was great anticipation for how the Sackler Museum would provide wonderful new facilities for the Harvard art collections,” he says.
Harvard undergraduates were also welcome at the black-tie affair, and many say they chose to attend the celebration.
“What was especially unique about it was that students were encouraged to attend this worldwide event with luminaries,” Lederberg says. “It was one of the more unique social events of the whole time I was there.”
And in the months that followed, many students were able to gain a new appreciation of Harvard artwork, some of which had not been displayed for years due to the space constraints at the Fogg.
“Going to experience the Sackler was a little pressure release, a stress release, by focusing your thoughts on and enjoying something beautiful,” says Georgette A. Farkas ’86. “As a student, it felt like a place to escape and be inspired.”
—Staff writer Laura G. Mirviss contributing reporting for this story.
—Staff writer Evan T.R. Rosenman can be reached at email@example.com.
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