The Museum of Fine Arts is embarking on a novel collaboration with four smaller Northeast museums, a six-year partnership that will give rise to a series of traveling exhibitions co-organized by the MFA and its partner institutions.
The partnership, funded by a grant of nearly $2 million from the Chicago-based Terra Foundation for American Art, is part of the new Terra-Art Bridges program, which seeks to pair larger museums with smaller partners in an effort to bring significant works of American art to underserved communities.
As one of the first major museums in the program (the Detroit Institute of Arts is the other), the MFA has chosen to partner with the Fenimore Art Museum, in Cooperstown, N.Y.; the Michele and Donald D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts, in Springfield; the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, in Utica, N.Y.; and the Mattatuck Museum, in Waterbury, Conn.
“It is important that the MFA shares its resources generously as we work to make our communities stronger,” MFA director Matthew Teitelbaum said in a prepared statement. “We look forward to fostering a productive and creative exchange with our colleagues at four great partner institutions and collaborating with them on new ways of presenting and looking at American art.”
Amy Zinck, Terra Foundation executive vice president, said she expects the$15 million initiative to fund exhibitions at more than 80 museums and arts venues across the country over the next six years.
“Our vision is to establish and activate a network of institutions that will continue to develop new approaches to collection sharing and audiences well beyond this six-year project,” said Zinck. “We feel this is an interesting model because it’s not a one-off. It’s institutions working together over multiple years.”
Zinck added that the foundation chose the MFA as one of the program’s first large institutions in part because of the staff’s enthusiasm for the program’s goals.
“They jumped right in,” said Zinck. “We didn’t dictate a formula. The initiative is about collaboration and exchange, so it needed to be created by the partners and what their collections, audience, and staff needed.”
The initial phase of the partnership will launch this summer, as the MFA loans each of its partner institutions an artwork to serve as the centerpiece for exhibitions at the smaller institutions featuring works from their own collections.
In this first round, the MFA will loan the Fenimore Thomas Cole’s “Expulsion From the Garden of Eden.” Frederic Edwin Church’s “Icebergs” will go to the Mattatuck, and Thomas Hart Benton’s “New England Editor” will be displayed at the D’Amour. The MFA and the Munson-Williams-Proctor institute are finalizing their loan.
Elliot Bostwick Davis, chair of the MFA’s Art of the Americas department, said the second phase of the partnership will involve loans of up to 12 objects from the MFA’s collection resulting in several small-scale exhibitions that will be organized with and displayed at each of the partner institutions.
The project will conclude with two large-scale exhibitions featuring works drawn from the collections of all five participating museums — shows Davis said would likely find a spot on the MFA’s exhibit schedule.
“We assume that any show we build with our colleagues we would want to share with our own audiences,” said Davis. “This is an opportunity to think broadly about the outward implications of sharing our collection with new audiences.”
Davis, who stressed the project was a learning opportunity for all involved, said the partnership would go beyond curatorial collaboration to include professional development across a broad spectrum of museum staff, including education and social media.
“Small museums have a lot to offer: They’re doing a huge amount with communities that are new to us and doing it with far fewer resources,” said Davis, who added that the MFA chose its partner institutions based on their size, location, and collection strengths. “We can learn a lot. It’s an opportunity for the MFA to not only be a leader, but also to be a great resource.”
Heather Haskell, vice president and director of art museums for the Springfield Museums, which includes the D’Amour, called the MFA partnership a “dream opportunity.”
“We’re really interested in talking to them about their approaches to exploring their collection and bringing some of that knowledge back to Springfield to reach our visitors in a more stream-lined fashion,” said Haskell, who noted the Springfield complex had one curator across its two art museums. “We wear many hats.”Malcolm Gay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @malcolmgay.