Saturday, March 3, 2012

A Tale of Two Ladies: Part Two – Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

I arrived in the Fenway on an afternoon that was colder than appearances let on. The sun broke in and out of the sky as I pulled up to the entrance of the Gardner Museum I’d used the two other times I’d come to the late lady’s house for a visit. Things had changed since my last visit though. In fact, it was the changes that prompted me to visit Gardner again.

To give some context if you’ve never been, The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is one of those places that Boston tourist literature refers to as a “hidden gem.” Publications that locals actually read suggest otherwise: Not that it’s not a gem, but it’s hardly hidden. The pre-renovation Gardner Museum consistently appeared on Best-of-Boston lists. The reason is obvious enough: Equipped with a breath-taking garden in the spring and an interior garden year-round, the art is almost secondary to the architecture and interior design. At first glance, the visitor wonders how Mrs. Gardner – a famous philanthropist and contemporary of the previously written about Mary Baker Eddy – was able to accumulate all the statues, balconies, windows, doors, and other building parts without having an army loot most of Europe on a scale equal to the Crusades or Sherman’s March.
I was surprised to find the entrance was closed. Traffic had been rerouted through the new “wing,” so around I went to the recently opened glass box behind the historic Fenway Court.

The New Wing
The new “wing” isn’t a wing, so much as It’s a doubling in size of a museum that was never supposed to be changed. While Gardner willed the building into its current form under the stipulation that it remain unchanged in perpetuity, the courts ruled that adding another building didn’t count.
From the outside, the new wing, designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano, is sleek and attractive, if a bit ultra-modern. The almost entirely glass façade makes the structure seem almost invisible – a presumed nod to the “no change” clause of the original.
Entering the new wing is a bit intimidating. In a high-ceiling room with mostly see-through walls, you are greeted by a museum employee who doubles as a traffic cop. She directed me to the ticket desk to the left. There, I spoke to another uniformed employee of similar appearance, adding to the impression that I’d walked into a world where Stalin had finally found some good designers. The not unfriendly but certainly unwelcoming information desk sold me a ticket and informed me that I’d need to check my bag. I was then directed back to the traffic cop, who scanned my ticket and directed me to coat check.
After the initially icy introduction, the coat check people – two beautiful women in black business suits – happily assisted me in storing my oversized courier bag. I took my tag and then realized I didn’t really know where I was going.

I had been given a map, but I opted to wing it. First, I turned and saw the gift shop, then a wall of books that appeared to be serving an aesthetic rather than service function. On either side of the coat check was an entrance into an area called the Richard E. Floor Living Room.
The Living Room is a good idea for a museum. Intended to be a room of consideration, reflection, and planning, it offers ample comfortable seating, more books (this time in an atmosphere indicative to actually using them), and coffee tables. The furniture was almost definitely expensive and impressive to connoisseurs, but to the untrained eye, it looks a lot like an IKEA catalog.
As I walked the room, taking in the space, considering simultaneously how I’d approach the visit and how little I knew about furniture, I took my notebook from my back pocket and a pen from my front. I opened to a fresh page, intent to jot down notes I can only assume would have given this entry a polish and theme that would have risen traffic numbers to economically successful proportions, when my attention was caught by an elderly woman who was, it seemed, yelling at me.
“We’re not using pens in here!” She yelled from a high-end IKEA chair in a corner next to an endless window.
“I’m sorry?” I said, not clear as to why a lady was yelling at me about note-taking. “We’re not using pens in here!” She repeated. “You need a pencil or nothing at all.” My brain was having trouble understanding what I was being presented with, when this non-descript octogenarian in street clothes revealed her identification badge: This was ink damage security. I apologized for the obvious faux pas, and after asking the aforementioned pretty ladies at coat check, was provided with a library pencil.
Now then, it was time to explore the space. I consulted the map, finding that the bottom floor contained the entrance, gift shop, living room, restaurant, and a studio apparently used for classes. I’d have to go up.
Artists in Residence
The second floor had the only actual exhibits in the new wing. The rest was dedicated to offices and performance space. The two exhibits currently showing are a sort of Artists in Residence retrospective and the current artist-in-residence, Tapestry {Radio On} by Victoria Morton.
The Artists in Residence retrospective is impressive. Featuring work by ISGM mainstays like John Singer Sargent, it also features pieces by unknowns, though not necessarily lesser artists. This archive of art history is accompanied by letters from artists foreign and domestic, complete with sketches and doodles of later works. Protected drawers feature them, along with art and print artifacts like antique Bibles and Dante’s Inferno. The space was a bit restrictive, and the light could be a bit better (a criticism often reserved for the original building), but whether you have 15 minutes or an hour, this room is a worthwhile stop.

