Art museums are places of beauty and solace. They hold profound expressions of our humanity. They are sites of connection with art and with one another. They are portals through which we examine the relevance of the past to our present. And yes, they are centers of public discourse, where community members can safely gather to exchange ideas.
On Sept. 7, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was forced to close in response to a planned protest by the climate activist group Extinction Rebellion (“Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum closed Thursday night to thwart climate protest,” BostonGlobe.com, Sept. 8). The decision to shut our doors was not made lightly, especially on a night when admission was free — it is demoralizing to curtail public access to the magic of the Gardner.
The Boston chapter of the group said it would use the museum as a “space of public discourse (like Isabella Gardner imagined it in her will).” It’s true that our founder valued conversation and the exchange of views. However, public discourse entails respectful dialogue into which participants enter willingly. Discourse prioritizes the interrogative over the declarative, allowing a multiplicity of voices, not forced confrontation and potential risk to people and artworks.
Extinction Rebellion did not contact the Gardner prior to its planned action to explain its intentions or discuss possible alternatives, such as staging the protest on the museum’s front lawn. The group asserts that it does not damage works of art, but the actions of this group at other museums demonstrate the real risk of damage to these fragile, priceless works.
The Gardner Museum supports efforts to heighten awareness of the climate crisis. Our building addition is LEED Gold certified. We are members of the Boston Green Ribbon Commission and engaged with the city’s climate action plan. Our exhibition “Presence of Plants in Contemporary Art” features artists who themselves are climate activists. We are holding two public panels addressing climate justice this fall. These are the actions that further discourse on environmental stewardship within an art museum.
We urge Extinction Rebellion to reconsider its tactics targeting art museums. In the meantime, we continue to embrace our role in providing inspiration, connection, and meaning for our communities in Boston and beyond.
Norma Jean Calderwood Director
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum