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visual art

Sanctuary, change on the museum scene in 2013

The new Alfond-Lunder Family Pavilion at Colby College Museum of Art opened this year in Waterville, Maine.

Trent Bell Photography

The new Alfond-Lunder Family Pavilion at Colby College Museum of Art opened this year in Waterville, Maine.

There were great shows, new buildings, and noteworthy developments aplenty in New England’s art museums over the past 12 months. But perhaps the most amazing thing I saw all year was the Somerville-based artist Jon Imber reinventing himself in the midst of a mortal crisis.

Imber, one of Boston’s best known artists over several decades, was diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, in 2012. Earlier in 2013, I had my first chance to see an overview of his career in painting. I had to travel to Queens to see it, but all credit to the Godwin-Ternbach Museum at Queens College for mounting the show, which was a revelation.

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By now, Imber can’t walk, his speech is slurred, and he struggles to hold a brush. And yet his sense of humor is intact, and like a daemon, he continues to paint. Over the summer, which he spent in Maine, and more recently back in Boston, he has turned out a succession of portraits of friends and acquaintances with a variety, a directness, and a deftness of touch that are hard to believe.

More than any number of museum renovations, acquisitions, or exhibitions, Imber’s urgency reminds us what this whole art business is about. In the presence of his work, all incidentals fall away, and we sense immediately that our own selves are at stake — for we are mortal one and all.

Just as trips to the studio have been a kind of sanctuary for Imber, museums can offer sanctuary from everyday life for the rest of us. But if the museum is any good, its contents will always lead us back to life — back to all the poorly illuminated intuitions, thwarted emotions, and overlooked beauty we habitually factor out.

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So when museums change, it’s news. And there was plenty of change this year. In the summer, a large segment of New England’s art world turned up in Waterville, Maine, to celebrate the opening of the new Alfond-Lunder Family Pavilion at Colby College Museum of Art. The pavilion added 26,000 square feet to the preexisting 38,000 square feet, providing space for the display of a gift of more than 500 works of art donated by the Lunder Family that has transformed Colby’s collection.

This was a good story, which resonated around the region. There was more ambivalent news elsewhere. Worcester’s Higgins Armory Museum, home to one of the world’s most impressive collections of arms and armor, announced that, for financial reasons, it will close at the of 2013.

The Higgins collection will not, however, be sold or otherwise dispersed; rather, it will come under the auspices of the nearby Worcester Art Museum. As it works to improve its own finances, WAM will launch “Knights!,” an exhibition combining the Higgins Armory collection with items from its own collection, in the spring.

The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem received a setback in May when Rick Mather, the London-based architect it had hired to design a 175,000-square-foot expansion, died. In August, it announced that the New York firm Ennead Architects, which recently worked on the Yale University Art Gallery renovations, had been chosen to replace Mather’s small firm. But the museum has had to set back the projected opening date of its expansion by three years.

2019 seems a long way off. But so, five years ago, did 2013, which was the year Harvard Art Museums had hoped to open its Renzo Piano-designed renovation and expansion. This year came and went with no opening — just the closing of the temporary galleries showing highlights of the collection in the old Sackler Museum up the road. Nonetheless, as anyone who has driven along Broadway in Cambridge will know, the renovation is finally nearing completion, and by next fall, greater Boston will have the second of its two powerhouse museums once again open to the public.

The pressure to renovate and expand has affected other New England museums, including the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown. The Clark has been touring its collection of much loved masterpieces all over the world, charging fees to host institutions in foreign cities to raise funds to complete the second phase of its Tadao Ando-designed expansion.

The new Clark will open in the summer. But in the meantime, questions about the museum’s decision to send its masterpieces on a seemingly endless world tour might fairly be asked. The rewards are clear. But what is the cost? Have these precious works traveled to too many destinations? Has their physical condition been compromised, or even put at risk?

There’s no easy answer, but tough calls have to be made.

One could ask the same question of the Museum of Fine Arts, which has its own collection of highly sought-after Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works. For some of the year, these famous works hang on the museum’s walls, panting and straining, one presumes, to be released, sent abroad, converted to cash. All too often, the museum obliges, leaving visitors to Boston disappointed, and souring relations with its local audience.

Commendably, the MFA did send highlights from its incomparable collection of Japanese art to five cities in Japan in 2013. This electrifying show (I saw it in Kyushu) was seen by more than a million people.

The dismaying thing was that this fabulous, ready-made show did not return to wow audiences in Boston. Instead, most of it has been returned to storage. Boston residents and their interstate and international guests must once again interact with the Japanese collection like the proverbial blind man who, touching an elephant, must try to guess what it is.

The two great exhibitions at the MFA this year were “John Singer Sargent Watercolors” (through Jan. 20) and “She Who Tells a Story,” an exhibition of contemporary women photographers from Iran and the Arabian world. Everyone could have predicted the success of the Sargent show, which was expertly organized by the MFA’s Erica Hirshler and the Brooklyn Museum of Art’s Teresa Carbone).

But “She Who Tells a Story,” organized by the MFA’s Kristen Gresh, was more of a surprise, and a reminder, perhaps, that if the MFA dared more, it might more often repeat these kinds of coups.

In October, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art set an unusual precedent by opening an exhibition of works by Anselm Kiefer from the Hall Art Foundation, established by banker Andrew Hall and his wife, Christine. The display, in a specially converted building on the Mass MoCA campus, will last 15 years.

What’s interesting about it is that, although it is on the Mass MoCA campus, it was designed and paid for by the Hall Art Foundation, an independent body that is “collaborating with,” rather than giving to, the museum. In coming years, Mass MoCA plans to rent out other parts of its North Adams campus in this way, including to the Clark Art Institute.

Up in Vermont, meanwhile, the Shelburne Museum opened its Pizzagalli Center for Art and Education. The new building has exhibition spaces that allow the museum to welcome visitors throughout the year — including the winter months, when the rest of the campus shuts down.

Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art had a solid year. Its best shows were a survey of Barry McGee and the current, utterly entrancing Amy Sillman exhibit. The deCordova impressed with a survey by Tony Feher and exciting changes to its sculpture park — above all, smashing installations by Orly Genger and DeWitt Godfrey. And the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University returned to form with a series of compelling shows.

With the reopenings at Harvard and the Clark, 2014 will be a big year. We should take great pleasure and pride in these stupendous institutions: We don’t know how lucky we are to have them at our doorstep. But as we do, we might want to remember not just how art gets collected, circulated, and displayed, but how it gets made. We should remember the courage of people like Jon Imber.

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