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MFA plans $24 million conservation center project

Rhona MacBeth, an MFA conservator of paintings, works on Frida Kahlo’s “Dos Mujeres (Salvadora y Herminia).”Museum of Fine Arts, Boston/(c) Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The Museum of Fine Arts is planning a $24 million renovation project that will create a 22,000-square-foot conservation center, housing six laboratories on two floors of the museum’s main building.

The project — the result of the largest conservation fund-raising effort in MFA history — will consolidate all but a handful of the museum’s conservation activities, eventually freeing up an additional 12,000 square feet of gallery space in the Asian, European, and Ancient World areas. The effort, which is being funded with a mix of gifts, grants, and MFA funds, is set to commence in 2017 and scheduled for completion in 2019.


“It’s a very positive moment for us,” said MFA director Matthew Teitelbaum by phone. “I think people will see it as a real affirmation of our core responsibilities, and I feel very good about that.”

Teitelbaum added in a statement that the center will place the MFA “among a small family of leading international Museums with exceptional conservation labs” and “dramatically improve all facets of our conservation systems, improving infrastructure, technology, and facilities while fostering an environment of teamwork.”

The MFA has yet to select an architect, but Teitelbaum said the museum has conceptual drawings that include open floor plans, tall ceilings, and a public viewing area for the center’s lower floor. An MFA spokesperson says the public viewing area could replace the Conservation in Action gallery, where visitors can today observe conservators at work.

“That will be something new,” said Teitelbaum, adding that with enhanced interpretation the viewing area would encourage greater intellectual involvement among the public. “We’ll be able to share it more effectively.”

The new center, which will be adjacent to the Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art, will house laboratories for furniture, frames, scientific research, paintings, and objects, as well as mount-making and exhibition preparation. It will also provide meeting and inspection rooms, which Teitelbaum said he hoped would encourage collaboration across fields.


Meanwhile, the museum’s Asian, paper, and textile conservation labs will remain in place.

“Putting a critical mass of conservators into one space will create — even more than we have today — a culture of collaboration and a culture of commitment to conservation work,” said Teitelbaum, adding that the museum’s conservation staff is currently spread throughout the museum. “Practically, it means that there are going to be greater efficiencies in how works of art move through the institution.”

With a staff or more than 60, the MFA’s conservation department has performed roughly 750 treatments over the past five years, according to the museum, including work on Giovanni Francesco Rustici’s “St. John the Baptist” and Frida Kahlo’s recently acquired painting “Dos Mujeres (Salvadora y Herminia).”

“Our conservation staff operates at the highest level, so I can’t really suggest that the work they’re going to do is going to be much improved,” said Teitelbaum. “But I do think we will be conserving more than we do, so the workload will increase.”

Among the new center’s financial supporters are the Sherman Fairchild Foundation and Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo, who pledged an early gift of $5 million toward expanding the museum’s conservation and scientific research facilities.

“The van Otterloo gift was catalytic,” said Teitelbaum. “It gave us the confidence that the conservation initiative could be even bigger than we first thought.”

Malcolm Gay can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay