Considering the Contemporary at the Gardner

By: Judith Tolnick Champa

Imet Pieranna in the Richard E. Floor Living Room, a glass-walled interior complete with comfortably caged, singing birds. The space is part of the new Renzo Piano wing, overlooking and connecting to the historic structure. The Living Room as a space for thought, a Buddhist concept, derives from a 2000 installation by artist-in-residence Lee Mingwei. While bearing all the qualities of a personal library, it is meant as a quiet, contemplative zone for viewers before or after their museum experience. It is a site of receptivity, encounter, and conversation. The aura of the Living Room as a space in which to ponder creative intelligence, outside of time and disruption from the world, is a principle at the heart of Cavalchini’s approach to contemporary art programming.

Curator Pieranna Cavalchini in her office.

Cavalchini leverages the Gardner’s one-month Artist-in-Residence program, initiated by director Anne Hawley, as a means of nurturing ongoing institutional relationships with international artists. Alongside her exhibition-making for the museum, Cavalchini has curated the extraordinary program for more than ten of its twenty years. I would suggest she does so in a spirit akin to the MacDowell Colony, where connections to legendary former residents in visual, literary, and performing arts also serve firmly and foremost to generate future programming ideas.

For many years, the Gardner artists in residence were given concentrated time in the astonishing historic palazzo itself. At this point, the Renzo Piano addition provides apartments for two tremendously fortunate artists, bestowing a unique and generous experience. Being in such close contact with the range of collections accessible in person, archivally, and through the expertise of curatorial staff generates an intimate, deeply revealing experience from which unprecedented creative ideas are drawn, and ultimately shared with the public.

Cavalchini never demands an immediate product from her artists in residence. She values the residency as an open-ended process since, she emphasizes, taking time is acceptable at this museum. As artist Melvin Moti points out, the Gardner simply helps artists understand time, enabling slow looking, or seeing in a different light. Significant projects, of course, do result from relationships initially forged during the residency. “Creating can work like a virus, that once implanted, continues to grow,” comments Moti. With two apartments available, a contiguous opportunity anticipates, in Cavalchini’s words, a “fervent conversation” between performing, literary, and visual arts. One of several memorable antecedents from the old building exists in a Mozart flute quartet performance surrounded by a Sol LeWitt wall drawing. As ever, and prominently, the Gardner residency stimulates creative ways of speaking to and about the museum’s permanent collection.

Dutch artist Melvin Moti arrived for a warm reunion with Cavalchini simultaneously with me, and fortuitously remained to participate in our conversation. In residence in 2010, Moti has just produced and published with the museum a beautiful, intelligent, limited-edition artist’s book, or as he says, “magazine.” He invited two other artists (Runa Islam from Bangladesh and Douglas Ross of New York) to join him in Collector’s Item, a project stimulated by his stay in the museum and his internal conversation with its host, Isabella. “That conversation continues until this day,” Moti writes.

Three extraordinary collectors’ museums—the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the Barnes Foundation (formerly of Merion, now Philadelphia) and Sir John Soane’s Museum, London—are explored by Moti and his colleagues in markedly vivid individualized literary and photographic essays. In keeping with Cavalchini’s general curatorial approach, there was little editorial intervention by museum curators in the book that is, however, strikingly custom made. Moti and his partners deal independently with the willful (pun intended) legal issues of all three founders, researching their motivations and tastes through archival and first-person experience to convey the rich, tenacious narratives of the collectors and their lasting, varied, but interrelated imprints.

Twenty-two sequential pages in Moti’s book present and audaciously repeat again and again the Naples yellow wall fabric of the dismantled and empty Barnes Museum. Douglas Ross characterizes the color as particularly capable of “floating forward pedestalling every object” in Barnes’s cherished wall ensembles, true to his aesthetic. The sensation of color for collection installation was all-important for these collectors. The Soane Museum sometimes adopted a Pompeiian red. When Moti and Cavalchini first said hello at our meeting, they had a knowing insider’s exchange about the very lining of the Gardner Museum, a paint color known as Bardini blue. This is the color that Isabella chose precisely for her museum walls, derived from a paint chip she insisted art historian and dealer Bernard Berenson acquire for that purpose. She emulated nineteenth-century Florentine dealer Stefano Bardini’s own choice of the color that worked so well with polychrome sculpture. Isabella insisted on the exact tint of blue, just as she insisted fearlessly on the whole concept of a grand museum on the Fenway.

Raqs Media Collective, The Great Bare Mat and Constellation, video still, 2012.

Creating intimate connectivity between art, its presentation, and interpretation remains a basic tenet of the Gardner Museum, and teaching those relationships is a cherished activity of the contemporary department. Cavalchini proudly points out that students from roughly fifty colleges regularly partake of the Gardner’s dynamic programming. Artists in residence teach and lead critiques with advanced art graduate students in the Boston area. Links with others are constant. Cavalchini calls this a “vortex of thinking.” Recent exhibitions in the contemporary space, a gallery of considerable dignity in the Piano building, range from The Screen and the Eye—9 Artists 9 Projections, a politically provocative film and video program, to the New Delhi-based Raqs Media Collective’s Great Bare Mat & Constella-tion. Its programming centers on a carpet as a site for exchange as viewers engage the collective’s own experience with the character of the museum.

The new wing façade is conceived as its own gallery that will change on a six-month cycle. It is an additional project space emblematic of the Gardner’s sense of visitor involvement, porousness, and outreach to new audiences. Former artist-in-residence Stefano Arienti’s Wild Carrot is installed through December. It reinforces the contemporary art department as a potent kunsthalle, inventively complementing the persona that is the museum’s permanent collection.


Judith Tolnick Champa is the editor-in-chief of Art New England.

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