Museum of Fine Arts director Malcolm Rogers, whose 19-year tenure has been marked by massive growth and a slate of exhibitions both popular and controversial, announced Thursday night he will retire as soon as a successor is hired to run the region’s largest art museum.
Rogers, who is 65 and recently turned down a contract extension that would have left him in charge through 2018, said he is retiring to free himself from an overpacked schedule.
“If you’re going to be 80 in 15 years, how do you make the most of those years?” he said in an interview with the Globe. “The other part of the equation is having been here 20 years, I think a fresh pair of eyes, a fresh intelligence will be beneficial.”
No retirement date has been set. Rogers has agreed to serve until a new director is in place, a process that trustees board chairwoman Grace Fey said could take more than year.
“I feel great,” Rogers said after telling the board at a meeting Thursday night. “To go into a meeting with 50 of the greatest and good of Boston and to receive a standing ovation is quite something.”
In May, Rogers will become the longest serving director in the MFA’s 144-year history. A few directors at other majormuseums have had longer tenures, but it’s rare to remain for two decades.
And Rogers could have stayed longer. Last year, he turned down a five-year extension, agreeing to add three years onto his contract. It expires in June 2016, though Rogers will leave before or after that time, depending on the search.
“He has done such a spectacular job,” said Fey. “He’s leaving the place in great form, but we’re used to working with this pro, and it’s going to be hard to replace him.”
Rogers arrived at a time when the MFA had been struggling with steady deficits and a general malaise, said former trustee Fred Sharf. Attendance fell below 800,000 twice in the five years before Rogers arrived. In the last decade, it has hovered around 1 million visitors.
“There was no leadership, no direction, it was adrift,” said Sharf, also a generous MFA donor. “We needed somebody to come on board who could provide leadership and direction, and he did that.”
The MFA grew considerably during Rogers’s tenure, with the endowment rising from $180 million to $602 million and, since just 2009, 97 of 143 galleries have been built or renovated.
Rogers, who is listed as having a total annual compensation of $766,426, raised $504 million as part of the construction of the museum’s Art of the Americas Wing. The project, completed in 2010, increased the size of the MFA by 28 percent, adding 53 new galleries and 133,500 square feet. A year later, the museum opened the renovated west wing as the Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art.
“I take most pride in the fact that people feel the museum offers a new welcome, a new accessibility, that it’s more centered on its public and its community,” said Rogers. “It’s gone back to the philanthropic roots of its first founders, who founded the museum for everyone. They didn’t found it for an elite philanthropist.”
Anne Hawley, director of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum since 1989, said Thursday night she believes Rogers will be historically viewed as the “populist” director.
“Everybody in the city feels like it’s their museum, and I don’t think they felt that before,” said Hawley. “He took a lot of risks and was willing to experiment, and that’s why the city responded.”
On paper, Rogers seemed an unlikely figure to shake things up when he arrived in 1994. Private and unfailingly polite, he grew up in England, was educated at Oxford, and developed a specialty in 16th, 17th, and 18th century portraiture, hardly an area viewed as controversial in art circles. But in the early 1990s, Rogers was passed over for the top job at the National Portrait Gallery in London, where he served as deputy director. That made him hungrier to make his mark, friends said.
He moved quickly. In 1995, he opened the Huntington Avenue doors, which had closed in 1990 to save money. In 1996, the museum opened on Mondays, meaning it could be visited seven days a week. This established a theme for Rogers: Making small changes that served as symbols of the museum’s desire to welcome a wider audience.
That approach also spread into the galleries. In 1996, Rogers hosted the first museum exhibition for celebrity photographer Herb Ritts. The exhibit drew more than 250,000 people, making it a blockbuster that still ranks in the museum’s top 15 most-visited exhibits, but it came at a cost. Art historians and some other museum directors snickered at the semiclad supermodels and movie stars on the wall. In the coming years, as Rogers featured automobiles from fashion designer Ralph Lauren’s collection and a pair of racing yachts belonging to collector Bill Koch, those grumbles would grow louder and sometimes personal.
Rogers, speaking this week about his tenure, said that he felt those shows were important in expanding the MFA’s audience.
“Who wants to be criticized?” he said. “But my job is not to be diverted by criticism.”
He also noted, with a smile, that the J. Paul Getty Museum, which is now overseen by James Cuno — one of those critics — recently acquired works by Ritts and held its own exhibition. In 2011, an exhibition at the Louvre featured Lauren’s cars.
Along with the headline-grabbing shows, the MFA presented 375 exhibits during Rogers’s tenure, showing everything from ancient Chinese art to Impressionist masterpieces. The MFA acquired some 67,000 works of art, including a more-than-$20 million painting by Edgar Degas, “Duchessa di Montejasi with Her Daughters, Elena and Camilla,” and contemporary pieces by Mona Hatoum and Josiah McElheny.
Rogers’s tenure was also marked by some turmoil due largely to his decision, in 1999, to dismiss longtime curators Anne Poulet and Jonathan Fairbanks. Detractors dubbed this “The Boston Massacre.”
When told of the impending retirement, Patricia Hills, a Boston University professor of American Art and longtime Rogers critic, responded with: “Oh, yay.”
“The problem with Malcolm is he did not know how to deal with strong curators, so he fired them,” she said.
When asked if he had any regrets as he prepared to step down, Rogers said no. Then he told a story about a recent Association of Art Museum Directors conference. He was asked to sit on a panel meant to examine past mistakes. He declined.
“My attitude is very much there aren’t mistakes, there are only steps forward,” he said. “I tend to look forward rather than look back. I don’t like to Monday morning quarterback myself or people who work for me.”
Roger said he started pondering retirement three years ago.
He became serious when he sold his 5,500-square-foot house in Brookline for a condominium in Chestnut Hill half that size. Late in 2012, he also bought a small house in West Oxford, England.
The idea, he said, is to “rebalance” his life, maintaining friendships in both his native England and his adopted hometown, Boston.
In October, Rogers and Fey began plotting out the timing of his retirement. That was the main subject in February when he stayed with Sharf for a week in Palm Beach, Fla.
“You know, there’s a Kenny Rogers song, ‘The Gambler,’ you’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em,’ ” said Sharf. “Malcolm had a good run here. He just needed, in his mind, to make sure he was being fair and was leaving the museum with enough time to go out and search for a new director.”
Rogers said he will have as little or as much involvement in that search as the museum desires.
He said he didn’t have anybody specifically in mind as a replacement and declined to speculate on potential candidates.
As for his own retirement, there is no agenda, though Rogers said he plans to read, listen to more music, travel — particularly to Africa and India — and also do more scholarship. He wouldn’t rule out another museum job, but said he couldn’t imagine taking one on.
“In a way, I don’t feel all that different, but the fact is, the years of your 60s and 70s are still your prime these days,” he said. “So how do you make the most of those years?”
Geoff Edgers can be reached at email@example.com.