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In Memory of Alan Shestack

(1938 – 2020)

There is a photograph of Alan Shestack on my desk. He seems to be about 50, looking studiously intent behind oversized glasses. I picked up the photo on a recent visit to his house. I am Alan’s executor, so I go there regularly. The photo caught my attention and I took it on a whim, not fully understanding why. I stare at it often and think of questions I never got around to asking him. “How did you and Nancy meet?” (His wife, Nancy, died in 2016.) “Was your family supportive when you decided to pursue a career in art?” “If you could do it all over again, would you make the same career choice?” I suppose what I am really looking for is to rekindle our conversations.

The picture of Alan Shestack that sits on Mervin Richard's desk, date unknown. 

Alan served as deputy director and chief curator at the National Gallery of Art from 1993 to 2008. Since his death a few months back at age 81, not a day goes by without my thinking of him. Alan was widely admired in the museum community, having led the Yale University Art Gallery, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. He was an esteemed scholar of Northern European prints and drawings of the Renaissance. He had an easy manner and people naturally gravitated toward him, irresistibly drawn to his sense of humor and outstanding talent for storytelling. When Alan was speaking, we listened with rapt attention. For those of us who knew him closely, we have lost a dear friend. 

As a child growing up in Rochester, New York, Alan developed an early interest in museums, especially the Memorial Art Gallery, which he loved to visit, despite no real attraction on the part of his friends. He presumed that he would become a scientist or, to satisfy his parents’ wishes, study law. But during the course of his undergraduate study at Wesleyan University, his passion for art strengthened. He went on to earn a master’s degree in art history from Harvard University in 1963. Upon graduation he became a David E. Finley Fellow at the National Gallery of Art. Two years later he was hired as curator for the Gallery’s Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection, then located in Pennsylvania. Thus began Alan’s career as a museum professional. 

I first met Alan in the early 1980s when he was director of the Yale University Art Gallery. My wife and I were visiting friends in New Haven when Alan and Nancy invited them and us and about 25 others to Thanksgiving dinner at their house. There was always more than enough food and always room for a few more chairs around their table. 

Nancy was an immigration lawyer. She was Alan’s best friend, and they were married for 49 years. They shared a love of art and travel and were avid collectors of prints, drawings, Japanese baskets, and more. Many of their colleagues did not know it, but they were also foster parents to Lisa Lu Yi Feng. Lisa had come to the United States from China in 1979 at age 20, accompanying her mother who was here to do research at Yale. When the time came to return home, Lisa wanted to stay behind and finish her studies. Generous as always, Alan and Nancy agreed to be her hosts, initiating a bond that would deepen over the years. Lisa lives in California now. She told me that regardless of Alan and Nancy’s hectic schedules, they never missed an important event—her marriage to Ningguo Feng, the birth of their two children, her becoming a US citizen. 

Alan was a person of high integrity. If he were alive today, I know that he would be rallying behind those who have taken to the streets, calling for justice. Alan and Nancy were both deeply invested in supporting civil liberties, increased diversity throughout society, due process for immigrants, and equal rights for all. 

I miss hearing Alan’s stories. I miss our long conversations on assorted topics. He had a delightfully irreverent sense of humor, but he also encouraged serious thinking. He had strong views about art and the role of museums in society. He often said he was going to write a tell-all book about the museum world. I am still searching his house for that manuscript.