Published: November 30, 2010
“Today we celebrate one of the greatest cultural initiatives in the American arts ever,” Malcolm Rogers, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), told the supporters who gathered for the dedication of the museum’s new Art of the Americas Wing on November 12.
Had Rogers likened the wing’s completion to the building of the pyramids, he would have been off only by degree. The $504 million project †which included $345 million for construction and renovation, plus $159 million for endowment †took more than a decade to complete and employed 600 people. Augmented by 72,000 square feet of glass, 2,050 tons of steel and 17,200 tons of concrete, the new MFA is larger than the Prado Museum in Madrid and approaches the size of the Louvre in Paris.
It is hard to imagine a project of this scale getting off the ground in today’s post-bubble economy, which makes its completion all the more triumphant. The new MFA confirms the determination and leadership of Rogers, a man known for his strong views and firm will, and the sustained commitment of his board of trustees.
If the expansion is bold, the decision to merge ancient through contemporary art in all media from North, Central and South America is more audacious. Enhanced by a glass courtyard with soaring 63-foot ceilings that is sure to be a public draw, the tasteful new wing is an instant landmark. The wisdom and influence of its curatorial choices will be felt over time.
The new Art of the Americas addition is the work of Foster + Partners, the London-based architectural firm headed by Norman Foster, perhaps best known as the creator of the dazzling Beijing Airport, whose snaking, vermillion form suggests a giant dragon.
“Each generation makes its contribution. It is the layering of history and variety that makes it interesting,” Lord Foster said of the new MFA, emphasizing the humility and caution with which he and an architectural team headed by Spencer de Grey and Michael Jones approached the assignment. Foster + Partner’s brief was to design a structure that fit harmoniously into the existing cityscape, was inviting to the public and hospitable to the museum’s collections. The planners gave special consideration to Guy Lowell (1870‱927), the Boston architect who completed the museum’s Beaux Arts-style headquarters on Huntington Avenue between 1909 and 1915.
“To look forward you have to look far back at Lowell’s original plan. His design had a strong north-south axis and a complementary east-west axis. Over the years, it had been tilted to the west. What we did was a rebalancing act,” Foster explained.
Located to the east of the museum along Forsyth Way, the 121,307-square-foot addition consists of a central tower wrapped in an envelope of glass walkways and flanked by twin pavilions that are partially constructed of the same Deer Isle, Maine, granite used in the Lowell original. Modernist in sensibility, the new wing conforms in scale but strips away the old museum’s neoclassical flourishes.
Elliot Bostwick Davis, who joined the MFA in 2001 as the John Moors Cabot chair of the art of the Americas department, oversaw the installation of the galleries from conception to completion and developed a companion catalog to serve as its guide. Both seek a broader, more inclusive view of New World art and design, one in which the cultural conversation is deepened by exhibiting fine and decorative arts together.
“People want a sense of timeline and expect art history to unfold before them,” said Davis, who worked from the bottom up. Her chronological layering begins on ground level with ancient art and culminates three flights up with contemporary art and design.
Like blank canvas, new space allowed the curatorial team to take a fresh look at the museum’s collections. Despite having 5,000 artworks to place, the 53 galleries are concise, well-edited and striking in their visual juxtapositions. There are nine period rooms, two of which are new. Elsewhere, planners made clever use of compact but densely appointed vignettes meant to suggest Aesthetic and Modernist interiors. Promising not to upstage the collection, the architects provided an understated backdrop of stone, glass, steel and oak, which exhibit designers dressed up with a profusion of silks, papers, paints and architectural fragments meant to evoke period style.
The most elaborate suite of rooms is a parlor, dining room and bedroom from Oak Hill, the Federal mansion in nearby Danvers, that Samuel McIntire created for Elizabeth Derby West. The MFA first displayed the rooms in 1928. The revised installation †which showcases furniture by McIntire, John and Thomas Seymour and John Doggett †provides greater views of masterpieces, such as the famous McIntire chest-on-chest with allegorical pediment that Maxim Karolik donated in 1941.
