Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum has worked hard to stay vibrant in spite of a major challenge: the museum’s benefactor stipulated that the institution could not be altered from how it was left in 1924. One success, according to this Wallace-commissioned feature article: an artists-in-residence program reflecting Gardner’s support of artists during her lifetime.

Gardner curators, staff, and leaders have accepted a unique challenge: how to keep new life flowing through a world-renowned, historic collection...that can never be altered.


A portrait of the founder by John Singer Sargent. Isabella Stewart Gardner. 1888, oil on canvas. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Plant a seed, grow Not a typical mantra for art museums these days. But the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston is anything but typical. With more than 2,500 works of art spanning 30 centuries, the Gardner Museum is one of the most significant private collections assembled in this country. Yet, over the years it had become a sleepy place that had fallen out of step with the public, artists, and the surrounding community. The past three years saw a concerted public outreach initiative that set about to deepen relationships with Boston-area artists and residents. Along the way, membership tripled and attendance increased by more than 60 percent.

Since opening its doors almost 100 years ago, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum presented its curators, staff and leaders with a unique challenge: how to keep new life flowing through a world-class, historic collection and specially designed building that are the result of one individual's creative vision, but with a unique legacy.

Art matron Isabella Stewart Gardner believed that works of art should be displayed in settings that "fire the imagination" and designed "Fenway Court" in Venetian palace style, creating intimate rooms that surrounded a bright floral courtyard. She opened her home in 1903 for the sole purpose of exhibiting her collection. She frequently brought artists, writers, and musicians into her home and often commissioned them to create new works. But when she included in her will a stipulation that nothing in her collection could be moved nor added, Mrs. Gardner offered perhaps her greatest challenge to those who followed her: to establish a legacy of artistic growth and new work in a museum that would never change.

Director Anne Hawley

Director Anne Hawley accepted that invitation in 1989 and, along with a visionary team of leaders, helped foster imaginative programming and relevant projects that have deepened the community's participation in the Gardner ever since. With the discovery that Mrs. Gardner actively supported artists during her lifetime, Hawley knew resurrecting that tradition would bring new life to the extraordinary, but static collection. The Artists-in-Residence Program was born, reaffirming the vital role artists must play in the museum and encouraging increased involvement from neighbors and friends.

In 1998, for instance, when American composer Kenneth Frazelle accepted an artist-in-residency, he wondered what might happen if he asked a group of Boston fifth-graders to describe what they "heard" when viewing a painting. The "textbook" he chose was Titian's sixteenth-century masterpiece, Europa, a powerful painting that depicts the seaside abduction of a beautiful Phoenician princess by the god, Zeus. Frazelle often "saw" music through images, composing his works with sketches. "It's what my eye hears," he explained.

For the next four weeks, he challenged his new young friends to listen to the painting and describe such images as the wind whipping Europa's scarf or the waves crashing on the beach and the sea shanties of sailors on a distant boat. Next, they assumed the roles of the characters in the painting, creating a dialogue and putting the words into music. They used their voices and bodies to create original melody and rhythm, then performed their songs for classmates and teachers in front of the painting. Finally, their scripts were collected and published in the form of a libretto. Not only did the children gain a new appreciation for understanding classic masterpieces, but they came away knowing that art involves and inspires all of the senses.  

Fifth-grade students at the Farragut School start herbs from seed (March 1999)
In the spring of 1999, the museum invited garden/installation artist Joan Bankemper to apply her creative green thumb to the Artists-in-Residence and popular School Partnership Programs to see what might "grow" out of it. She wandered the Gardner grounds as well as its surrounding neighborhood, talked with curatorial and education staff, and reflected on what she might create.


When the muse hit, she was a few blocks away at Fenway Victory Gardens. Bankemper had recruited a fifth-grade teacher and her class from nearby Farragut School, along with a group of local senior citizens who enjoyed gardening. Farragut was one of six cooperating school programs that worked year-round with the Gardner in a variety of programs. What happened next was one of the museum's most ambitious collaborative efforts since the programs began.



Artist Joan Bankemper works with students in preparing garden (October 1999)


In September 1999, Bankemper visited the site again with her fifth-grade friends to design a permanent garden and create the plot for spring planting. The Healing Garden Project connected the class to the museum for year-long assignments of researching herbs, designing seed packages, and exploring at the Gardner plant life and art works with botanical decoration. By spring 2000, Bankemper returned with the same students and seniors to complete the design, planting, and maintenance of the garden. She also created an installation, A Gardener's Diary, for the museum's special exhibition gallery. Both were celebrated with the entire community at an opening reception in June, and both were signs that this museum has an invigorating knack for "growing" new art.



Artist Joan Bankemper works with students in preparing garden (October 1999)

 These projects are just one aspect of the Museum's multidimensional mission. The horticultural component creates an atmosphere that invites visitors to take a deep breath in the courtyard and leave the bustle of the outside world before engaging in the collection of more than 2,500 works of art spanning 30 centuries. Particularly rich in Italian Renaissance works, the Gardner Museum includes paintings, sculpture, furniture, textiles, decorative arts, prints and drawings, rare books, photographs, and correspondence. Established musicians - like Frazelle - and young artists perform regular concerts here, many claiming the Gardner as the place where they launched their careers. An Eye of the Beholder lecture series from artists and scholars and far-reaching community and school partnerships have together brought life back to the lady.


The results of this concerted public outreach initiative speak for themselves: membership has tripled in the past three years, and, just as important, the museum's attendance has increased by more than 60 percent. In other words, visiting the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum today, one gets the impression that this place is exactly what the founder had in mind: schoolchildren discussing Rembrandt, violinists tuning their instruments, floral aromas floating in the air, visitors staring at the architecture, and, of course, artists planting - and growing - creative new works.

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