I and a few of the other members of
visited the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum last month. The “new wing” as it is referred to in the literature apparently doesn’t have a tidy name: it’s not a new gallery, a new administrative center, a new visitors’ center, or a new performance space – for it’s all these and more.
For the visiting public, there is a new arrival gallery and ticketing space, an informal living room, an education/demonstration studio, a gift shop, peeks into the greenhouses, a new cafe, a performance studio, and a new exhibition gallery. For the staff there are administrative offices and educational facilities.
Designed by Renzo Piano, the 70,000-square-foot new wing, decked out in steel and glass and pre-patinated copper, is unmistakably new. It serves as the departure point for excursions into the beloved Palace Museum. In its scale and personality, it holds onto much of the tradition of the original house museum: a place to greet guests, offer hospitality, and invite them to experience art. That about sums up the new wing for the casual visitor. Browse-able books are free to be touched and opened; a living room offers a human-scaled, comfortable place to rest and read; caged canaries and quietly scrolling monitors set on oaky easels provide organic song and movement; an open kitchen prepares homemade doughnuts and tea.
I was impressed by the architect's details for railings, treads, and points of attachment, and the interesting framing of the surrounding gardens and skyline through curtain walls of glass. The two exhibition galleries are interestingly different: one is a small dimly lit nook, and the other is a generous and lofty, light-filled space.
I question the visual experience one will have in the concert hall, but that remains to be seen by me. I did get a feel for the sound quality (extraordinary) but I'd rather see a human performer's face than the top of her head. The education studio is one that will make any art museum envious.
Entrance to the Palace Museum is achieved by shooting across a glassy breezeway, connecting the new to the old. I wish the staff would remove the awkwardly placed potted plants from this important architectural space. And arrival into one of the grandest interior spaces in all of Boston is rather dim, cluttered, and uncelebrated.
But that feeling soon dissipates when the beautiful courtyard comes into view.