Anne Hawley is the former director of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, MA and a Spring 2016 Fellow at the Harvard Institute of Politics.
Read here for an abridged excerpt of the interview:
Harvard Political Review: I would like to start talking about a really recent development. The mayor of Boston has introduced a new artist-in-residence program here in Boston, in which local artists are going to be integrated into city departments to foster creativity and innovative approaches to public policy issues. Since you have supported and promoted such initiatives throughout your whole career, what is your opinion on this new program?
Anne Hawley: Well, I think it’s a very exciting development. Now, this Mayor Walsh, actually his election was boosted by the arts community, because an organization called Mass Creative, which is a lobbying organization for the arts in the state of Massachusetts really turned out people to hear him talk and asked him questions about what he would do to further the arts in Boston. So, he has been very tuned to the need to have leadership in the arts in his administration. Early in his administration, he appointed a commissioner of the arts, Julie Burros, and she’s been working on a larger plan for the city to integrate the arts much more in public policy…. I think having an artist in a public agency will actually ask a lot of questions and make people think differently about the way they are delivering services. You know, years ago, the man who founded the Polaroid cooperation here, which is now long gone, would bring in major artists like Ansel Adams and have them play with his products to ask questions about them. So, I think that having a creative person that is engaged in using their imagination look at what we are doing can freshen our thinking about how we are going about services. It will be interesting to see what happens! Maybe the snow removal will even become artistic!
HPR: That would be great! So, relating to this artist-in-residence idea, you have introduced an artist-in-residence program at the Isabella Stewart Gardeners Museum, where artists come to live and work at the museum to draw inspiration from it and inspire others. Would you like to tell us something about that?
AH: Yes, right. Well, most of my professional life I’ve worked with artists, and this program was an extension of the work I had done before with artists. Our curator really travels the world, looking for people who are very talented, who may not be that well known yet but could benefit from a month of just thinking, dreaming, and getting support for what they want to do. We have had such an amazing array of artists from Wales who used grass to make their imagery…. They would grow the grass on campuses and then through light exposure make their images, and when you stood far away, you thought that it was actually paint. It was so beautifully done. So, from that extreme to people who have worked on compositions, dance, fashion design, a great body of arts has come from this program.
HPR: Talking about inspiration from different fields of study and different professions, now you are here, as a resident fellow at the IOP and as an artist who has worked at a museum. In your role at the IOP, you will lead multiple seminars – what do you think you want to inspire people here to do?
AH: Well, I would really like to inspire students who are planning on going into government service, running agencies, or being thinkers who develop public policies, to incorporate the arts much more into civic life. There has been too much of a pullback on the arts being integrated into our life, whether it’s removing them from the public school curricula or keeping people from developing their talents. So, from public education to our cities and the way we design public spaces that make for a more humane environment…. The arts are so integral to the shaping of everything we do as people. Yet, we really pulled back on educating people in the arts in America and making them a part of our lives. So I’m hoping to awaken people to the possibilities of that.
HPR: How about political life as part of the arts? Artists are risking becoming targets for censorship or even the destruction of their work. Looking at our world today, can you tell us about a particular case in which you think arts had a huge impact on politics?
AH: For one seminar, I’m bringing Johann Grimonprez, a filmmaker who has spent much of the last ten years of his life making documentaries that try to expose the international arms trade, the corruption and freewheeling of governments and arms dealers, and the creation of what he calls the perpetual war. Through his filmmaking, he’s trying to challenge this practice…. Artists trying to reflect truth to political regimes is something that has been, in many countries, very important. But there is also the fact that regimes use artists. For example, Hitler used Leni Riefenstahl to make films that glorified him, which we are still looking at and debating when propaganda is actually art. Stalin also harnessed artists for his will, and we now look at the whole Soviet Realism genre as propaganda…. But I think more often what we think of is artists bringing down regimes. Certainly even in Egypt, the street art that arose during the Arab Spring was quite remarkable, and exhibitions have been done on the street art in Cairo.
HPR: So, those are global instances of artists changing world politics. Have you ever personally experienced any instances in which artists were threatened by censorship?
AH: Oh yes. And in fact often, in the roles I have been in, you have to stand up for the freedom of expression in this country. You cannot let it pass…. I think that self-censorship is also a problem because institutions and museums don’t want to have big donors remove their funding or artists due to a fear of their work being censored. We feel that there is kind of tameness in what’s going on, because we are self-censoring ourselves. We’re not as out there as we were in previous times. When the Berlin Wall came down and when the Communist party in the USSR collapsed, the forces in the West that were fighting “communism” really turned their fight to contemporary artists. There was a period of about a decade where there was just horrendous conflict between the National Endowment for the Arts and Congress, which has had the effect of weakening the National Endowment for the Arts and its funding has been for 20 years.
HPR: Luckily there are artists that are challenging censorship, and we all know the case of Ai Weiwei in China. Very recently, he covered a concert hall in Berlin with 14,000 discarded life vests to raise awareness of the refugee crisis and protest governments’ responses to it. In social media, he has been attacked for using this context for self-proliferation since the situation is already receiving extensive media coverage. What is your opinion on that?
AH: I think Ai Weiwei is very important–you know, he was not in China, he was in New York during the hard times–China in the 1990s, Tiananmen Square. He was not part of the artists in China that struggled and who broke through this impasse and got to a point where there was more freedom of expression. He was not part of the group that struggled. He is very much in tune with the Zeitgeist, he really does feel that and I think he is very facile about making images that are shocking and grab attention. You know, I think it’s mixed.
HPR: Alright, I want to come back to some more happy themes in the arts. For example, what are your plans for the time after the fellowship? Can you see yourself maybe continuing to work in education?
AH: You know, one of the things that I am hoping to do here is spend some time thinking and talking to people about what I do next, because I love working with artists and seeing projects come from them that connect to people and make them think differently. I’m not sure if there is a way to do that going forward because it’s hard not being attached to an institution, although there are a lot of freelance people that do it. I’m also thinking about the possibility of doing part-time teaching and bringing students into contact with the artistic process because I think there is just something so exhilarating about helping things be born–new ideas, new forms, new ways of looking at the world.
HPR: So you think you can maybe inspire people at Harvard, and the IOP can inspire you.
AH: I think so. (laughs) I hope so. I know the IOP is inspiring me, and I hope I can inspire people.
HPR: So, I have one last question for you which is for the students that are going to watch this video. We don’t really get off campus as often as we want to. If we happen to wander into the Isabella Stewart Gardeners Museum, do you have any recommendations?
AH: Yes! First of all, when you go there, if you can let yourself just drift and sit in the courtyard, let yourself experience the beauty of the garden, the ancient sculptures, and the Venice architecture. It’s a place you’re supposed to feel rather than think. The founder was actually quite a genius because she was trying to sell a way in which people could experience their senses outside of an analytic mode of judgment, quantifying, and categorizing. I mean, when people go to museums and think they have to look at everything, it’s crazy. When you go to a library, you don’t think you have to read every book (laughs). If you’re looking at a painting or a sculpture, you could spend an hour just looking at one thing if you’re really, really looking at it. And so I encourage people to just pick a few things to look at, talk to, and let speak to you.
Media source: Peter Wright