The very next room returns to the new wing’s well-lit, wide open form. Ms. Morton’s Tapestry {On Radio} (open until May 28) is a lovely collection of bright colored paintings, dresses hanging on poles, and instruments and junk with digitized noise creeping out of them from time to time.
The paintings felt warm and pleasant, if not terribly inspiring. They’d fit nicely in a Manhattan lobby, but could also cause the suburban mother to fall into a fit of “my five-year-old could make that” (she’d probably be wrong). The dresses and objects were a bit more interesting. A small tom drum with refuse took up some floor space. Nearby, a rusted out metal box with blue and yellow feathers emitted a dripping sound. I stared at the box for a while, considering whether it was beautiful or just strange, all the while convinced that the dripping got louder as I got closer, but never quite sure.
Not to devalue the art, but the view from the window may have been the best piece in the room. A full, tall wall facing the city, one couldn’t help but think that on a sunny spring day, one might be persuaded to stand there until closing time. Equally, I suspected the friendly feel to Ms. Morton’s work could only be aided by a bright sunny day rolling in from the east.
Onward to the Old Building
I made my way back downstairs toward the old, familiar building. To get there, the visitor is required to go through a long, glass tunnel. This may be my favorite part of the new building’s design. Marching toward Gardner’s old residence, the sun broke out through the clouds, illuminating the immediately surrounding green space, and the city in the distance. In front of me, there was darkness, lit only faintly by lanterns. It was almost as if I was walking back in time. This is always the case at the Gardner, but the architect wisely identified the feeling as an important part of the experience, and designed a futuristic tunnel to emphasize the feeling.

In the old building, I was greeted by and impressed with familiar things: The interior garden with granite benches surrounding it, Sargent’s “El Jaleo” on an ancient wall, blocked off by stone fencing from a long-forgotten building, and dark, sometimes color-coated and always themed rooms.
Circling the garden to go upstairs, I recognized a woman sitting on a bench, reading. I didn’t know her name, but I’d met her at a gallery opening. She just sat there, reading, like lounging on the bench was every day to her. Meanwhile, droves of tourists walked by. One trio of elderly women discussed without tears how the place reminds them of visiting dead loved-ones in Europe, where they apparently died in World War II. One woman recollected a man she’d loved and thought she was going to marry. “I resolved that if he couldn’t come home,” she said, “that I’d go to him.”
Across the way, a middle-aged couple snuggled against each other on the cold granite. In the process, they absently crushed a daffodil that had outgrown its garden space and peeked over the bench.

The flower was a rare casualty of the garden. Surrounded by thin cable and security guards, the front entrance is protected by stone lions, one pinning a man stronger than anyone visiting. By the interior paths that the lions protect are statues of men, all ready for battle, despite one of them missing his head. These features combine to politely but firmly insist that the interior garden is for looking, not touching.
On the upper floors, rooms are full of art from no later than the early 20th century, and some hundreds (maybe thousands?) of years old. Religious iconography that couldn’t have given hope decorates mantles near 19th century furniture that begs to be used and never will be. From room to room, visitors sneak through small doors and smaller halls, often with no or little light. The dark places feel the most real, like you’ve left the museum, even the 19th century residence. One moment you’re in a church from the dark ages, the next a gothic parlor. Elizabethan jumps to Victorian in a moment, but always separated by walls, contrary to the flow of the Museum’s newer, more contemporary digs.
I’d stopped taking notes a while before I finished going through the quarters. Hours had passed and I was interested but getting tired. As I walked down the hodgepodge of stairs to the first floor, I noticed the woman I recognized but didn’t know was still reading, unfazed by the commonality of artistic greatness around her, much like so many of us are unimpressed with this fabulous city we’re so often bored with.
I walked back toward the tunnel. Walking down it, I saw modernity in my future, and an unfortunate architectural choice to my left. What the poor architect Piano couldn’t have known when he drew up the plans was the MassArt, the school full of hopeful artists-in-residence and current artists-in-wait, chose to build a dorm nearby to obstruct the view with a plywood and lime green projectile from which their students could look in almost any direction and see beauty, and which all of us must suffer through as consequence. I wanted to turn around and go back in time, but the day was coming to a close, and so I retreated my bag and road on.

Experience Rankings 1-5
New Experience: 3.5 – I’ve been to the Gardner before, but the new wing did add something that makes a return worth it. Additionally, the new space for the Artist-In-Residence program is far superior to the old arrangement, and a number of events, including concerts and garden parties make this place kind of ideal for 20- and 30-somethings looking for something new to do.
Others Can Do it: 5 – Buy the ticket, take the ride. Exhibits in the new wing change, but the Gardner is hardly in the business of putting up garbage, so it’ll be worth it no matter what. I recommend weekdays and avoiding the summer if you want to avoid crowds.
Enjoyable: 5 – Isabella Stewart Gardner was no stranger to entertaining, and she gave Boston a venue that continues to do so in a myriad of capacities. As mentioned above, the Gardner Museum ends up on Best of Boston lists regularly. There’s a really good reason for that.
Visit the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum online:
Tickets are $15/adults, $12/seniors, $5/college students, and free/children.
All photos in this post from Clicking on any photo will redirect you to that site.

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