The major fix is the restoration of the Tapestry Room on the second floor, the longest room in the palace. For decades, this Gothic hall was used as a theater for concerts. Chairs clogged the center of the room, making it difficult to see the art. With the seating gone, art that had been pushed up against the walls has been moved back into the center of the gallery where (as old photos reveal) Gardner had it. A carved wooden Madonna and candleholder is back in front of windows, echoing their arched shapes and standing in silhouette against the courtyard sun. The room remains dim and moody, but new lighting spotlights the art, including two 16th-century Flemish tapestry groups that tell the stories of Abraham, the Biblical founding father, and Cyrus the Great, the legendary founder of the Persian empire. They seem to emerge from the darkness and glow gold. It revives the theatrical, emotional enchantment that's at the heart of Gardner's genius.
As museums increasingly feel like the groupthink of corporate teams, Gardner's ravishing, one-woman gesamtkunstwerk is an increasingly rare experience. And it makes you wonder, when it came time for an expansion, what would Gardner have done? "It should be a work of art in its time," Hawley said of the building plans in 2010, "because that's who we are, and this is our time, and it deserves no less." Would Gardner have chosen a building that looked more like her original? The museum's current leaders feared imitating the past would lead to kitsch, but Gardner clearly had no problems with imitating the past while keeping up with the contemporary. She continued collecting (the textiles in the tapestry room, a painting said to be the first Matisse to enter an American museum) and building until her death in 1924.
She likely would have enjoyed Piano — a tall, courtly Italian architect who talks like a dreamer — but would she have hired him? The expansion is handsome, a success, but it's not visionary — which is, of course, an impossible standard. Piano is one of the most prolific and esteemed museum architects of this generation, whose current projects include a renovation and expansion of the Harvard Art Museums. Would Gardner have gone more her own way? "She imitates nobody," a local paper enthused back in 1875, "everything she does is novel and original."
Read Greg Cook's blog at gregcookland.com/journal.