Over the past 30 years, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum has collaborated with scores of individual artists through its residency program, forging ties with an international crew that includes writers, dancers, musicians, and visual artists, to name a few.
Now the museum is building on that legacy with The Theater Offensive, a Boston-based theater company focused on issues affecting queer and trans people of color, creating the museum’s inaugural “Community Organization-in-Residence.” The cross-institutional collaboration, funded by a $320,000 grant from the Barr Foundation, will seek to harness performing and visual arts to highlight LGBTQ experiences amid a rise nationally in anti-trans sentiment.
Gardner director Peggy Fogelman said that while details of the partnership are still being worked out, she anticipates Gardner staff will work closely with their Theater Offensive colleagues on a variety of projects during the residency, which runs through the end of next summer.
“It’s very open-ended,” said Fogelman, who expressed confidence the partnership would extend beyond the formal term. “We just want to build a mutual learning community. We want to understand how we can be helpful to the trans community in Boston, how the museum can be a safe, welcoming, and inspiring place where people can gather without fear, without prejudice.”
To that end, the organizations are hosting their first roundtable next month to discuss concerns of Boston’s queer and trans community. Over the coming year, The Theater Offensive will also play a major role in developing interpretation and programming for next summer’s “On Christopher Street,” an exhibition featuring portraits of transgender people in New York’s Greenwich Village by photographer Mark Seliger.
Photographer Hakeem Adewumi, creative designer for The Theater Offensive, will also be an artist-in-residence this summer, when he’s scheduled to create a facade project that coincides with the Christopher Street exhibition.
Harold Steward, executive director of The Theater Offensive, said themes and projects would likely emerge as the two organizations learned more about one another, calling the collaboration a “harvest partnership,” which he described as “not transactional.”
“Harvest partnerships are deeply relational; they typically have multiple years, because it allows for a lot of time and discovery for both entities,” said Steward. “What do we have? What do we think that we do well? If you think about the harvest, or any kind of harvest festival, different people grow different crops, but they bring them together so the community can be fed.”
The Theater Offensive, which presents a variety of workshops, trainings, and theatrical pieces meant to uplift queer and trans people of color, will likely “merge” some of its own ongoing programs with the Gardner as well, said Tonasia Jones, the group’s director of programs.
“How do we bring both of our artistry together to show a different trans-media kind of work,” said Jones, who added that the Gardner had already been exploring some of these questions before the pandemic. “Now we are expanding upon, and it’s things that we have been doing since birth, being a queer organization and working in multiple disciplines.”
Steward, who is stepping down at the end of the month to become executive director of the New England Foundation for the Arts, said the pandemic laid bare the importance of “brick and mortar” institutions. He added that while The Theater Offensive is in the midst of a capital campaign for a dedicated space of its own, he and Fogelman began talking about some sort of collaboration during the pandemic, which he described as a wake-up call for arts organizations.
“It really was this call to action for arts leaders to put our heads together and say, we want to be more inclusive, more equitable, more relevant,” he said. “How do we really lean into that interdependence?”