After 100 years, museum finds room for change

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Before Isabella Stewart Gardner opened her art museum 100 years ago, she exasperated the architect and builders with her exacting specifications and many redesigns.

At one point, Ms. Gardner climbed a ladder and demonstrated to the painters how to achieve the weathered, pinkish color she craved on the courtyard walls.

But what made the Gardner Museum so extraordinary - so audacious, really - was the way Gardner put her collection together. Like a giant mosaic, each piece fitted together in a creative context.

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And in the middle of the palace was the centerpiece of Gardner's creation: a four-story Venetian courtyard that has become one of the city's most beloved places.

Malcolm Rogers, director of the nearby Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, calls the Gardner Museum a "cultural jewel."

This year's centennial activities celebrate the birth - and in some eyes, rebirth - of a great museum.

During the centennial, the focus will be on the Gardner's 2,500-piece collection from 30 centuries and numerous countries. Most admired are its Italian Renaissance paintings; its works by French, German, and Dutch masters; and its collection of more modern artists like Degas, Whistler, and Sargent.

But contemporary works also will be on display. And this is part of how the Gardner has changed.

Currently, Joseph Kosuth - a conceptual artist - uses the walls of a small gallery to create a display of words. Carousels of quotes from Gardner, art agent Bernard Berenson, and James McNeill Whistler give a swirling impression of ideas and events involved in Gardner's amassing of her collection.

Before the Gardner's director, Anne Hawley, was brought on board in 1989 to reenergize the museum, a living artist could not have exhibited there. The reason? Gardner's will, which instructs that her collection - and the way it is displayed - never change.

That means, for example, that in the Dutch Room, Dürer's "A Man in a Fur Coat" must forever be glancing toward Rembrandt's beautiful and revealing self-portrait as a young man.

Compare the strict guidelines of the Gardner to another museum founded by a great turn-of-the century art collector, Henry Clay Frick. "[The Gardner] is one of the great treasures of America," says Samuel Sachs II, director of the Frick Collection in New York.

But Mr. Sachs adds that Mr. Frick "left no restrictions" in his will. "The collection could grow [and] you didn't have to hang them in any particular fashion. He doesn't seem to have suffered for that decision."

Ms. Hawley, for one, believes that Gardner never wanted the museum's dialogue with artists to stop. So she and her staff have found ways to rekindle this dialogue, through performances and activities, and by opening a new gallery in an area of the museum that Gardner herself had not used.

Until her death in 1924, Gardner lived on the fourth floor and invited artists and musicians to exhibit and perform at the museum.

"What we've done is bring [this] back," Hawley says. "We've carved a niche in the museum world. With our artists, we try to work with people who are taking risks."

But given the restrictions in Gardner's will, artists must be especially creative in bringing their work to the museum. Kosuth, for example, writes in neon on an exterior wall, and stitches words onto cloth coverings in gallery display cases.

Along with the Gardner's artist-in-residence program - Kosuth is the 41st such artist - many other centennial events are planned for this year. Beginning in April, the exhibit "The Making of a Museum" looks at how Gardner educated herself about art and culture, and at the extensive travels she made with her husband, Boston businessman John Gardner. Gardner herself was originally from a wealthy New York family.

Most artists-in-residence - Kosuth is an exception - are individuals who have yet to be fully "discovered."

Gardner herself helped launch a number of careers, but routinely raised eyebrows among proper Bostonians in doing so. Local gossips reveled in the many close friendships she made with young men who were artists, musicians, or writers. But through these close friendships, Gardner ensured that we have smaller museums of personal vision today, says Alan Chong, curator of the Gardner.

"[Gardner] didn't leave a clear statement as to what she wanted to achieve," says Mr. Chong. Instead, he says, the display "allows you to draw your own meaning."

Particularly evocative is Titian's mythological "Europa" - arguably the most important Italian painting in the United States. The Titian is surrounded by other objects visitors must understand for themselves, including elaborate Italian furniture, a wooden angel in a pose similar to the ones in the picture, and a large section from one of Gardner's own gowns.

Among the works from her close friend John Singer Sargent is the theatrical Spanish dance scene "El Jaleo," displayed at the end of the Spanish Cloister. And there is a generous collection of religious art - and two tiny chapels.

What isn't in the collection are 13 important pieces that were stolen in 1990, in one of the greatest unsolved cases in the art world. Among the missing: Rembrandt's "The Storm on the Sea of Galilee" and Vermeer's "The Concert."

Looking to the future, Anne Hawley wants to take more dramatic steps to preserve the collection - and the building itself.

The Gardner "wasn't built to have so many visitors all at one time," Hawley says. "We have to figure out how [to] offload some of the wear and tear. We're going to have to build [behind the museum]. It's just a matter of when."

Such a plan, of course, would have to leave untouched the museum space Gardner created.

"One of the most special things about [the Gardner] is its constancy," says Marjorie Cohn, acting director of the Harvard Museums in Cambridge, Mass.

Ms. Cohn, whose enthusiasm for the museum goes back to her childhood, says, "You can even measure your own growth by it. [Today], I see so much more there."

Joseph Kosuth's exhibit continues through April 6. 'The Making of a Museum: Isabella Stewart Gardner as Collector, Architect and Designer,' begins April 22 and continues through August 21. For more information, visit www.gardnermuseum.org.

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