A flurry of new acquisitions, from porcelain and pewter to a labeled Cornelius Briggs extension dining table of circa 1843-45, accompanied the first-time installation of the Roswell Gleason parlor and dining room, acquired by the MFA in 1977. Gleason (1799‱887) was an affluent manufacturer of pewter and silver plate. The rooms, interpreted to the mid-Nineteenth Century, contain a mix of classical, Gothic and Rococo Revival designs. A related gallery devoted to the Gothic Revival and American landscape painting includes another new acquisition, a labeled J. & J.W. Meeks desk and bookcase with classical and Gothic elements.
Mindful of Boston’s place in history, the planners arranged for “Eighteenth Century Boston” †known informally as the “Wow” gallery †to be the first room visitors encounter if entering the wing from the Shapiro Courtyard. As a gathering of Boston’s Revolutionary War elite, whose high-style portraits and furnishings line the room’s red-flocked walls, the gallery is unsurpassed in its power to evoke the past. At its center is John Singleton Copley’s portrait of Paul Revere, accompanied by Revere’s engraved silver Sons of Liberty bowl, both of 1768.
Immediately to the gallery’s rear is “Arts of the New Nation: 1800‱830,” showcasing “The Passage of the Delaware,” Thomas Sully’s monumental 1819 portrait of Washington on horseback. The canvas, the first artwork to be installed in the new wing last February, has been reunited with its original Doggett frame, which was discovered in storage in pieces. Both were conserved for the opening.
One floor above, “Eighteenth Century Boston,” a subsequent generation of Boston Brahmins, crowds a gallery devoted to John Singer Sargent. “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit,” Sargent’s 1882 nod to Velasquez’s “Las Meninas,” springs to life with the adjacent placement of the actual Japanese Arita porcelain depicted in the portrait. The 74-inch-tall vases were given to the museum in 1997.
Adjoining Sargent is the “The Aesthetic Movement” gallery, featuring a trio of dramatically backlit Tiffany glass windows. The most arresting of the three, “Parakeets and Goldfish Bowl,” which dates to about 1893, is a recent gift from the collectors Barbara and Theodore Alfond in honor of Malcolm Rogers.
The new wing affords the opportunity to show off 500 new acquisitions and 175 loans scattered throughout four floors. On Level LG, in the Edward and Nancy Roberts Family Gallery, organizers have mounted a rotating display of colonial Boston embroidery, which continues with substitutions through 2012. Three floors above, Jazz Age design gets a fine retelling in the lively presentation of the John Axelrod Collection, a promised gift to the museum.
If the new wing falls short in any way, it is in its promise to be encyclopedic, a pledge that no museum can fulfill. Overall, the new MFA is a marvel, a reminder first and last of Boston’s intellectual vigor and reserved self-assurance over four centuries.
“It is one thing to call yourself Art of the Americas, but you have to be it, too. Aside from scale, one challenge was making acquisitions while we were in the midst of a large building project,” Davis acknowledged. Though welcome, a new gallery devoted to Native American art from the United States and Canada from ancient times to the present offers little more than a quick overview. Spanish and French colonial artifacts from what is now the United States are missing, a deficit partially offset by an imaginative gallery of pre-1900 Latin American art that is mostly from Mexico and Venezuela. Recently purchased from New York dealer Carlton Hobbs, an inlaid and engraved writing desk from Oaxaca, circa 1650‱700, is a highlight.
Edited by Elliot B. Davis, Erica E. Hirshler and Gerald W.R. Ward, A New World Imagined assembles 200 works of art from the MFA, including paintings, sculpture and furniture. Taking the diversity of the Americas as its starting point, it explores the ways in which American art has been shaped both by its encounters with cultures around the globe and by its own past. The 350-page book features approximately 300 color images and will be available for $60 at the MFA Bookstore.
The new Art of the Americas Wing is only the beginning for the MFA, which looks to complete renovations to its galleries for Egyptian and European art in 2011. Devoted to contemporary art, the Linde Family Wing will also open in 2011 in 1981 premises designed by I.M. Pei. Additionally, the MFA has commissioned Beha Architects, Inc, to renovate adjacent facilities acquired in 2007 to create a study center.
The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is at 465 Huntington Avenue. For information, 617-267-9300 or www.mfa.org .
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