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Malcolm Rogers, on the threshold of a new life

Outgoing MFA director Malcolm Rogers at his house in England.
Outgoing MFA director Malcolm Rogers at his house in England.HANNAH MCKAY FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Call it retirement if you must, but these days outgoing director Malcolm Rogers is envisioning his departure from the Museum of Fine Arts as more, ahem, of a rebirth.

Malcolm Rogers with Benjamin West’s “Devout Men Taking the Body of Saint Stephen” at the Museum of Fine Arts.
Malcolm Rogers with Benjamin West’s “Devout Men Taking the Body of Saint Stephen” at the Museum of Fine Arts.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

"I feel as if I'm floating in amniotic fluid, you know, just a very nice comfortable state," Rogers said recently while touring the halls of his beloved MFA. "I feel very lulled by the process. I'm very touched by all the nice things people are saying about me and the museum, and then looking gently forward to the future."

That tranquil stream has included no less than three farewell parties at the museum to celebrate his two-decade tenure, which ends July 31. He's on his second bin as he clears out his office and has been sending out a host of thank-you notes to his supporters.

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More than anything, though, he's focused on his new life in England, where after more than two discreet transcontinental decades, Rogers, 66, plans finally to reside with his longtime partner, Andrew, whom he has known for some 45 years. (Rogers declined to give his last name.) The pair met at Oxford University and "have been lifelong friends" ever since. Now they will live together in their house in the Cotswolds, a quiet home where John Singer Sargent painted "Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose" while visiting the artist F.D. Millet, who lived there as part of an artists colony known as the Broadway Group.

"I'd like to enlarge the house in England, so I can't afford to do it without selling the place in Boston," Rogers said, adding that he will work as a consultant for a pair of American collectors. He'll also do a fair bit of research, travel, and, of course, take in his share of art. As for marriage? Well. . .

"I'll need to look at the tax consequences," he said, changing the subject.

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"I'll be visiting regularly. I think it's more likely that my work will take me to New York, and my friends will bring me here."

Those friends, many drawn from the city's collector set, have shown their appreciation in the months since Rogers announced his retirement, donating a host of works in his honor — everything from Ann and Graham Gund's gift of Zhan Wang's gleaming "Artificial Rock #85," a sculpture Rogers called a "keynote piece" of the Shapiro courtyard, to Benjamin West's monumental painting "Devout Men Taking the Body of Saint Stephen," the gift of an anonymous donor that is now undergoing conservation.

Other gifts include some 90 works on paper by Old Masters and 19th-century artists donated by Eijk and Rose-Marie van Otterloo, and a shimmering silver necklace by Alexander Calder from Daphne Farago.

"It makes the point that jewelry is small sculpture," Rogers said as he admired the necklace through a display case. "She insisted she have a photograph of me wearing it."

Rogers, of course, obliged.

"She realized that instead of putting it in the collection of a contemporary museum, it was better here in the context of 10,000 years of jewelry — that the museum provides a context," said Rogers, who has received some 175 gifts in his honor since becoming director.

By turns playful and imperious, Rogers has been making some variation on that pitch for years. He's proven himself an adept showman, a refined tastemaker who mixed business with pleasure as he traveled the rarefied realm of patrons, making his ardent case for the MFA — one of the world's great encyclopedic museums, as he's fond of saying — as an organizing sanctuary that brings people and art together in a meaningful way.

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"He did it with style. I think he enjoyed it," said honorary trustee Rose-Marie van Otterloo. "It's his charm. He likes people, and I think Malcolm absolutely loves his job."

In addition to their gift in honor of Rogers, the van Otterloos have also pledged $5 million toward the modernization and expansion of the museum's conservation and scientific research laboratories. The expanded facilities, dubbed the Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo Paintings Conservation Studio, are scheduled for completion in 2016.

"Giving is the bloodstream of the museum, whether you're a member or a million-dollar donor," said Rogers. "It's so much about a relationship. It's not just about one gift. It's about a relationship over years."

Those relationships have stood the MFA in good stead, and during Rogers's tenure the museum has acquired some 65,000 works of art, 88 percent of them as gifts.

He's also been a prodigious fund-raiser, and the museum he leaves behind is larger, more affluent, and more open to the public than at any point in its history.

"I don't like looking back," he said as he tucked into a lunch of grilled artichoke hearts and cod cakes. "I don't like the notion of legacy."

Be that as it may, his mark is seemingly everywhere: It's in the crystalline courtyard where Rogers, sporty in a blazer and top-siders, sipped sparkling water, and the adjoining Art of the Americas Wing, two parts of an expansion project bankrolled with a $504 million fund-raising campaign. It's in the Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art, created in a renovation project that tripled the MFA's display of contemporary work. And it's in the purchase of the neighboring Forsyth Institute building, planned as a study center.

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Meanwhile he's reopened both of the museum's original entrances. He's expanded its hours, granted free admission to children, and presided over more than 375 shows that critics and colleagues have hailed as enlightening, brilliant, and, at times, fatuous.

