Helga Davis recently took over as the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s visiting curator of performing arts. For the current season of programming, Davis invited artists from all walks of life to collaborate, even joining in to perform original works. We caught up with the actress/singer to chat about her artistic beginnings and fusing different mediums.
How did you get your start in the arts? That happened very early. I had my first piano teacher when I was 5 or 6 years old. … I began to study with her, and she remained my friend until she died at 93. She was my introduction to the arts and she said to me from the very beginning, “All music is your music.” And I feel like that’s an attitude that I’m carrying forward to the Gardner. Not only is all music my music, but then it would naturally follow that all art is my art, and that all art belongs to each of us, and that the art in the Gardner is certainly for the people who are regular members and attenders now of the museum, but also those in the surrounding communities who maybe don’t go to the Gardner. I think that my work there now is to extend my hand to them and say, “Hey, I’m here. You come here, too.”
What is the most challenging part of combining mediums? I don’t see it as a challenge. It’s all one breath, all from the same one artistic source. I think you run into trouble when you try to separate it, as if visual art can’t inspire a musical, a movement, a text. For me, it’s all really one thing. I’m not trying to leave any of the things that I do, or any parts of myself, behind in service of making programming for the Gardner. I’m instead learning to understand how everything I do can be influenced by all the elements of the Gardner.
How do you translate visual art into live performance pieces? You just get inspired and look at a thing and think, “Well, how is this relevant to me now?” I don’t think the conversation ends on the canvas and, in the same way one could be inspired by a beautiful sunset or a beautiful sunrise, that you can look at a painting and say, “Wow, well if these are the seeds of Western culture here, how am I also part of this conversation?”