“Big Plans: Picturing Social Reform” is, in effect if not intent, a sketch for a very large, very ambitious exhibition looking at the interrelationship among city planning, urban green space, and social improvement in late-19th- and early-20-century America, mostly (though not exclusively) focusing on Greater Boston. That’s a mouthful of a description. It sure is a mouthful of a sentence.
“Big Plans,” which runs at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum through Sept. 15, is not that exhibition. Instead, it’s smallish and scattered and, because smallish and scattered isn’t a good combination, rather frustrating. Tempering the frustration is the presence of quite a few fine and unexpected things among the 50 or so items on display.
It’s not every show that includes deeds to Fenway Court, as the Gardner Museum was known during its residential days. In addition to the museum’s archives, the show draws on an impressive range of sources: the Library of Congress, Harvard’s map collection, the National Park Service’s Frederick Law Olmsted archives, the Art Institute of Chicago, the American Museum of Natural History, and that doesn’t exhaust the list. It’s worth noting the names, since their diversity bespeaks the show’s ambition.
“Big Plans” is a very non-Gardner sort of show. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Some of the most exciting exhibitions since the unveiling of the Renzo Piano-designed wing, in 2012, have been distinctly non-Gardnerish: meaning, not Old World or old school or art for art’s sake or as if aged in oaken casks. That said, it’s the Gardner’s somewhat fey, otherwordly quality that helps make it so loved. There’s nothing fey or otherworldly about “Big Plans.”
The show begins with large photographic portraits of Olmsted (1822-1903), Gardner (1840-1924), Charles Eliot (1859-1897), and Lewis Hine (1874-1940). To the extent that the show has a compass, they are its north, south, east, and west. Olmsted’s many great works of landscape architecture include New York’s Central Park, the Arnold Arboretum, the Back Bay Fens, and Emerald Necklace. Gardner built Fenway Court in the Back Bay Fens. Eliot, who worked for Olmsted before starting his own firm, helped establish what is now the Trustees (formerly Trustees of Reservations) and the Metropolitan Park System of Greater Boston.
Hine, who merits his own paragraph, is that rare figure in cultural history: an accomplished artist who helped accomplish social change. He took some of the most powerful photographs of the last century: of child laborers (heartbreaking), immigrants (heartbreaking in a different way, especially now), factory workers (magnificent), the construction of the Empire State Building (magnificent in a different way).
In 1909, Hine photographed children in Boston: working, playing, getting by. All three activities apply to “Boys Picking Over Garbage in ‘the Dumps.’ ” On display are 10 of these Boston photographs, and they’re the heart of the show. Each is 5 inches by 7 inches. The size is worth noting because there are also three mural-size blowups of Hine photographs. Only one is from the group of 10. The discrepancy seems odd, and the blowups work to overwhelm the photographs.
That oddness is representative of the show as a whole. There’s a large display case relating to the construction of Fenway Court: those deeds, photographs, newspaper clippings, a guest book. A massive atlas of Boston, from 1909, is opened to the page showing the site of Gardner’s palazzo. The atlas may be the single most exciting thing in the show — muscular as well as large, dense with information, gloriously solid. But what the contents of the display case seem to have in common with the rest of the show (besides the show being in the Gardner Museum) is the situation of the building in the Olmsted-designed Back Bay/Fens and Gardner’s supporting of progressive causes and organizations, such as the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which sort of ties in with Hine.
Perhaps the 20-minute video in an alcove that’s been set up in the gallery is an attempt to connect the dots. It fails to do so. Consisting of interviews with an urban planner, a photographer, a social activist, and two curators, it’s earnest and undercooked. Worse, the sound of voices for those not watching is a distraction from the rest of the show.
BIG PLANS: Picturing Social Reform
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 25 Evans Way, through Sept. 15. 617-566-1401. www.gardnermuseum.org