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Bad Attitude in Boston

June 15, 2010

The courtyard of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Imagine, for a moment, a piece of modern art.  Any piece will do, but right now I’m picturing a brown toilet bowl suspended from the ceiling by thick golden chains.  Now consider what it would sound like if this particular display were set to music.  That gives you a pretty good idea of what we experienced while attending a musical performance at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

We thought the one-hour show would be the highlight of our day-trip to Boston.  Staged in the stunning Gardner Museum and preformed by students from the New England Conservatory, we somehow failed to notice, or didn’t appreciate, that it was a contemporary classical music performance.  No Mozart to be heard here.  And as I sat there I couldn’t help but think that this group of extremely talented musicians dedicated no small amount of their time, effort, and parent’s money to master an instrument, only so that they’d have license to get on stage and play it badly.  Very strange.

The museum itself is gorgeous.  Constructed to evoke the Venetian Palazzi Barbaro, the building is every bit as impressive as the masterpieces it contains.  Most striking is the center courtyard that rises three stories to a glass enclosure.  Flora in the courtyard is circulated regularly giving the impression of a Mediterranean garden in perpetual bloom.  Each of the galleries is designed around a principal theme, such as the Spanish Cloister constructed to house John Singer Sargent’s El Jaleo, and the Veronese Room, clad in impressive leather wall coverings.

Of special interest are the 13 picture frames that still hang vacant 20 years after the biggest art theft in history emptied them of their contents.  While the story of the theft is well known (and even the subject of a popular book, The Gardner Heist), the museum ignores the empty frames completely in the placards identifying the art in each room.  Almost as if the theft didn’t happen and the portraits had just been moved temporarily.

But the scars from the crime are obvious, and not only because of what is missing.  Skulking security guards with secret service style ear-buds carefully observe visitors in every room.  Ostensibly to protect the artwork, they seem more intent on making sure patrons don’t abscond with a prohibited photo while inside the museum.  In the process they suck some of the joy out of the place.

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