After 25 years at the helm, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Director Anne Hawley announced she's stepping down at the end of the year. But she still has the energy and enthusiasm of a brand-new arrival.

"I love this place, and I think it’s going to have an even greater future because I think museums are public spaces where people who are so worn down by the constant assault of media from their devices or from the wear and tear of everyday life can come and find themselves again," Hawley said.   

Only the Gardner’s fourth director, she inherited a museum which per, Mrs. Gardner’s will could not be altered. And yet she infused the building with a freshness, establishing contemporary art and landscaper curators and a very productive artist-in-residence program.

"It’s just a sanctuary, and its got so many treasures from the past, and things buried in the archives, like Whistler’s walking stick," she said. "And so to have a month of time to just think and dream and be stimulated I thought was something we could do because of the history and because of our facilities."

Hawley’s splashiest legacy is the museum’s new wing. Designed by Renzo Piano, it opened in 2012 as part of a $180 million capital campaign. A gleaming  structure standing in deference behind Gardner’s palace, it added a soaring concert hall and new special exhibition space.

"The new building is so thrilling to me," she said. "It worked out so well, better than I could’ve imagined. And our curatorial team is all endowed; we are in great financial shape."

But there has always been the theft. Just months after starting, Hawley received an urgent phone call.  

"I got very scared, went in the back way to try and get more information, and I think I was just numb with shock."

See WGBH News' ongoing coverage of the heist.

In March, 1990 thieves made their way into the Gardner stealing 13 works of art, making it one of the most notorious, unsolved art heists of all time and an unfortunate legacy Hawley has always had to manage. 

"It made us all, the trustees and the staff, probably more determined than ever to succeed, that we were not going to let this defeat us, and we haven’t," she said.

Hawley is convinced the stolen art will one day be returned, just as she’s certain the museum will now pass into good hands. 

"I think people should step down when they are at the top of their game," she said. "And I think the museum is ready for a new chapter. It would be great to have someone from a younger generation to come in and take it on."