Back in the early aughts, the writer and theater critic Hilton Als got a job teaching at Wellesley College. He lived in Cambridge and didn’t have many friends in town.
Itching to escape his small apartment, he ended up at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. “Once I found it, I didn't feel lonely,” Als said. "Because I ... felt so attuned to her, her vision of it, which was totally eclectic."
By "her," Als meant the museum's founder, Isabella Stewart Gardner, a wealthy 19th century art collector. Everything in the museum — tapestries, paintings, furniture, sculptures — sits exactly where Gardner placed it, more than a century ago.
The museum is famously stuck in time. But the Gardner is constantly considering how to speak to the present. One way is through its visiting curator of performing arts, whose task is to program a series of contemporary-minded events over the course of a year, and sometimes longer. Als is the third person to take on the role.
On a trip up to Boston from New York back in October, the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic took the elevator to one of his favorite galleries on the museum's third floor. He walked down a long hallway flanked by ornate 19th century furniture, passing a small stone bust sitting on top of a bookcase. The bust — which might be more accurately described as a head mounted on a plinth — almost looked discarded, like someone set it down one day and forgot to come back. Als stopped to snap a photo. “See, every time you come, there’s something you didn’t see before,” he said.
For Als, this is the charm of the Gardner. He is fascinated by its founder, who envisioned the museum as both a public resource and a home. After the building was completed in 1901, she moved into the living quarters on the fourth floor, where she continued to add to her private art collection until her death. Gardner provided an endowment for the museum with the stipulation that nothing in the galleries or collection be changed or sold.
“I see her as a kind of revolutionary,” Als said. “We know people with money, and they often don't really do much with it, other than worry about having more of it. And when you take money, or you take resources, like this, and you make something out of it, first of all, that's a revolutionary act because you're giving to the public something that is a private equity.”
Als slipped on a pair of reading glasses and peered into one of the cases that line the walls of the gallery. It was full of Gardner’s correspondences, letters written in elegant cursive from the great artists and politicians of the day. He gestured toward another display, where photos of men in moustaches gaze grimly from behind the glass.
“This case is mostly male painters,” he said. “But there were any number of female painters that [Gardner] was supporting simultaneously. So who were they, and what was their relationship to her like? What did she give them by way of support, discretion, and friendship?”
Asking probing questions about Gardner herself and the museum’s collection is part of the job of the visiting curator of performing arts, said the Gardner’s curator of music George Steel.
“One of the things this role is about is teasing out more stories and ideas from the collection, and that inevitably means a kind of psychic or biographical exploration of what Isabella was about,” says Steel, who originated the position of visiting curator of performing arts in 2017, before stepping into his current role.
Steel said Als was a good fit because he knows the museum intimately, and has worked on curatorial projects before. But he is best known for his many years as the New Yorker magazine’s theater critic. Als’ critical mind, Steel said, was just as appealing as his familiarity with the Gardner.
“His criticism is led by what moves him, and then his intellect kicks in,” Steel said. “That his practice begins with love, and with a positive response to art, I think is incredibly beautiful.”
Als took over the role of visiting curator of performing arts from the vocalist and performance artist Helga Davis. The two had collaborated before. Als wrote a monologue for Davis that she performed at the Gardner in 2019. That same year, she played the lead role in a workshop of “Lives of the Performers,” Als’ play about the Black avant-garde theater actress Sheryl Sutton, which the Gardner presented in February.
He presented his first event in his new role in October at the museum’s Calderwood Hall, a talk titled “On the Art of Performing: Actors and Musicians Onstage and in the Gardner Collection.” He offered hints of the feminist bent his programming was likely to take with a clip of Jane Fonda in the 1971 thriller “Klute.” In the scene, Fonda’s character, a call girl, listens to a tape of another sex worker being brutalized, her face a stiff mask that slowly melts into grief. “When I was writing criticism for The New Yorker, I was particularly interested in the ways in which women projected not only the character, but the ways in which they were isolated or galvanized by gender,” Als said.
Als is now at work on a talk he will present at the Gardner on Saturday, March 5. The piece was originally inspired by an exhibit, “Titian: Women, Myth & Power," that Als saw on his visit to the Gardner in the fall. (The exhibit closed in January.)
It reunited a set of six massive paintings by the Renaissance painter Titian, which were drawn from the writings by the Roman poet Ovid. One, “The Rape of Europa,” is a prize of the Gardner’s collection. The painting is based on a Greek myth about the abduction of a young woman by the god Zeus. It interested Als that Titian, widely considered a master of Renaissance art, chose to render a scene of sexual violence.
“How did he end up wanting to make pictures about violation?” Als asked. “What does it mean when a male artist of his epic caliber and qualifications wanted to make work that was really about denigration?”
But Als found himself equally fascinated by another painting in the collection: a stern portrait of Mary Tudor, known as "Bloody Mary," who became the first female ruler of England in 1553. The talk, Als said, is "about looking at these works, and recalling what it feels like to be looked at."
Ultimately, though, his interest begins and ends with Isabella Stewart Gardner, and the place she created.
One of Als' favorite spaces in the museum is the Dutch room, a massive hall with a dining table and candelabras on the walls. To preserve the artwork, the gallery is kept dark. Als remarked that it was the sort of room he would like to have dinner in.
“Everybody looks better with shadows,” he said with a laugh. “So I think that it's a kind of generous room.”
Als explained that Gardner would’ve hosted dinner parties and concerts here. “I think that she wanted to make a world that was for us as much as it was for her,” he said.
Now it’s his turn to invite us all in.
Hilton Als presents a talk at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on Saturday, March 5.
This segment aired on March 3, 2022.