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Gardner Museum curator plans inclusive programming

Celina Colby
Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
Gardner Museum curator plans inclusive programming
Helga Davis photo: MICHAL HANCOVSKÝ courtesy of Helga Davis

Helga Davis’ new term as the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s visiting curator for the performing arts may be only a year, but she’s in it for the long haul. Davis comes to the museum with an extensive resume in theater, music and fine art, and she has big plans for inclusive, diverse programming for the 2018–19 season.

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Davis’ mission is to create public programs inspired by, engaging with and activating the Gardner and its collection. For her, it’s not just about the programs, she says; it’s about the people attending them. “How do we help people and invite people to see themselves in this space? — especially if you haven’t been taught or you haven’t felt in the past that everything belongs to you,” she says. “All art is your art. I feel like my being here is proof of that.”

The curator grew up in Harlem and recounts that her first music teacher was a black woman from the neighborhood who studied at the Curtis Institute of Music and at Julliard. After that education, Davis came back to Harlem to teach the children who might not have thought music was an option for them. Now, her vision for the Gardner is similar. She wants to prove that the museum isn’t just for people who look like Isabella, the woman who created the museum and bequeathed it for public enjoyment and education.

Davis says, “I’m not programming things and then they go up and my work is done. I’m going to be here. I want to meet people, I want to talk to them, I want them to know that this is also their place. Because it is.”

Her new position officially began July 1, and she has been familiarizing herself with the collection and the space. At the outset it seems like Davis and Isabella Gardner are separated by differences of space, time and cultural heritage. But Davis explains that she, like Gardner, has been fortunate enough to pursue her artistic passions.

A hundred years apart, the two art lovers have walked the halls of the museum finding inspiration in the most unlikely of places. “I spent 20 minutes looking at nails with someone yesterday,” Davis says. “From the smallest to the larger, more obvious things, there is passion and beauty expressed.”

No matter what her programming ends up looking like, Davis wants to bring the audiences most in need of artistic healing into the space. She says, “If we can keep finding the place in us that is curious, that is not yet broken and exhausted by the world we live in at this moment, there is a larger experience to be had. And I want to do that with people here.”

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