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Gardner offers frst look at expansion

Private, star-studded events to lead up to reopening

By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff / January 11, 2012
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The canaries are bathed, the flat-screen televisions wired up, and the leaves of the rubber plants washed.

This is life at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum as dozens of workers make the final preparations for what is sure to be a busy week. Today, the Gardner unveils its $118 million expansion and renovation project to the media. From there, a series of events, many of them star-studded affairs for private donors, will take place, leading up to the Gardner’s public opening on Jan. 19.

Under the steady din of electric drills, the workers rushed through the museum like commuters hustling for a rush-hour train. “It’s slightly overwhelming, but everybody’s getting a buzz from feeling everybody running around,’’ said M.K. Wong, the Gardner’s new museum shop manager.

Starting the day after Christmas, Wong has worked every day, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., weekends included. She doesn’t mind.

“It’s nice to know we’re all in this together,’’ she said.

The Gardner’s new wing is next to the Venetian-style palazzo, connected by a glass passageway. The new building, designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano, includes galleries, a restaurant, a 296-seat concert hall, space for educational programs, a greenhouse, and artist residences. The 70,000-square-foot space will also serve as the museum’s new entrance.

The project, in the works for more than a decade, came to life in 2009 when excavation work began on the Gardner site. Director of operations James Labeck has been overseeing the work since then. Every big museum job has somebody like Labeck. He’s little known by the public but central to the phalanx of workers brought in to create museum spaces and fit them to the needs of the museum staff.

“The questions might be big, about the music hall or tapestry room, or they can be ‘I thought my desk was going to be 4 feet wide, not 5 feet wide,’ ’’ he joked last week.

It is Labeck who filed the hundreds of pages of documents required for the Gardner to get approvals from city and state regulatory boards. These days, Labeck admits he’s looking forward to doing just his old job, overseeing the museum’s security staff and maintenance, among other areas. The project has been all-consuming. The Fender Telecaster guitar that Labeck keeps in his office hasn’t been played in months. He’s been too busy.

With opening day approaching, Labeck wore jeans, work boots, and an orange Patagonia sweatshirt.

“I wear orange so people can see me,’’ he said, before chasing down the curator of contemporary art. He wanted to talk with Pierrana Cavalchini to coordinate on when to close the doors of the new gallery.

He took note of the TV monitors in the new lobby. They’ll offer basic information to visitors. He also walked through the palace and pointed out the replantings in the courtyard, as Tracey Johnson, a greenhouse assistant, rinsed dust off the rubber plants with warm, soapy water.

All was focused on this week’s string of openings. Piano was scheduled to give the media tour today. Later in the week, the Gardner opens to private donors, sponsors, and VIPs. Each night will feature a different performer: soprano Kiri Te Kanawa, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the Borromeo Quartet, and pianist Paavali Jumppanen.

Monday, museum members will be welcomed into the building and later that week, on Jan. 19, the general public will be able to see the new spaces.

“No matter who I bump into - friends, neighbors - they all ask me the same thing. Are you going to be ready?’’ said Labeck. “Absolutely.’’

The two canaries arrived last week, part of artist Lee Mingwei’s restaging of his 2000 exhibition called “The Living Room.’’ Beth Olsen, the museum store’s inventory manager, agreed to bathe the birds, which will live in the living room space just to the right of the new entrance. At the same time, in the museum’s expanded café, Peter Crowley marveled at the space. For nine years, he managed the cubbyhole that passed for a café in the Gardner’s palazzo.

“We’ve gone from the municipal little league field to Yankee Stadium,’’ said Crowley.

He pointed up at the ceiling and asked a sound technician where the speakers were for the newly installed sound system. Hidden under the white ceiling, came the answer.

“This is one of the things you plan for a year and a half and you get caught up in the nitty-gritty - wine section, training staff, the sales system,’’ said Crowley, “and then you think, what’s going on with the music?’’

“Is there any more bass?’’ he said to Eddie Martinez, who works with TRITECH Communications, the company that installed the system.

“I’m not sure the speakers are made to put out a lot of low end,’’ said Martinez. “It’s more background.’’

Jon Maass, a project manager for the architecture firm the Paratus Group, spent a chunk of time trying to figure out the shade of color to use for the vinyl film listing donor names on a wall near the entrance. Before he could finish, Matt Montgomery, the museum’s director of media relations, whispered a heads-up about another pressing need.

Montgomery pointed to the entrance information on the glass wall facing the street. Sure enough, the days listed stated that the Gardner is closed on Mondays. The museum is closed on Tuesdays and open on Mondays. Good catch.

“I’ll take care of it,’’ said Maass. “Luckily, it’s vinyl. That’s easy to fix.’’

Geoff Edgers can be reached at

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