A docent in the Yale Center for British Art tapped Lee Pelton on the shoulder and handed him a box of tissues. The president of The Boston Foundation had been moved to tears observing an exhibit titled Lynching Tree (2013) by Steve McQueen.
For several weeks, the experience stayed with Pelton. He wanted to bring it to Boston.
He noted that the title of the exhibit is not “The Lynching Tree”, but rather “Lynching Tree" — a symbolic representation of the terror of lynching, which claimed the lives of almost 4,500 Black Americans from 1877-1950 in the years after the Civil War.
“I was really overcome with grief and a kind of horrific pain," Pelton said of the exhibit Tuesday on Boston Public Radio. "What it represented for me is the way in which history, particularly of Black Americans, is hidden."
Pelton said he thought the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum was the best place to "recreate the experience that I had with its intimacy.”
“This is a continuation of the kind of work that the Gardner has been doing over the past few years," Fogelman said. "Our exhibitions are built on the premise that art has something really important to say about the issues that face us today.”
The museum usually plans out exhibits 3 to 5 years in advance but made an exception.
“We could wait five years and give it the normal exhibition full run, which is three months, or we could do it now and have a shorter run. And it seemed to both of us really important to do it now,” Fogelman said.
The timing of the exhibit also coincides with the ten-year anniversary of McQueen's Academy Award for "12 Years a Slave" and the 50th anniversary of the desegregation crisis in Boston schools. It also marks the second time the photograph will be displayed in an American museum, following its initial showcase at Yale.
Steve McQueen's preference for displaying Lynching Tree on its own will be honored by its placement in the Fenway Gallery. Both Pelton and Fogelman said they are eager to witness Boston's response to the exhibit, anticipating not only a deep emotional response from visitors but also a collective confrontation with the "ugly and horrific truths" the work represents.
“That's the only way we can move forward,” Fogelman said.
Tickets are available at https://www.gardnermuseum.org/calendar/steve-mcqueen-lynching-tree.