Toasting what was and what is yet to come at Gardner Museum

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“Should auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind?”

Isabella Stewart Gardner welcomed guests to her 15th-century-inspired Venetian styled palace for the first time on New Year’s Eve 1903. Sipping champagne and eating donuts, the Boston Symphony Orchestra played while friends roamed the galleries of Fenway Court. Surrounded by Gardner’s combined passions of art, gardens, intellect, and music the candlelit courtyard glowed. It’s reasonable to assume the revelers toasted the New Year by singing Auld Lang Syne.

Since 1788, Scottish poet Robert Burns has been heralded as the composer of Auld Lang Syne. Scholars believe Burns was more likely the “collector” than the author of these melodic phrasings. It was his initiative, transcribing verses of the oft sung folk song, that adds this music to our traditional observance of New Year.

Sung with a Scottish brogue, Auld Lang Syne is a dialectic adaptation of the Anglicized fairy tale prolegomenon “Once upon a time…” The familiar chorus begins by questioning the relevance of revisiting old times then lyrically ambles through a series of joyful reminiscences between old lovers and old friends. The final stanza poetically responds to the first: “There’s a hand my trusted friend. And give a hand o’thine! We’ll take a cup of kindness yet for auld lang syne.” The sentimental song harmonizes an old melody, with old memories, celebrating what was. Its resonance leads us to wonder what may be.

Visiting the Gardner Museum today is, as it must have been more than 100 years ago, both an intimate and grand experience, a dream of “what may be” turned into a dream come true. Gardner’s collection of small and large masterpieces fills palace galleries with memorable treasure. An adjacent addition, designed in 2004 by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Renzo Piano, honors and resonates Gardner’s bequest that her Fenway Court be preserved for “education and enjoyment forever.”  The addition compliments the palace with a spectacular concert hall, a vibrant living room/library and a cozy seating area to enjoy the four season garden.

With director Anne Hawley’s guidance, the Museum revitalized Gardner’s determination to influence art by expanding the Museum’s notoriety as one of the most original private collections in the world, a testimony not to “what may be,” but to “what can be done.”

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Director Anne Hawley (Photo by Cheryl Richards)

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Director Anne Hawley (Photo by Cheryl Richards)

While the Museum’s global legend increased, however, its world-renowned collection decreased. Art estimated to be worth more than $500 million, stolen six months after Hawley became the first female Director of the Gardner Museum since Gardner herself, remains lost. The 1990 theft of Vermeer’s The Concert and Rembrandt’s A Lady and Gentleman in Black and White, as well as 11 other pieces, remains a heartfelt tragedy in the history of art collections. The heist, considered a top priority of the FBI, is a painful outlier in the 26 years Hawley has spent greeting visitors, cultivating audiences and advancing thinking about Gardner.

As Hawley prepared to end her time at the Museum in late December, she looked back at the curatorial landscape she cultivated in Gardner’s memory. Hawley was a strong proponent of building the contentious addition to Fenway Court. Rather than maintain status quo, she insisted on bringing Gardner’s spirit back to life, reasserting the Museum’s relevance through enhancement of a vibrant concert series, establishing an “Artist in Residence” program for gifted, cutting-edge artists, as well as expanding an academic lecture series. Beyond that, Hawley’s fundraising talents helped restore Fenway Court’s infrastructure and stabilized the Museum’s long-term financial footing, ensuring that echoes of Gardner’s cultural significance will continue to be, as she hoped, “enjoyed forever.”

Our acquaintance with Hawley will be remembered by historic enrichment of a Boston landmark that continues to shine within the center of a lively arts scene as well as her recruitment of an exceptionally talented staff. As she leaves, that tradition continues in her successor, 54-year-old Peggy Fogelman. Fogelman leaves the John Pierpont Morgan Museum of New York after holding positions at the Metropolitan Museum of New York, The Peabody Essex Museum of Salem, and the J.Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

As Hawley told the Museum staff, “I trust the magic of the Gardner Museum will continue to soar under Peggy’s lead.”

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum board president Steve Kidder repeated those sentiments in a press statement, saying that “Peggy is a perfect fit for the Gardner; with her impressive background ranging from large, prestigious institutions to small, intimate museums. We look forward to seeing what she dreams up for this very special museum.”

The Morgan, like the Gardner, is comprised of a long-loved private collection that evolved into a cultural institution. Within its Renzo Piano addition, the Morgan offers concerts, lectures and special events.

According to a public statement, Fogelman is “overjoyed to be entrusted with leading the Gardner.”

“It’s truly a privilege to apply all my experience to a place that is beloved by so many,” she said.

On January 11, as the fifth director of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum settles into her new office, “we’ll take a cup of kindness yet,” to toast the beloved Gardner, thank Hawley, and welcome Fogelman for “auld lang syne.” Together we wonder what may be beyond what is already there.

Diane Kilgore is a Boston-based blogger.