A new public art installation puts the ruins of a Gilded Age ballroom by Kenmore Square
“Nothing gold can stay,” wrote Robert Frost. Golden sunsets fade. Blond hair grays. And gilded ages end, corroding like cheap metal left outside too long.
What remains when the gilding falls away? What do the ruins of an opulent epoch look like?
Liz Glynn gives a glimpse in a new public art installation on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall, between Kenmore Street and Charlesgate West. The exhibit, “Open House,” resembles the interior of a lavish 19th-century ballroom, with Louis XIV chairs, ornate sofas, footstools, and tall semicircular arches.
The pieces aren’t authentic. They’re concrete replicas, gray and somber, as though once frozen in ice.
“It’s an open-air ruin, like a restored area of ancient Rome,” said Glynn, who grew up in Braintree and now lives in Los Angeles. “Who has access to public space, and just space at all? It’s an important conversation for Boston to have, particularly at a time where there’s a lot of development going on.”
“Open House” was originally presented last year in New York, near the southeast corner of Central Park. Its inspiration comes from William C. Whitney’s now-demolished private ballroom on Fifth Avenue. Whitney, a millionaire civil servant who died in 1904, tasked the remodeling of his lavish Victorian home to Stanford White, an architect who also designed the Boston Hotel Buckminster in Kenmore Square and a number of homes on Commonwealth Avenue. (Glynn herself grew up in a “falling apart Victorian house” that she and her parents spent weekends fixing up.)
Enjoyed by the upper echelon of New York society during its life, Whitney’s ballroom will now be revived for the Boston multitudes. The exhibit is open to the public until Nov. 4, and visitors are invited to sit on the furniture. The 26 pieces — visually attractive and stone-hard — have the look of sculpted clay, with an overcast hue and naturalistic floral motifs. They’re parts of a pared-down setting no longer reserved for the rarefied.
“It was radical for me, when I was installing it in New York, to see how many people who would never walk into [the Museum of Modern Art] engage with the work,” said Glynn. “Museums can be intimidating, or costly. I want it to be a public living room.”
“We have hit, in the last couple of years, heights of income inequality not seen since the Gilded Age,” said Glynn. “Generally, thinking about the collective social responsibility in the wealthiest country in the world, the standard for the average should reflect that.”
The exhibition site, on the west end of the Commonwealth Avenue Mall, was chosen for its existing sculptures, accessibility for pedestrians, proximity to 19th-century homes and to redevelopment projects around Kenmore Square, according to Kate Gilbert, executive director of public art curator Now + There. The organization has partnered with Public Art Fund, a New York nonprofit, and Paula Cooper Gallery in Manhattan to present “Open House.”
“We’re a society increasingly divided along socioeconomic lines, and I think most people are aware of this,” Gilbert said. “What we want to do in this work is bring that conversation up. We want to make the conversation accessible. The last thing we want to do is beat people over the head.”
Gilbert added that Now + There hopes to hold live performances at the site, as well as talks on arts and urban issues at other locations in the city.
Glynn also has an exhibit on display at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. “The Archaeology of Another Possible Future,” which occupies more than 25,000 square feet at the museum’s Building 5 gallery, examines how the abstraction of economic production threatens to alienate and imperil humankind.
“In a lot of ways, there’s a sense that we’re moving backward,” said Glynn about the contemporary moment. “My work uses history to ask questions and find out how we can take action to form the society we want to live in.”