Art Smart

By Mary K. Zajac

photo of Peggy Fogelman

Peggy Fogelman ’83, director of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum [Photo: Stephanie Berger]

photo of Peggy Fogelman

Peggy Fogelman ’83, director of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum [Photo: Stephanie Berger]

One of the first decisions Peggy Fogelman ’83 made upon assuming directorship of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in early 2016 was to allow cell phone photography in the galleries. A small move, perhaps, but one that speaks to the way that technology has affected the way we experience the world around us, says Fogelman, including the way we view and share art.

It’s a change that might have appealed to the museum’s extraordinary and unconventional namesake. “[Gardner] didn’t believe in the types of minimalist, ‘white-box’ galleries for art that are so common today,” says Fogelman. By combining various art mediums in the same space and eschewing the use of wall labels, Gardner created what Fogelman describes as “a very singular vision of how to experience art and what an aesthetic journey should be.”

The Gardner’s magnificent collection—housed in an equally magnificent building inspired by a Venetian palace—includes painting, sculpture, and textiles, as well as extensive gardens. An additional building, opened in 2012, provides further space for focused exhibitions, as well as spoken word and musical performances. “It’s very much visitor at the center, in terms of finding your own meaning and gauging your own responses to the art,” says Fogelman. “And we’re not going to say that [taking a cellphone photo] is not a legitimate way to experience art—to record it, and through that memory, share it with friends, and come to your own conclusions.”

It was a passing comment by an organic chemistry professor, Fogelman says, that may have contributed to her career in art. Like many Hopkins freshmen, she had declared a premed major, but she also supplemented her course of study with lots of humanities electives, including English and history of art. Fogelman recalls multitasking during lab and reading and writing poetry while she waited for her experiments to come to fruition. “My lab professor told me that I wrote poetry pretty well,” she says. “And of course, my experiment yields were not quite as good, so it seemed like changing majors was the right thing to do.”

Fogelman eventually chose history of art over literature, largely due to Professor Charles Dempsey, a specialist in Baroque art. “The way that he considered art in relation to literature, politics, and art theory just demonstrated how art history was a window into a whole world in terms of the contexts in which artists were working and producing,” she explains. “I just found it incredibly stimulating, and it was very inspiring in terms of my decision to switch majors.”

That switch became the catalyst for an extensive museum career, including a long stint at the J. Paul Getty Museum in California, where Fogelman worked in both the curatorial and education departments. She also served as the director of education and interpretation at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, and as the chairman of education at the Metropolitan Museum of Art before becoming director of collections at the Morgan Library and Museum in 2013.

With almost two years at the Gardner under her belt, Fogelman sees her mission as maintaining and building on the founder’s vision of the museum, which centers on the idea of providing an experience of beauty for a broad, diverse public. Under her helm, the museum will continue to host artists-in-residence and offer a rich roster of public events and performances, as well as build and maintain online catalogs of the collection. Fogelman is also dedicated to inviting new and returning audiences to engage with the art.

“Part of maintaining a collection as vibrant and living is doing everything we can to help people connect with it,” says Fogelman. “Art is very open to our interpretations, and it’s that process of finding our own meaning and emotion that keeps it alive.”