During his 1999 residency, Lee Mingwei devoted his time at the Museum to experiencing the galleries and courtyard, as well as looking through archival materials. Early on, Lee became interested in the role that Isabella Gardner played as a hostess and an interpreter of her collection. He made repeated visits to archives where he researched letters, looked at photographs, and at music programs. He also examined her travel albums, guest books, and Asian textiles.
The Living Room was conceived as a result of Mingwei’s residency at the Museum. The piece was his response to Gardner’s love of entertaining, collecting, and her desire to foster intimate interactions with art. In February 2000, the Special Exhibition gallery was filled with furnishings, plants, live birds, and refreshments with the intent of giving visitors the opportunity to participate in a process of exchange and hospitality, which he determined to be a vital part of life at Fenway Court during Gardner’s lifetime.
For several days, Mingwei shared objects in the The Living Room that were special to him. Acting the part of the host, he invited visitors and staff to spend time in the room, relaxing and discussing the articles on display, sharing personal experiences, musing on new and old aesthetics, and on the values reflected in the Museum. On the remaining days, Lee invited volunteers to participate in the project and become hosts of The Living Room themselves. They came from many walks of life—staff at the Museum, members of the Governance Board, past Artists-in-Residence, teachers and students—all of whom had a significant relationship with the Museum. Thirty-two individuals were chosen from a lottery system to bring in objects that meant something special to them. Over the course of two days, each acting Host talked with visitors about the Museum and about the significance of the objects they had chosen to share. Hosts brought bones, shopping bags, games, textiles, pencils, CDs, and works of art. Some changed the space into a temporary art studio and others spoke about personal experiences, or about their family histories.
In March 2000, Mingwei worked with fifteen 10th graders from the Boston Arts Academy who visited The Living Room to observe and reflect on the installation. While in the gallery, they wrote a journal of their thoughts, ideas, and the questions they wanted to ask the artist. Back in class after a series of discussions and workshops, the students designed and later constructed a bedroom and garden area in the Museum gallery in which they incorporated their artwork, personal items, and their collections. Lee also worked with 20 children from a Kindergarten at the Mission Hill School. The class had been talking about the meaning of objects. The students visited with Mingwei in the The Living Room and in the classroom to discuss what personal objects mean, why people care about them, and what they tell us about ourselves, and others.
Because of the deep impact The Living Room exhibition had on the museum in 2000, Lee Mingwei was invited back to collaborate on Gardner Museum’s new building project and to help design a room inspired by his project. Staffed by volunteers, this space promotes conversation and reflection, as well as helps visitors answer any questions they may come with, and inspire new ones. Similar to his exhibition, guest hosts are invited on two days a week to bring personal objects and connect with visitors through personal stories. Since the launch of our new wing, Lee has returned numerous times to talk about his work and the Living Room Project to future hosts. Since the beginning of the project, 370 people have hosted in the Living Room.