Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, MA
Since the death of its eponymous founder in 1924, Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum hasn't moved a muscle. As per the stipulations of Gardner's will, the Raphaels and John Singer Sargents hang just where she left them. The sculptures haven't budged. Nor has the vase of dried thistle. Even the spots on the gallery wall left empty in a notorious (and unsolved) 1990 heist remain blank.
In other words, the Gardner is about the last place you'd expect to be posting big numbers in new media. But last September, this little time capsule, filled with ornate tapestries and antimacassars, began offering free podcasts of its classical concert series. From September to October, it chalked up some 40,500 downloads from 83 countries, making it one of the most popular classical podcasts to date.
Scott Nickrenz, the 69-year-old music director at the Gardner, has directed concerts there for the past 16 years. Until last year, he'd never heard of a podcast, let alone listened to one. "The young staff started whispering in my ear: 'There is something called an iPod,'" Nickrenz says. "But of course, I wouldn't know an iPod if it bit me."
Even if Nickrenz remains puzzled at the "small white things" he spots in joggers' ears and has yet to acquire an email address, he has been producing classical concerts for radio for 40 years. "When I learned that there was an addition to radio—new ways to spread the message of classical music and young artists—I became obsessed," he says. "We're aiming at a young audience, and there is a lot of very cool classical music out there that needs to be heard."
To get the program off the ground, Nickrenz enlisted Charlotte Landrum, 23, now podcast project manager, to coordinate artists and a crew of legal and tech people. They placed the series—called "The Concert," in a nod to Vermeer's painting—under the Creative Commons "Share Music" license, which allows it to be reproduced and redistributed freely on the Internet. (As Gardner's lawyer, Phil Malone, explains, three different copyrights are typically involved when sharing music online: The musicians who record the performance, the composer, and the music publisher must all give license approval. Of course, a dead composer makes the process that much easier.) The programs are available via iTunes and the museum's Web site.
"For people who are dipping their toes in the water with classical music, the Internet can be a much friendlier place than a record store," Landrum says. And "The Concert" is all the more significant given the museum's otherwise fixed space. "Because the will stipulates that things in the museum can't change," she adds, "online programming has the potential to be very important because it's the kind of green space that we can turn into anything."
And they've already turned it into something incredibly successful. "For this genre, 40,000 [downloads] a month is phenomenal," says Aaron Burcell, director of communications at PodShow, a leading national source for podcast statistics and information. Classical music shows typically generate between 5,000 and 10,000 downloads per month, he says, so "when you see such high numbers at a small nonprofit museum like this, you know it's the content that's driving the popularity, not the brand."
While a number of major museums offer music programs, most have been slow to see the Web as an additional infinite gallery for patrons. London's Tate Modern launched its program, Tate Tracks, a couple of weeks before the Gardner (it streams work inspired by pieces in the museum) but hasn't even tallied the public's response.
Meanwhile, as the Gardner continues its virtual expansion, it's exposing a younger generation to a fading genre. "Many young people haven't had access to music and arts education," says Cathy Deely, the museum's director of marketing. "People are drowning in popular culture. And while there is unlimited space on the Internet, people in museums aren't quite sure how to translate this into something good. But with music, it's very easy."
Surprisingly, the Gardner's program is opening the eyes of an older generation as well. Kati Mitchell, 60, press director at Boston's American Repertory Theatre, regularly attends the concerts and gives the museum credit for pushing her to open up the iPod she'd had for six months. "The fact that concerts like this are out there in the ether is changing the way people like me enjoy art," Mitchell says. "All the white-haired people you see attending concerts are going to be gone soon. Things like [podcasts] will keep the music alive."
That's just the way Isabella would have wanted it. After all, she hosted musicians from the Boston Symphony Orchestra on the day the museum opened, New Year's Day, 1903. As Nickrenz explains, "When people hear 'I don't want anyone to move my pictures,' it seems like [the museum] is in a straightjacket. But this place was—and is—nothing but light, movement, dancers, composers, music, literature, and discussion."
So far, the Gardner has created six podcasts with musicians from all over the world. And Nickrenz has added a new title to his business card: podcast curator. He plans to continue recording and streaming Gardner concerts for years to come, spreading what he calls the "virus Mozart."
A version of this article appeared in the February 2007 issue of Fast Company magazine.