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The Boston Globe

Arts

11/14/2010

Malcolm in the middle

MFA director Malcolm Rogers immersed himself in the museum’s expansion. And for him, no detail was too small.

The museum director walked into the gallery and put his hands on his hips. Malcolm Rogers appeared deep in thought as installers, wearing gloves, delicately moved a 17th-century writing cabinet decorated with detailed engravings into place. This room, featuring Mexican and Spanish works, was one of 53 galleries in the Museum of Fine Arts’ new Art of the Americas Wing.

Above the desk, the installers had hung four 18th-century Mexican oil paintings, and to the left, they placed a period wooden chair from Venezuela. When they walked away, Rogers turned to the museum’s head designer, Keith Crippen, and asked what he thought of the wall.

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“I was thinking of moving the paintings down a bit,” said Crippen.

“Yes,” said Rogers, making it clear he agreed and was pleased to have solicited a concurring opinion first from one of his department heads. “I would say 3 inches. Just to anchor them a little bit more on the cabinet.”

Then he turned his attention to the chair. He wanted it scooched a bit closer to the desk and “about 3 degrees clockwise.”

The gloved workers stepped in to rearrange the works as Rogers, in a tailored gray suit, waited with Crippen. When they were finished, the director smiled and clapped his hands. “That’s one wall done,” he said.

During his 16 years as the MFA’s director, Rogers has not always treaded so softly. He overhauled the staff, pushing out longtime curators. He organized controversial exhibitions and brokered unconventional loans of MFA works that made him a target for art-world purists. About 10 years ago he started building support for an expansion, and he raised $504 million for the MFA’s new wing. That’s in a city that had previously never supported a cultural campaign of even half that sum.

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These days, though, Rogers isn’t looking to shake up Boston. He’s obsessed with inches, degrees, and the colors of wall coverings.

“I’m going to be judged by how the galleries look,” Rogers said on a recent October afternoon. “I want to feel some personal stamp on it. Plus I’ve been at this for 10 years. I want a bit of fun as well.”

Most days start this way for Rogers, 62: He wakes in his Brookline home at 5 a.m., throws on his sweats, and heads to Gold’s Gym in Needham. After a shower and a quick stop at Dunkin Donuts (skim-milk latte, cinnamon raisin bagel), Rogers arrives at the MFA. It is usually around 8 o’clock.

Days are filled by meetings with board members, architects, curators. But first thing, Rogers makes sure to walk through the galleries. It’s a routine he started in January when installation began of works in the new wing — more than 5,000 pieces, ranging from an ancient Olmec mask to paintings from the 1980s. The wing opens to the public Nov. 20.

“There’s no great system to it, except I generally know where people are working,” he said of the installation process. “Every day something new has arrived.”

The staff has grown accustomed to drop-ins by their neatly tailored boss. They also say they appreciate his interest.

“We can talk with him. He’s reasonable,” said Crippen. “You can sway his opinion, for sure. But ultimately he’s the final decider.”

That authority also means that in his daily rounds, Rogers feels free to make suggestions, no matter how exacting. Displeased with the frames on a trio of British portraits, he had them removed — and the paintings, too. He and Crippen went together to the London-based company hired to create the wall fabric meant for two gallery walls. And everywhere, no detail is too small. During a walk through a gallery devoted to art and design from the 1940s and ’50s, Rogers noticed a group of pineapple-shaped orange plastic cups. In a move of curatorial whimsy, he had a cup removed from the set and placed nearby on a table next to an Eames lounge chair.

“Whether it’s accurate to say one would use a plastic cup indoors with the [chair] or not, more importantly it does cause people to look,” said Elliot Bostwick Davis, chair of the Art of the Americas department. “It becomes a bit of a visual joke.”

Some suggestions are more significant. In a gallery featuring the work of Thomas Cole and Frederic Church, installers had placed a towering desk in a central position. Rogers asked to see if a painting, Cole’s “Sunset in the Catskills,” could be hung over the furniture.

“Everybody was sort of scratching their heads and saying, ‘It’s going to look terrible above a piece of furniture,’ ” remembered Crippen.

But they did what Rogers asked, and in the end, the idea worked, Crippen said.

“By this point, I pretty much trust his eye,” Crippen noted. “Even though he hasn’t been in the trenches doing exhibitions for years, he’s really shown he’s got the capacity for stuff you wouldn’t think was his expertise.”

Sixteen years have passed since Rogers arrived in Boston. He took over a museum struggling to balance its budget and, in many minds, stay relevant in the city. With a flair for the dramatic, Rogers organized the first solo museum show featuring the work of Herb Ritts, provoking snickers from some critics who questioned the artistic value of the celebrity photographer. Rogers watched as buzz grew.

“I really wanted to make people sit up and say, ‘This museum’s changing.’ It isn’t so stuffy. With Ritts, I was out to wake people up.”

Rogers had come from England, where he had been passed over for the top job at the National Portrait Gallery. In the States, he would be viewed as an outsider, a virtual unknown who immediately shook up the museum staff. Few curators now remain from those days. In many cases, those veteran staffers have been replaced with younger people who Rogers thought would grow into their roles. Two of his favorite hires have been deputy director Katherine Getchell (hired as an exhibitions assistant at 21 in 1992, installed as deputy director at 28) and contemporary-art curator Jen Mergel (33 when hired).

Over time, the director has immersed himself in every aspect of the MFA, nurturing friendships with the museum’s biggest donors and, in 2003, becoming an American citizen. (He maintains British citizenship, too.) He has seen attendance climb. Before he arrived, it had hovered around 925,000 per year. During his tenure, it has been as high as 1.5 million, and most years it has been above 1 million.

Rogers says he never felt he had anything to prove. Still, he does think of his critics, who also lambasted him for his decision to rent MFA Monets to a Las Vegas casino art gallery and to host a solo show devoted to the collection of blustery donor William I. Koch. The latter venture included putting Koch’s racing yachts on the museum’s lawn.

Does Rogers view the MFA’s new wing as a chance to redeem himself with those critics?

“I would like them to know the same man responsible for this project is responsible for the other things they were not that keen on,” he said. “I’m not very keen on the notion of ‘Some things belong in a museum and some things don’t.’ Why is it not controversial that the Museum of Modern Art hangs a helicopter in its atrium, and it is controversial that we installed two boats — which, I thought, were beautiful?”

Rogers tends to keep his personal life private. He declined to provide names of personal friends to a reporter, adding that his MFA post had made it hard to keep up friendships with people from outside the art world.

Instead, Rogers often spends time with museum donors such as Frederic and Jean Sharf and Edward “Ned” Johnson. “Most of his nights are spent at museum functions,” said Jean Sharf. “His house is beautiful, but he also uses his house for entertaining for the museum.”

Davis appreciates the passion Rogers has shown for the new wing. But she acknowledges there are times when she would prefer she had a little space to do her job as curator. Earlier this year, working on a second-floor salon-style room showcasing art by American artists working abroad in the 19th century, she asked Rogers to give her the personal space she needed for a complicated hanging.

“I really need to work on it,” said Davis. “When I’m ready to show you something, I’ll let you know.”

She did. In the end, Davis said, it is one of the only spaces Rogers basically gave a thumbs-up to — without any requested changes.

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com.

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