The new wing at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum features a larger cafe, a superior concert hall, a spacious art gallery, a larger cafe and an expanded gift shop. But on the building's second floor, just above the greenhouses and up a flight of narrow steps, there are two chic apartments — especially for artists.
Each has a kitchen, office, bedroom, bath, bright white walls, orange couches and a lot of windows. Walking around the airy space, LA-based photographer Luisa Lambri admits if the rooms weren’t already occupied by other artists, she’d love to stay here for a while.
"Great view," she remarks, "and the trees, and the museum all around, and nice colors. Very simple, but beautiful."
Lambri actually did live at the Gardner museum in 2008 as part of the institution's artist-in-residency program. She moved into the old Carriage House that used to be on the museum’s grounds. It was demolished during construction to make room for the new wing. Lambri recalls her time there, and says the Gardner's live-in residency is a very unique and privileged way of working.
"Because you don’t even have to think about where you are, and because you’re already where you should be," she said.
Artists-in-residence have the opportunity to immerse themselves in Mrs. Gardner’s collection. They often go on to create work inspired and informed by their on-site investigations. Lambri’s “photographic meditations" on the rooms and galleries inside the palace are currently on display in the exhibition, “Points of View: Twenty Years of Artists-in-Residence.” In two decades, 75 artists have gone through the program.
Residencies at art institutions are common enough — the American Association of Museums estimates the number to be about two dozen in the U.S. — but the Gardner's director, Anne Hawley, knows the ability to live in a museum isn’t.
"Embracing the artist is something we do because it’s part of our legacy," she said while walking through the museum's Tapestry Room in the historic building. "Gardner always had artists working here, living here, doing projects here, it’s just in the DNA of the place."
One of those artists was John Singer Sargent, who painted in the museum during the winter of 1903 — the same year Gardner opened her palace to the public.
"It’s a way of bringing life into the museum," according to Pieranna Cavalchini, curator of contemporary art. She believes the new and improved apartments in the new wing will enhance the visiting artists’ experience of the museum.
"And the fantastic thing is that there are two of them, which means you can have artists staying here at the same time, you can have an artist and a scholar, you can have a filmmaker and a visual artist, someone who runs a radio program and a musician," she said.
Scottish musician Victoria Morton stayed in one of the new apartments a few weeks ago. She plays with Muscles of Joy, an experimental noise band made up of of female visual artists. They’re performing Thursday night in the museum’s new concert hall as part of the grand opening celebrations. But Morton was also was an artist-in-residence in 2009 — and her exhibition, “Tapestry (Radio On),” is currently installed in the Gardner’s new Special Exhibition gallery. It’s her first solo show in America.
With her colorful paintings behind her, Morton explained, "This is a new body of work that’s been made specifically for this new gallery with the old collection in mind."
Morton did her research during her residency and recalls her time here a bit wistfully. It gave her “headspace,” she said, to explore the palace and get to know Isabella Stewart Gardner’s unique sensibilities.
"You know I feel quite distanced from the phenomena of Mrs. Gardner herself," Morton admitted, "although she has a really interesting story and was quite a formidable woman."
Even so, Morton says she feels at home in the Gardner’s rooms, both new and old, and she looks forward to the next time she gets a chance to live at the museum.
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is celebrating the opening of its new wing Jan. 19 through Jan. 21. Admission is free to the public.
This program aired on January 19, 2012.