After 100 years, museum finds room for change
Before Isabella Stewart Gardner opened her art museum 100 years ago, she exasperated the architect and builders with her exacting specifications and many redesigns.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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."