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Alan Shestack, 81, Old Master Prints Scholar, Generous Mentor, Thrice Museum Director

Considering his long, illustrious career as an art scholar and museum director, not to mention his generosity in sharing his deep insights with others (including me), I’m puzzled as to why there’s been so little mention of the death last week of Alan Shestack, 81, who retired in 2008 as deputy director and chief curator of the National Gallery, Washington.

His expertise was in 16th-century Netherlandish and German prints and drawings. So why was he gazing at two American modernist paintings in the image posted to accompany a tribute to him that appeared last week (too fleetingly) on the website of the last of the three museums that he directed—the Museum of Fine Arts Boston?

Alan Shestack with Arthur Dove’s “Dancing Willows,” right, & “Red One,” left
Photo: Museum of Fine Arts

The answer (not explained in the MFA’s posting) is that the paintings were part of the Lane Collection, which Shestack was instrumental in acquiring for the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, according the eulogy published on the museum’s website (but now mysteriously vanished) by the museum’s current director, Matthew Teitelbaum,

With the BMFA’s permission, I have created my own link to the text (which its spokesperson provided to me) of the unaccountably removed tribute that I had seen in the “Director’s Message” of a few days ago (now supplanted by a different message). That was the first notification I had seen about Shestack’s passing.

Alan was a museum-hopper, having served as director of the Yale University Art Gallery, 1971-1985; director, Minneapolis Institute of Art, 1985-1987; director, MFA Boston, 1987-1993; and deputy director, National Gallery from 1994 until his 2008 retirement.

There was another museum directorship that he had accepted before reneging on that commitment—the Art Institute of Chicago. The late journalist Karl Meyer told that tangled tale in his book, The Art Museum: Power, Money, Ethics:

In 1977, Alan Shestack, 39-year-old director of the Yale Art Gallery, was invited to serve as director of the Art Institute of Chicago—and accepted. As head of the Association of the Art Museum Directors’ policy committee, he had opposed dual leadership of museums, and had misgivings about having consented to serve under a paid president.

After looking further into the particular division of authority and its implications, he withdrew his acceptance [emphasis added], deciding to remain at Yale. Personal considerations [the official explanation] may have played a part, but the rejection of the prestigious directorship by an able and energetic young scholar can be taken as an augury of what the dual arrangement could mean: that museums will have to settle for second-rate directors—and second-rate professional standards.

In conversations with me, Alan was always friendly and forthcoming in sharing his views on professional practices and museum ethics. Indicative of his principled approach was his explanation, quoted by the Washington Post, of his decision to return to Egypt fragments of nine wall paintings, dating from the 15th century B.C. that an MFA curator believed to have been stolen from a destroyed tomb:

I like to think of myself as an ethical person, so we decided to deal directly with the Egyptian government. I told the Egyptians that the pieces of art seemed to have come out illegally.

I had disagreed with one of Shestack’s most high-profile initiatives at the MFA: Although it opened after Malcolm Rogers had succeeded Shestack as director, the Boston museum’s 20-year stint in a satellite facility in Nagoya, Japan, was conceived and planned on Alan’s watch:

The former Nagoya/Boston Museum of Fine Arts

Under the terms of the Nagoya agreement (which expired last year and was not renewed), the MFA and Japan’s Nagoya/Boston Museum of Fine Arts organized a series of exhibitions drawn from Boston’s permanent collection in exchange for $50 million from Nagoya, paid over 20 years.

As detailed by Ken Shulman in a Newsweek article published soon after the facility’s 1999 opening, the MFA’s Japan satellite was controversial from the start:

Many Japanese are having second thoughts about the arrangement. When the Boston MFA first floated the idea in 1990, it was running a $3 million deficit, while Nagoya, Japan’s fourth largest city, was flush with cash but desperate for culture. Now the partners have undergone a dramatic reversal of fortunes. Thanks largely to Rogers, who spearheaded a $137 million-capital campaign, the MFA is finally in the black. Meanwhile, Nagoya—like all of Japan—is struggling mightily to recover from its economic crash.

The joint venture was seen as a way to “bring much-needed income to the Boston museum, which [was] operating at a $3 million deficit,” Kirsten Conover wrote in the Christian Science Monitor in 1991, soon after the plan was announced.

I had commented that the preponderance of loans for which Nagoya was shelling out big bucks would likely come from the MFA’s “B” list—works that the museum’s home audience would be less likely to miss than the museum’s top-tier treasures, sweetened by a few highlights that Boston museumgoers would be loath to lose. From what I saw of the initial offerings, that appeared to be the case.

But let’s give the last word to Shestack, as heard in a 2004 talk at the National Gallery. Despite his being “no scholar of Dutch art” and “hardly an expert on Rembrandt,” he decided (with apologies to the NGA’s Dutch paintings expert, Arthur Wheelock Jr.) to speak about his favorite Rembrandts in the museum’s collection.

Shestack is the lead-off speaker in a group of four NGA experts (from 1:20 to 20:30 on the soundbar). Near the end of his comments, you’ll hear Alan enthusiastically expound on the masterpiece that is one of my touchstones whenever I visit the National Gallery—Rembrandt‘s 1659 Self-Portrait:

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