Malcolm Rogers at home in the Cotswolds.
Malcolm Rogers at home in the Cotswolds.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Rogers has, in a word, become the face of the museum, and by extension, the face of institutional art in Boston — both revered and rebuked.

Funny then that this Brit, who was adopted as an infant and raised by small-scale farmers in the English Midlands, almost didn't get the interview.

"He was definitely a long shot," said MFA honorary trustee Ann Gund, who was on the museum's original search committee. "We'd never heard of him."

With his career stymied in England after he was passed over for a promotion to the top post at the National Portrait Gallery, Rogers had begun searching for jobs in the United States. He was looking for the most important institutions — those where, as he puts it, "I didn't stand a chance." He figured if he could just get shortlisted, he'd land somewhere else. "I was very naïve. I didn't realize there were headhunters."

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Long considered the redoubt of stiff-jawed Brahmins, the MFA was then deep in the red and looking to make changes. Rogers, meanwhile, was coming from a comparatively small state-funded museum. He had no fund-raising experience to speak of. He'd never served as a director. Few trustees had heard of him, and there were concerns that, as an outsider, he would lack sensitivity to local issues of class and race.

"I frankly said to the head of the search committee: 'Why are we interviewing him?' " recalled Gund. "And he said: 'Because he's thrown his own hat in the ring, and he's staying at the Midtown Motor Inn.' "

But as the trustees puzzled at how this plucky Brit had come to sit before them, Rogers charged ahead, promising that if he got the job he'd open the Huntington Avenue entrance, which had been shuttered to save costs.

"You're sending the wrong message to your Roxbury neighbors," Gund recalled Rogers telling them. "He left the room, and we just sat down and thought: Oh my God."

Rogers opened the entrance within months of becoming director. Working swiftly to put the museum back in the black, he also reveled in the limelight, embarking on a controversial series of glitzy exhibitions, crowd-pleasers deemed pandering by some critics.

"People are going to fault him for the [Ralph Lauren] car show and the Herb Ritts show, but it brought in new audiences," said Gund. "He made the museum more accessible and more attractive and more vibrant."

For Rogers, there was a need to break the brand. "It was intended as a stick of dynamite," he said.

But the real controversy came in 1999, when Rogers abruptly dismissed 18 staffers, including two widely admired curators, Anne Poulet and Jonathan Fairbanks, as he moved to restructure the museum. Their firing earned Rogers the scorn of many in the profession, some of whom charged that it was a failure of leadership — that Rogers, incapable of managing strong curatorial voices, simply dismissed them.

"It was difficult," said Rogers. "It had to be. I'm passionate about this museum."

Still, many on the board were dismayed at how decisively he moved.

"We didn't realize how swiftly he was going to act. Black Monday, I think it was called," said Gund. "He may not have done it as gracefully as he should have, but he was given permission to do that by the trustees. Other museum directors will never forgive him for that." She added, "They've not forgotten."

Fairbanks himself, however, is philosophical about it. "We were all taken aback — we weren't really let go, our jobs just didn't exist anymore," said Fairbanks, now director of the Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton. "There's no point looking back to that era that was filled with anxiety for so many people."

He added that the formation of the Americas wing was Rogers's crowning accomplishment. "It took leadership to do that, and a lot of fund-raising, so I'm glad that happened," he said, noting that his relationship with Rogers is now "cordial" — that he's donated items to the MFA and received letters of thanks from Rogers in return. "It's an era that will live on as one of remarkable achievement, but I think that's true of anyone at the MFA because the museum has such gravitational force. It attracts great things."

In Rogers's singular drive to organize the Art of the Americas department, he lured Elliot Bostwick Davis, who had previously worked at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, to the MFA.

Among the gifts to the MFA during his tenure, works by Gorky, Dürer, and Daubigny.
Among the gifts to the MFA during his tenure, works by Gorky, Dürer, and Daubigny.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

"I'm really quite proud of the work that we've accomplished," said Davis, who chairs the department and was deeply involved in the planning and installation of the new wing.

"To Malcolm's credit we were able to keep the curators at the table. You can imagine that would be very challenging during the building process," she said, adding that his tenure "transformed" the museum. "It was like playing Tetris in 3-D every day."

Other controversies have occasionally touched Rogers's directorship, from provenance disputes (the MFA ultimately hired the first endowed curator of provenance at a US museum) to recent protests over an event known as Kimono Wednesdays.

"You can't have a career without controversy," said Rogers. "One tries to do the right thing for the organization."

But as his career at the museum comes to an end, Rogers, now entering "that phase of life when you cease to look like yourself," seems less concerned with the campaigns, controversy, collecting, or construction.

"What I'm most proud of is the fact that the museum just feels so alive," he said, admiring the passersby in the sun-filled courtyard. "It's so different from when I came, and people come up to me all the time and say thank you."

He's relishing the moment.

"I feel just as light-headed and giddy and enjoying life as I did when I was 18," he remarked. "I don't feel proud of a maturation process that changed me. I feel I've been myself."


Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay..