Ashton Hawkins, who helped significantly bolster the reputations of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and what is now the Dia Art Foundation through his behind-the-scenes involvement at both institutions, has died at 84. The New York Times, which first reported his passing, said he died from complications of Alzheimer’s disease on Sunday in White Plains, New York.
At the Met and Dia, Hawkins helped steer the course on projects that involved the ultra-wealthy and the socially elite. His legal practice allowed him entrée into the upper echelons of New York society, and he was able to use those connections for projects in the museum world.
By the time Hawkins stepped down as the Met’s executive vice president in 2001, he had been on the museum’s board for more than 30 years, with 19 of them served in that position. Upon his departure, Phillip de Montebello, then the museum’s director, said, “Ashton Hawkins is himself an institution, within an institution he has loved and served with brilliance.”
Hawkins arrived in the Met during a period when its administration was determined to help launch a stagnating museum into the future. During the ’70s, he aided in the creation of the wing that now houses the Temple of Dendur, a process that involved courting the Sackler family for funding that in recent years has sparked protests.
Born in 1937, Hawkins first came to the Met in 1968 as assistant secretary to the board of trustees. The following year, he became secretary of the board and counsel of the museum.
During the span that Hawkins was at the Met, he also got involved with Dia, where he was on the board from 1985 to 1996. When Hawkins was first brought on by Dominique de Menil herself, the art center, which had become a go-to for its important offerings of Minimalist and Conceptual art, was running short on money. In a 1996 Vanity Fair profile of the Dia board, Hawkins recalled that the space’s “finances were in total chaos.”
While Hawkins succeeded in turning Dia around, his tenure there ended in 1996 after an internal war that pitted him and other board members against newer trustees who dangled the possibility of withholding sizable donations. Hawkins and those board members resigned amid a controversial coup.
When it came to Hawkins’s law practice, he helped define certain legal codes that are now used somewhat widely within the art world. During the ’60s, he was among those who drafted a treaty adopted by UNESCO that governs the transportation of artworks across national borders. He also advised the Association of Art Museum Directors and the American Alliance of Museums, two industry groups that offer recommendations to art institutions and the people who run them.
Upon Hawkins’s departure from the Met, Katharine Lee Reid, then the director of the Cleveland Art Museum and president of the AAMD, said, “He has been most generous in sharing his talents and has had an overview and insight into the art issues of our time that have been a great help to many people.”