Tom Lentz, the director of the Harvard Art Museums, is seen in a gallery at the institution’s Arthur M. Sackler Museum featuring Buddhist sculptures. (Damian Strohmeyer/For The Washington Post)

When Tom Lentz interviewed for the top job at the Harvard Art Museums back in 2003, the hiring committee received a strange warning. The soft-spoken director of the Smithsonian Institution’s international art museums division could come across as laid-back, almost too calm.

“I was told he seemed like a cool surfer dude,” says Steven Hyman, then Harvard’s provost. “I don’t actually know what a cool surfer dude really behaves like.”

What Hyman cared about more was the task in front of that new director. The Harvard Art Museums were in desperate need of an overhaul. Ceilings leaked, the plumbing was dangerously outdated and curators, trying to protect artworks without proper climate control, found themselves shuffling floor fans through galleries.

Harvard hired Lentz, and this fall, after an extensive renovation and expansion project that cost more than $350 million, the Harvard Art Museums reopened to the public.

On a recent weekday, Lentz, sitting in a conference room outside his office, did not sound like he was in the midst of a victory lap. Instead, he offered a confession. After all the time and money, after sitting on countless committees and giving more than 100 tours, he wouldn’t mind chatting about something else.

“We’re tired of talking about it because we’ve talked about it for such a long time,” Lentz says. “And part of the exhaustion is the fact that we’re doing this at Harvard. Which is a place full of a lot of bright, ambitious people. There is no shortage of ideas.”

That’s a polite way of saying that at Harvard, not only does everybody have an idea, but those ideas usually are better than yours. Or, at least, that’s what they think. Which leads to more studies and debates and estimates. And then the next idea comes along. The wheels keep spinning.

Add to this the construction challenges when your institution is three museums.

The Fogg Museum, at its current site since 1927, needed renovations, but its historic facade had to be preserved. The Busch-Reisinger Museum, relocated to the backside of the Fogg in 1991, was riddled with structural problems and had to come down. The Arthur M. Sackler Museum, which opened in 1985 to house largely Asian art, was across the street.

How complicated was the project? The first report stating that the Fogg needed to be renovated came out in 1956. Directors came, directors left. The project remained unrealized, until Lentz arrived.

That is not to say that everyone appreciated his focus, with some now-former curators grumbling about the emphasis on fundraising. But with its completion in November, Harvard finally has a proper place to display its prized collection of more than 250,000 objects, which range from Roman artifacts to Degas, Picasso and Kiki Smith.

“The project did suck up a lot of resources that might have otherwise gone to curatorial projects,” says William Robinson, the museum’s longtime and soon-to-retire curator of drawings. “But it had to be done. We would not have been reaccredited had we not fixed that building.”

The man who led the way is Lentz, 63, a wiry figure with gray hair and a sense of humor as dry as desert sand. He is no museum-world MacArthur, rejecting what he calls the “heroic model of a museum leader” and takes pride in noting that he organized dozens of study groups during the planning and construction process.

Lentz talks constantly about collaboration, mentioning how he has appreciated working with the directors of other Harvard museums during the project and is proud to have incorporated works from their collections into galleries. He also doesn’t want to take credit for the project.

During a recent interview, Lentz walked a reporter to an office where deputy director Maureen Donovan and chief curator Debi Kao were meeting. They stood by, slightly awkwardly, as he talked about how “this project could not have been done without them.”

Donovan, in an interview later in the afternoon, disagreed.

“He was the first director who stopped everybody in their tracks when he came here and said, ‘We have a plan’ and really galvanized the staff behind that thinking,” she says. “Nobody else had really done that before.”

Lentz, the second of seven children, grew up in Los Angeles, the son of an RCA executive and a homemaker. The Lentz family moved around, to Houston, Dallas, Philadelphia, Indianapolis and then back to Los Angeles.

