There’s no gain without loss at the Gardner
Renzo Piano’s extension to the Isabella Stewart Gardner meant her carriage house had to go
By Erica Cooke. Museums, Issue 231, January 2012
Published online: 11 January 2012
In her will Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840-1924) stipulated that her museum, which she founded in 1903 and where she idiosyncratically installed her collection of fine and decorative art, remain largely unaltered. A copper-clad, four-storey-high building where a coach house formerly stood was never part of her vision, but this 70,000 sq. ft extension has been added to the museum that bears her name. Due to open on 19 January, the wing has been designed by the Pritzker Prize-winning Italian architect Renzo Piano and has cost $118m.
Anne Hawley, the museum’s director, says that her trustees decided to expand six years ago mainly because attendance had reached 200,000 visitors a year. The pressure on the building and the collection was too great, Hawley says, and limited space curtailed events and activities. When Gardner was alive, only 2,000 people enjoyed her recreation of a 15th-century Venetian palazzo, filled with paintings, tapestries, furniture, manuscripts and textiles, complemented by concerts in its music room.
Piano’s solution is a modern building that is not as tall and stands 50ft from the original museum. He compares the relationship between the buildings to that of “the great nephew to the great grand aunt”, says Hawley. Old and new buildings are linked by a glazed passage. The extension houses a 300-seat auditorium, a 2,000 sq. ft exhibition space, a café, conservation labs and staff offices. It also provides a new, larger entrance.
Building the extension has been controversial, not least because Gardner designed the carriage house, which was demolished in July 2009. The Boston Globe revealed in May 2009 that concerned members of staff felt Hawley was suppressing debate over the building’s historical significance. The newspaper cited an essay by former curatorial fellow Robert Colby, in which he describes how the carriage house held symbolic value for Gardner. Hawley responded to objectors by saying the carriage house was “never part of the visitor experience” and was not protected by Gardner’s will.
The carriage house had been used to accommodate visiting artists, a function catered for in Piano’s extension, which includes two artists’ apartments. The museum’s board of trustees unanimously voted for the demolition and the city and the state’s preservation agencies, including the Boston Landmarks Commission and the Massachusetts Historic Commission, did not object. The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled the demolition “in the public interest” because the museum’s plans for an extension would “extend the life of the [original] building” and fulfil Gardner’s will to establish a museum “for the education and enjoyment of the public forever”.
“For the first time we will have a real exhibition space to focus on certain objects in our collection,” says Oliver Tostmann, the museum’s research fellow, who is due to become the collection’s curator in April. He plans to select one or two objects from the collection each year and show them alongside objects from other institutions in the new space. The opening exhibitions will commemorate the 20th anniversary of the museum’s artist-in-residence programme.
Gardner was able to build a museum for her growing art collection when she inherited $2.1m from her father in 1891. He made his wealth in the Irish linen trade and later in mining investments. Gardner’s peers—and rivals for work by Titian, Botticelli and Michelangelo—included the likes of JP Morgan, Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Mellon, or the “squillionaires”, as she called them. “I’ve got the picture habit. It’s as bad as the whisky habit,” she confessed in 1896.
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