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A Step into a Home for Arts Past and Present

By Gloria Kabulo

Art changes over time and can appear in many different forms. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum expresses the dynamic quality of art in its contemporary and historical installations. A long hallway with tall glass windows leads to the gallery’s stairway entrance. The galleries are set up in the rooms of art patron Isabella Stewart Gardner's home.
For those involved in the Artist-in-Residence Program, the museum becomes a home. The museum also hosts musicians, dancers, and literary readings as a part of its program. On the third Thursday of every month, the museum hosts an event appropriately named “Third Thursdays,” in which activities such as painting, sketching, and musical performances occur. The musical performances attract an array of listeners and invite the public into the world of the museum.
“It’s time for [visitors] to absorb the city of Boston and the Gardner Museum," said Tiffany York, Residency and Contemporary Program Manager.
In 1999, Artist-in-Residence Lee Mingwei created the Living Room Project. "It allowed people from the neighborhood…to talk to the artists...and really connect people together," said York.
Canadian artist Charmaine Wheatley's exhibition in the Fenway Gallery includes watercolor portraits that incorporate words. Wheatley paints moments in time. In September, she painted portraits of visitors at the gallery, who were then given a scan of the portrait to keep for themselves.
A few feet away from the Fenway Gallery is the Yellow Room. Originally designed for musicians, it is filled with antique violins and sheet music, as well as exquisite pieces by artists such as Henri Matisse and Edgar Degas. In the middle of the Yellow Room is a case filled with original copies of letters to Gardner from her friends. In the room next door, a glass case displays Wheatley’s illustrated letters to Gardner and her husband Jack. At first glance, it appears the galleries are disparate. A closer look, however, reveals that the same philosophies of life and art are expressed in the contemporary Fenway Gallery and the historical Yellow Room.
"I think that one of the things that is fantastic about this place is the tension between historic and contemporary," commented York.
The contemporary arts program "… gives that tension a chance...and all of a sudden [the public] see[s] art in a new way," said York. One of the trends in modern art is the artists' plea to slow down in this fast-paced world. Photography is not allowed in Wheatley’s exhibition; visitors can appreciate the art for its face value. "It's not like a piece of image where you can take a selfie in front of it and walk away," said York. Gardner did not want to put artists' names on some of the pieces, to avoid artist comparison. Over the years, curators have shifted views on whether or not to continue her tradition.

Walking up the stairs into the main galleries, visitors first experience the comfort of the museum. When they ascend the staircase into the gallery, the Raphael Room presents an intimate setting centered around a fireplace. "It has a feels like a home," said York. A visit to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is a "total immersive experience, with the courtyard at the heart of all the galleries," said York. The walls of the rooms are covered with work from artist legends such as Rembrandt, Matisse, and Raphael. The grandeur of the rooms contrasts with the comfortable setting; overlooking the courtyard, the rooms glow with natural light.
"Things change daily with the light. When you walk into a room, you can discover or rediscover something because of the way light plays with color," said York.
Tucked in the corner of the Raphael Room is a door that leads to the Tapestry Room. The faded tapestries in this room were recently added, in accordance with Gardner’s vision. The tapestries have changed with time, due to the sunlight and the pollution in the air. The museum doesn't have the freedom to "… permanently remove or replace anything in the collection," said York. Gardner's will states that the collection must stay the same. Therefore, the empty frames of the stolen art pieces from the heist in the Dutch Room remain to this day. According to York, the frames "… give balance to the room.” The museum gives a broad view of art in the past, present, and future.
York commented on the current trend of "art that asks you to slow down” and take the time to appreciate it. "You can't just interact on a surface level; to really be with a piece, you need to slow down,” said York. The museum is situated in a modern and thriving art area of Boston and is surrounded by hotspots such as MassArt, the Museum of Fine Arts, and landmark parks that are a part of the Emerald Necklace. As for experiencing the museum's multifaceted experience, York stated that "you can decide for yourself how you want to react" to all the museum has to offer.

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