That rambling didn’t stop after high school. Lentz attended the University of Arizona for two years, then transferred to Claremont Men’s College (now Claremont McKenna), where he earned his art history degree in 1976.

He took time off while studying, traveling around the Middle East and, after graduation, washing dishes at an Indian restaurant and painting houses.

Eventually, Lentz enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley, and earned a master’s degree in Near Eastern studies. It was there that Katharina Otto-Dorn, the German-born art historian, told Lentz that if he wanted to seriously study Islamic art, he needed to head east. Lentz earned his doctoral degree from Harvard in 1985.

Though he would leave town — spending the next two decades in curatorial and administrative jobs at the Rhode Island School of Design, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Smithsonian — Lentz’s experience in Cambridge would be a key factor in his ability to pull off the Harvard project.

“You were getting somebody for whom the map of Harvard is not going to be a new one, but rather a refresher,” says Glenn Lowry, the director of the Museum of Modern Art and a colleague of Lentz’s at the Smithsonian during the 1980s. “He understood the relationship of the museum to the faculty, the faculty to each other. He knew how to navigate that terrain because it’s the terrain he grew up with.”

That’s not to say the path to this fall’s opening was always smooth.

After his arrival at Harvard, Lentz tried to build a museum several miles from the Harvard campus on land the university owned in neighboring Allston. That idea collapsed.

Next, he turned his attention to the museum’s campus on Quincy Street. There was the issue of how to bring three museums under one roof. There also were the personalities to deal with.

Hyman remembers a discussion with Jeremy Knowles, Harvard’s longtime dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, who died in 2008.

“Steven, we should not be in the art museum business,” he recalls Knowles telling him.

“The small problem,” Hyman says today, “is that we had already collected 250,000 objects of priceless art. So we were already in the business.”

Lentz also had to contend with his own staff. Some of the museum’s curators disagreed with his approach.

“He was Ahab with the white whale, and the white whale was getting this building done and keeping it within budget and keeping the Harvard administration happy,” says one of the curators, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because, he says, he wants to maintain a relationship with the art museums.

The final project would take all three museums — the Fogg, the Busch-Reisinger and the Sackler — and put them under a new glass roof designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano. The project also would incorporate massive study centers, meant to allow students access to the tens of thousands of works not on display and fulfill Harvard’s mission as the country’s leading teaching museum.

In the end, Hyman says, “the cool surfer dude” side of Lentz proved key to finishing the job.

“He was naturally calm, and that served him well,” Hyman says. “There were so many ups and downs in this project, and the fundraising and the financial meltdown. I’m sure that, on the side, he had to have been emotionally stressed. But he didn’t show it. And in some ways, that allowed him to succeed in the face of what seemed like an endless strain of obstacles.”

Earlier this month, Lentz offered yet another tour of the completed museum building. He showed off the 17th-century Dutch gallery and talked about how much he appreciated the way the works by Rubens, Rembrandt and van Dyck were hung, given space and not crammed frame-to-frame. He walked through the spacious, brightly lit central courtyard, now a gathering spot open to the public for free.

Then he entered the museum’s impressive collection of 20th-century German works. A stunning pear tree by Klimt. A group of Max Beckmanns. Franz von Stuck’s curvaceous “Wounded Amazon.”

Turning right, Lentz got to Room 1510.

It is the edge of the building — a glass-walled space that Piano calls a “winter garden.” There are five small bronze sculptures here, but the real treat is the view. The neighboring Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts is the only Le Corbusier building in the United States.

It’s an overcast day, and rain gathers in beads on a beam on the edge of the building. Outside, on the concrete ramp twisting from the Carpenter Center to one of the museum’s new entrances, a man walks his dog.

It is here, in this tiny pocket gallery, that Lentz sits on a bench and mentions a recent visit to the Louvre.

“I was utterly exhausted afterward,” he says. “It was literally like going to Grand Central station.”

That’s all he says for a minute, as the rain drops onto the lawn below.


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