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.