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John Harvard's Journal

Thomas W. Lentz

July-August 2005

In the early 1980s, when Thomas W. Lentz was earning a Ph.D. at Harvard by becoming an expert on Islamic art—Persian painting in particular—the director of the Fogg Art Museum was a professor of fine arts who actually had time to profess. That model is no longer operable, says Lentz. He has been, for about a year and a half, the Cabot director of the Harvard University Art Museums (including the Fogg, the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, and the Busch-Reisinger Museum)—the sixth-largest art institution in the United States, housing 250,000 objects—with a mission to teach and do research, a staff of 250, and an annual budget of $20 million. Lentz came to his task from Washington, D.C., where he had been director of the international art museums at the Smithsonian Institution. He hails from California, has the laid-back, wholly unstuffy style one wants of a Californian, but works 15-hour days. Good thing. He needs urgently to empty (temporarily) and rehabilitate the ailing, conjoined Fogg and Busch-Reisinger buildings. Beyond that, he wants to realize a master plan, hatched with broad consultation, to reconfigure all three art museums to better reveal their treasures to students and the public. It will be a big job, and one hopes it does not give the director ulcers. For recreation, he swims every day in a Harvard pool, goes to a lot of movies, and listens to music—modern, including popular, with a weakness for minimalists such as Steve Reich—in the house he and his wife have just moved to in Boston’s South End. Does Lentz still have time for Islamic art? Gesturing at a vigorous sixteenth-century Turkish tile that hangs on his office wall, he says, “I look at it every day.”