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Critic’s Notebook

MFA has challenging task in finding new chief

In seeking Malcolm Rogers’s successor, our critic offers, the museum should weigh what he did splendidly and what he left undone

The Museum of Fine Arts has a puzzle to solve in finding its next leader.

PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY ROBERT S. DAVIS/GLOBE STAFF

The Museum of Fine Arts has a puzzle to solve in finding its next leader.

The search to find a replacement for Malcolm Rogers, the longtime director of the Museum of Fine Arts, is on. And it won’t be easy. Strong leaders tend to bend the criteria for success in their own direction, making it hard to imagine alternatives. For almost 20 years, Rogers’s personal stamp on the institution he heads has been so strong that he and the MFA have become virtually synonymous.

But as it has shown over its long and storied history, the MFA can be many different things. As one of the world’s handful of great universal museums, its potential is manifold. So the board of trustees at the MFA will do well to activate their imaginations.

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Rogers — his style and his vision for the museum — will be right under their noses as they conduct their search. So it might be useful for them to divide their search criteria into two helpful categories: “Just Like Malcolm” and “Not So Much Like Malcolm.”

The first would emphasize continuity: building on all the good things Rogers has achieved. The second would focus on things that might usefully change.

In the first category, the MFA will certainly want a leader who can present a public front as strong and as steady as Rogers. Unfailingly polite and reliably good humored, Rogers has also been passionate and eloquent about the MFA’s mission. He has been particularly dogged on themes like accessibility — getting as many people into the museum as possible, and making sure that, once they get there, their experience is as pleasant as possible.

This, in fact, has been his signal achievement. Rogers did not just open a new wing, revamp an old one, and reopen two entrances. He attended fastidiously — his staff might say fanatically — to every detail of the visitor experience, from wall labels and lighting to general circulation, and took care to provide pleasant places to eat, rest, and shop. He also increased memberships and improved annual attendance numbers.

Of course, when it comes to mounting shows, Rogers has always had a populist touch. I suspect he has enjoyed the routine scoldings and rolling controversies his show selection sometimes provoked. I also believe a new director should be prepared to take similar risks.

In a museum as flexible, as grand, and as multidimensional as the MFA, there is nothing wrong with having shows of fast cars, sleek yachts, fabulous evening gowns, or fashion photographs. These objects, as Rogers liked to remind critics, are often triumphs of human design and imagination. More baldly, they’re fun.

The Museum of Fine Arts is a complex of buildings, the newest of which, the Art of the Americas Wing, is located in the upper right area of the photo. There are plans to continue expanding the institution with the incorporation of the neighboring Forsyth Institute building.

DAVID L. RYAN/GLOBE STAFF/FILE 2010

The Museum of Fine Arts is a complex of buildings, the newest of which, the Art of the Americas Wing, is located in the upper right area of the photo. There are plans to continue expanding the institution with the incorporation of the neighboring Forsyth Institute building.

Keeping audiences surprised, and drawing in segments of the public that might not otherwise think to visit, is exactly what the director of a great museum should do. It is only a question, as the museum looks to the future, of backing the right kind of show.

Sadly, Rogers’s idea of what ought to be popular has often lacked imagination. He has made his own personal conservatism work for the museum in many ways, above all in attracting certain kinds of gifts from certain kinds of donors. But at this juncture the MFA needs a leader whose vision for art and its possibilities is broader — one who is not just willing to tolerate but is visibly enthused by art that is less soothing in style or subject matter.

Under Rogers, the MFA has been too eager to fall back on cute and floppy-eared favorites: artists like John Singer Sargent, Dale Chihuly, Alex Katz, Edward Hopper, Winslow Homer, and various members of the Wyeth family. Many of these artists are great. But the aversion to risk and the lack of imagination are obvious, and, after so long, have become dispiriting.

Younger audiences, in particular, will tune out (or never bother tune in) if the MFA doesn’t do more to expand its repertoire. Unlike almost every museum of similar rank, it has not mounted a significant show by a key early-20th-century modernist in decades. Even if your focus is solely on visitor numbers, this looks like a missed opportunity: Modernist art is, by and large, the most popular art in the world.

Some of the best and most surprising shows in recent years (“She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World,” “Fresh Ink: Ten Takes on Chinese Tradition”) have been organized either by more junior curators or by chief curators who have since left the museum. All too anomalous, these successes suggest that the museum might benefit from a new director who is less controlling — more willing to give chief curators free rein, encouraging them to pursue individual passions, to take risks, and to build on earlier successes.

