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Expansion planned at the Gardner Museum

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Gardner museum to grow

1903 institution plans tripling space in 1st major expansion

By Geoff Edgers, Globe Staff | November 29, 2004

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, whose construction has remained the same since it opened in 1903, will announce today its first major expansion.

Officials have hired Italian architect Renzo Piano to design a multistory building for the museum's Fenway site. Piano, who won the Pritzker Prize for architecture in 1998, built the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas and was hired earlier this month to design the expansion of New York's Whitney Museum.

If successful, the project would triple the Gardner's special exhibitions space, move the cafe and administrative offices out of the ornate "Palace," and create a new main entrance. It would mark a dramatic leap for the museum, which has long wrestled with ways to modernize its operation without violating the strict, legal limits Isabella Stewart Gardner created to maintain the museum's distinctive atmosphere. Gardner, the art collector and Boston socialite, modeled the museum after a 15th-century Venetian palace and lived on its fourth floor until her death in 1924.

"The museum can't keep functioning as it is," said director Anne Hawley. "It was never meant to have 100 people working for it, or to have a cafe, or to have a coat check space. This plan allows for moving all of that out of the Palace."

The expansion would not alter the museum's collection, a requirement of Gardner's will. But Hawley said that it would better protect the art, which includes paintings by Rembrandt, Michelangelo, and Degas. Gardner's will has helped maintain the museum of her vision as a special art palace. It is known not only for the 2,500 paintings, sculptures, tapestries, and rare books in its collection, but for the central flowering courtyard. To commemorate Gardner's birthday each April, the museum hangs 8-foot nasturtiums from the balconies.

But the Gardner's timeless nature has also created a challenge for its directors, who have not been able to turn to the money-making ventures typical of a modern museum. The Gardner does operate a gift shop and cafe, but the spaces are cramped. The museum has only a 545-square-foot room for special exhibits. It cannot have more than 500 people in the building at one time, which also limits its ability to host profitable corporate events. The Gardner has an annual budget of roughly $8 million.

"This is long overdue," said Boston historian Douglas Shand-Tucci, author of "The Art of Scandal: The Life and Times of Isabella Stewart Gardner." "And Renzo Piano is not likely to do anything that is not absolutely exquisite."

Though museum officials say it is too early to estimate, the cost of a new building would probably be at least $60 million. Hawley said she hopes to get the work finished by 2010, though that could change. The Museum of Fine Arts plans to finish its dramatic expansion, down the street, in 2009.

No money has been raised yet, but the Gardner has begun making presentations to city officials, including Mayor Thomas M. Menino. "We're very encouraged by what we've seen," said Menino. "I totally approve of what they want to do."

Despite Menino's support, the project is far from a reality. After developing a design, the Gardner will need to work through the permitting process with the Boston Redevelopment Authority. The museum's plan will need to meet city requirements and address any concerns raised by neighbors.

The new building would potentially sit next to the 15,000-square-foot current museum on land acquired by the Gardner in 1969 and 1970. Piano is being asked to design a 45,000-square-foot building that would not overwhelm the Gardner's home, which is affectionately known as "The Palace." To make room for the expansion, six greenhouses on the Gardner's land along Evans Way will probably be removed. The main entrance would move from the Fenway to Evans Way.

Gardner officials say the museum has needed to expand for years, and Hawley remembers it being discussed when she took over in 1989. But Hawley decided the museum should focus first on renovating its existing space. In 1999, the Gardner completed its first capital campaign, raising $28 million for art conservation and to install a climate control system. The Gardner is in the midst of a $22 million fund-raising campaign that will, in part, increase its endowment. The Gardner's endowment is approximately $75 million, which covers 80 percent of its operating expenses, according to Hawley.

The Gardner is also the site of the largest art heist ever. On March 18, 1990, two men dressed as Boston police officers stole 13 pieces, including paintings by Rembrandt, Degas, and Vermeer. The works have not been recovered.

Hawley said she is not concerned about competing with other cultural institutions for cash. The region has been in the midst of a museum building boom. The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem finished its expansion in 2003. The MFA expansion is part of a $425 million capital campaign. The Institute of Contemporary Art is raising $62 million to build its new home, a glass-walled, waterfront building on South Boston's Fan Pier that is expected to open in 2006.

"The community's being asked to do a lot, but there are so many people who haven't been asked," said Hawley.

Piano will come to Boston in December to interview staff and walk through the Gardner as he works to develop a design for the new building. He was selected after a nearly yearlong search.

Advisers during this process included Henri Zerner, a Harvard University art history professor; Barry Munitz, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust; and John L. Gardner, chairman of the museum's board of trustees and Gardner's great-great nephew. Robert Campbell, the Boston Globe's architecture critic, has also served as a consultant.

Hawley said the new building will not be taller than the Gardner. She also said that one of Piano's biggest challenges will be developing a new entrance. Currently, visitors walk in off the busy Fenway, through a narrow doorway, and into the majestic courtyard.

The architect comes with a bonus. Raymond Nasher, the mall developer-turned-art collector, is planning to visit the Gardner in December along with Piano. Nasher grew up on Mallard Avenue in Dorchester and has contributed to his alma mater, Boston Latin. But his cultural donations have been in his adopted hometown, Dallas, where he hired Piano to build the Nasher Sculpture Center. Hawley said that the Gardner does not intend to ask Nasher for money, only advice. "He'll teach me to be a good client," said Hawley. "He's a wonderful man and he's on fire about art."

From The Boston Globe

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This little museum is one of Boston's hidden jewels. It broke my heart when the Gardner was robbed.

I hope Meninos "community process" doesn't end up killing or delaying this expansion.

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