Former Minneapolis Institute of Art director Alan Shestack stayed in the Twin Cities for only 21 months, but during that time he shook things up.
Frustrated by the Minneapolis Society of Fine Arts’ slow-moving bureaucratic machine and lack of funds for museum programs, Shestack insisted on a new direction for the institution. He left it in April 1987 and went on to become director at the much larger Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
The museum director and scholar of northern European prints and drawings of the Renaissance period, known for his shrewdness and sharp eye, died at his home in Washington, D.C., on April 14. He was 81.
Shestack had an extensive museum career. He was director at the Yale University Art Gallery for 15 years before joining the Minneapolis museum in 1985. From there, he became director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where he worked until 1993, when he became deputy director and chief curator of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. He worked there for 15 years until his retirement.
Evan Maurer, who became director of the Minneapolis Institute of Art after Shestack’s departure, remembers him as a man who refused to accept compromised situations.
In the mid-1970s, Shestack was supposed to be the new director of the Art Institute of Chicago. At the time, Maurer held a curatorial position there. But when Shestack learned that he would have to report to an administrative director rather than have the full independence originally offered with the position, he declined the job.
“Being a man of great integrity, Alan refused to accept this compromised situation and left the museum,” Maurer said. “What a lesson for us all.”
Shestack was born in New York City on June 23, 1938, the son of David Shestack and Sylvia P. (Saffran) Shestack, and grew up in Rochester, N.Y.
He visited many art museums in his youth but never saw museum work as a career path. Instead, he thought he’d study biochemistry at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., and then get a law degree.
But Heinrich Schwarz, one of his college professors, told him he had an eye for art and encouraged him to go into the museum field.
Shestack earned a master’s in art history at Harvard University in 1963 and did postgraduate work in art history at the University of Munich in West Germany and the Courtauld Institute at the University of London through the David E. Finley Fellowship from the National Gallery of Art.
“The whole museum field mourns the passing of Alan Shestack,” said Kaywin Feldman, director of the National Gallery of Art and former director of the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
“As a scholar, curator, director, and museum administrator, his fans are legion,” Feldman added. “His impact on our field is profound, and he will be deeply missed in communities across the nation.”
His wife of 49 years, Nancy Jane Shestack, died in 2016, and his brother, Melvin Shestack, died in 2005. He is survived by his brother’s wife, Jessie Shestack, of New York, N.Y.; his foster daughter, Lisa Yi Lu Feng, and two grandchildren.