"POETS, prophets, and reformers are all picture-makers--and this ability is the secret of their power and of their achievements. They see what ought to be by the reflection of what is, and endeavor to remove the contradiction," wrote abolitionist Frederick Douglass in the essay, "Pictures and Progress."
How do pictures illustrate the conditions in our city now, and inspire us to improve them for the future? "Big Plans: Picturing Social Reform" examines the role of visual images in supporting progressive social reform in Boston, Chicago, and New York in the late 1800s and early 1900s--specifically, large-format urban plan drawings and small-format documentary street photographs. The exhibition considers the urban planning proposals developed in the service of social reform by Frederick Law Olmsted and Charles Eliot in relation to the political picture-making of Lewis Wickes Hine and the cultural place-making of Isabella Stewart Gardner.
"Big Plans" presents the invention of landscape architecture as a response to the social and environmental situation of working-class immigrants in the industrial metropolis and reconsiders the role of artists and cultural producers in addressing the social and environmental challenges of the contemporary city.
Olmsted (1822-1903) was a landscape architect, journalist, and progressive social reformer who believed in the power of parks as vehicles for urban improvement. His early work as a journalist influenced his lifelong pursuit of social reform. In the 1850s, he traveled the American South writing about the conditions of enslaved African-Americans. He published his chronicles about the slave economy in The Cotton Kingdom: A Traveler's Observations on Cotton and Slavery in the American Slave States.
In 1857, Olmsted accepted a civil service position as superintendent of a newly proposed "central park" in New York. In that role, he entered a competition for the park's design, which he won with architect Calvert Vaux.
In 1883, Olmsted moved to Brookline, Mass., where his firm designed the Arnold Arboretum, the Back Bay Fens, and the Emerald Necklace park system. His practice went on to design influential public park projects across North America.
Gardner (1840-1924) was a visionary collector who believed in the power of art to change people's lives. While living in Boston's Back Bay in the 1880s, she and her husband Jack took extended trips to Europe and Asia, where she started collecting artworks and gained inspiration, especially from Venice, Italy.
Based partly on their experience of travel, the Gardners committed to building a public museum to encourage personal encounters with art as a means to improve society. Following Jack's death in 1898, Isabella was one of the first to purchase land in the new Back Bay Fens district designed by Olmsted and, in 1903, she opened her namesake museum. In addition to endowing it, she was an advocate and substantial contributor to a range of social and urban reform causes, sponsoring a tenement garden contest and fundraising for the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.