On the financial side, the record shows that Rogers has been a brilliant fund-raiser. He reversed a trend of steady deficits, he raised the endowment from $180 million to $602 million, and he famously cobbled together more than a half-billion dollars to build the Art of the Americas Wing, which opened in 2010. Along the way, he has found enough money to revamp dozens of permanent collection galleries.

Easily summarized, this is not so easily done.

It’s a credit to Rogers that so much of this money has been invested in bricks and mortar and works on display. Unfortunately, however, the MFA’s finances are not as plumped up as all this suggests. Operating expenses are higher than ever, and as Rogers himself has told me, “Every year is a knife edge.”

Longtime museum director Malcolm Rogers has always had a populist touch in putting on shows.

DAVID L. RYAN/GLOBE STAFF

Longtime museum director Malcolm Rogers has always had a populist touch in putting on shows.

Unlike the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York or many comparable museums in Europe and the United Kingdom, the MFA cannot rely on a great dollop of annual funding from the city or from the state or federal governments.

Sadly, the constant need for cash has led to some embarrassing and ugly decisions. In recent years especially, the MFA has fallen into the apparently addictive habit of renting out its most popular and marketable works to commercial enterprises, including the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas and an Italian company that organizes profit-oriented and, for the most part, intellectually worthless exhibitions of rented art.

Rogers has been forthright but unconvincing in trying to justify such practices, defending them on populist grounds (basically, “we have these masterpieces, we should share them with the world”) when anyone can see that the rentals are nakedly opportunistic and damaging to the MFA’s credibility.

Loans for fees, coinciding with loans to more deserving venues, have meant that for long periods the museum has been without some of its most beloved works, including Renoir’s “Dance at Bougival” and Van Gogh’s “Lullaby: Madame Augustine Roulin Rocking a Cradle (La Berceuse),” shortchanging local audiences and international visitors alike. The museum’s next director needs to rein in these practices.

All the more reason, then, to stress the desirability of a replacement who enjoys raising money. (Rogers, one feels, has lately lost enthusiasm for the task; and after 20 years, who can blame him?) Whoever it is will need to have charm, of course, but also the credibility to make benefactors believe in this great museum’s mission.

Rogers has dedicated great energy to the revamping of the museum’s permanent galleries. The person who replaces him should be similarly dedicated to the permanent collection, which is, after all, the museum’s fundamental responsibility and reason for being.

Inevitably, every director tends to prioritize certain areas of the collection over others. Rogers has tried to be broad, and crucially, he has always pushed to get the museum’s different departments to work together, resulting in galleries that combine many different categories of object. But he will be remembered above all for the boost he gave the department of American art with the new wing.

He also gets points for his late and somewhat reluctant conversion to contemporary art, and for his full-blown love affair with Hanoverian silver, Regency furniture, Meissen porcelain, and all things decorative.

Other parts of the collection have been relatively neglected. Many people, myself included, believe that the MFA’s great, underappreciated asset is its stupendous collection of Asian art. As we move deeper into the “Asian century” (a cliché, but so far it’s proving true), it would be smart for the trustees to choose a director who is passionate about Asian art, and willing to raise money with a view to raising its profile.

A new director might, for instance, make the building of a new Asian wing his or her big legacy project, much as Rogers heroically championed the new Americas wing. The strength of the collection more than justifies it.

So what’s the takeaway? A young-ish curator with a long record of ground-breaking exhibitions, fluency in Japanese, rich friends in Shanghai, a generous and collegial manner, a private stash of Matisses and Picassos that she is willing to donate to the museum to prove it, a great deal of effortless, wallet-emptying charm, scholarly chops, and a good pitching arm would be ideal.

Failing that, the MFA should at least try to find someone who is as ambitious as Rogers. Someone who is similarly willing to make big decisions and inaugurate big changes.

Looking ahead, it certainly seems that big decisions will need to be made: A new director will also have to oversee yet more physical expansion as the MFA gets on with implementing a plan to incorporate the Forsythe Institute building into its campus. And he or she will need to make big decisions regarding the role of technology in the museum experience. Someone will have to decide, too, what to do about the MFA’s branch in Nagoya, Japan, which has been a tepid success at best, and over the next few years could either become a dynamic asset or an albatross.

All in all, should be a cinch! Let the search – and the sending of CVs – begin.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this story misstated the amount of money the MFA director raised for the Art of The Americas Wing, which opened in 2010. Malcolm Rogers collected more than a half-billion dollars for the project.

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