By John Paul Stapleton
Boston, MA – In 1999, Lee Mingwei had his first solo residency at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum putting on what he calls, “the Living Room Project” where a host can bring their collection and give a presentation about it.
Now, the Gardner has a room specifically designed as a Living Room for his project and he recently returned to recruit new hosts to show off their collections.
The idea came about just after Mingwei graduated from his MFA program at Yale in 1997 and was featured in a show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City a year later. Jen Gross, the Gardner’s contemporary curator at the time, came to Mingwei after seeing his work in this show and asked him to be a resident artist.
After proposing and deciding against his first idea, Mingwei got inspired to make the Living Room Project happen by hanging out with the staff and around Ms. Gardner’s collection.
He eventually developed the idea that he would set up a room that a staff member could host for two days that housed their personal collection, and they would present it almost in a show and tell fashion.
“What I mean by collection is these personal objects that are most important to you,” Mingwei said in a recent interview before giving a talk at the Gardner.
These collections have no limit though; as long as they can fit into the space, they could be absolutely anything.
“Someone brought his mother as his collection,” Mingwei said. “She loved to talk and she loved to talk about her son.”
Collections will often be interactive, too, such as the time a host brought 20 metronomes and placed them on a table next to each other. Mingwei said people would touch the metronomes to set them off and have them all going at different tempos.
The point of these collections comes down to telling something about the host, whether it be anecdotal or a full narrative.
“These objects elicit stories,” Mingwei said.
As for the Living Room itself, there is a general set of guidelines the space has to meet. It always has to be a warm space and one that is infused with natural light. The furniture can be picked by whoever is the curator in the museum but one constant thing décor-wise is that there must always be a live canary present.
When the Gardner was constructing the new museum building, Mingwei was consulted on the design and his main variation on the Living Room guidelines was that he wanted the old museum building and the garden to be easily visible.
Now, Mingwei comes back five or six times a year to give a talk about the project and to find new hosts. It is open to anyone, not just artists or staff members of the museum. His idea is to keep it as open as possible for everyone who would want to share their collection. Since the new space in the Gardner opened, they’ve had over 180 hosts from all backgrounds.
“Hosts got so excited, they started inviting everyone,” Mingwei said. “It was everybody. It was everyone and anyone.”
Not only is this project prevalent at the Gardner, but the Living Room project has been held in six countries around the world giving many more people a chance to share their stories.
“Every one of us has such a beautiful and unique story,” Mingwei said. “The Living Room Project is meant to be a space to share these stories with the community.”