MFA wants to expand its audience, broaden its appeal
Before taking over as director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Matthew Teitelbaum presided over the Art Gallery of Ontario, dubbed by one publication the “hippest hangout” in Toronto.
Now, nearly two years after arriving in Boston, Teitelbaum is ready to infuse the MFA with some of that swagger, introducing a host of initiatives designed to expand the museum’s audience and broaden its appeal.
The museum is launching more than 50 programs as part of “MFA 2020,” a three-year strategic plan that offers the clearest picture yet of Teitelbaum’s expansive vision for the grande dame of Boston museums.
The new road map is meant as a broad welcome to people of all ages and economic and cultural backgrounds. That means everything from an outdoor film series to late-night parties, an outdoor cafe, and a program that provides free memberships to newly minted Americans.
“We belong to the people,” Teitelbaum said. “It’s got to be a place where more people feel they belong, and I want them to feel they belong in relation to objects and ideas shared with others.”
The initiatives come at a pivotal moment for the MFA. With its 150th anniversary approaching in 2020, the museum faces dramatic challenges as a racially and culturally diverse generation steeped in digital culture comes of age. Boston is now considered a majority-minority city, but recent MFA data show that nearly 80 percent of visitors identify as Caucasian and 75 percent are age 45 or older.
Meanwhile, Teitelbaum must cultivate a new generation of museum donors while continuing to increase attendance, which has regularly exceeded more than 1 million visitors annually since the MFA’s 2010 expansion.
“Fifty years ago we could be a home for great art, and that was almost enough,” Teitelbaum said. Today, the museum needs to be “a place about the ideas of our time, where people say I want to be there, and I’m learning about the world through the lens of art. . . . We have to be more outward-facing.”
Starting in July, the museum will offer free family memberships for newly naturalized Americans living in Massachusetts through a program called MFA Citizens. The program will work with a variety of outside agencies, including Project Citizenship, the Mayor’s Office for Immigrant Advancement, and the Boston Public Library.
“If we can become truly welcoming to new Americans, we will be what America is: optimistic, welcoming, giving people the tools to succeed,” Teitelbaum said. “Wouldn’t it be great if I could say to you in five years that 10 new Americans were giving tours of the collection?”
The museum will also begin offering free admission to students and faculty at Boston-area community colleges this fall. The pilot program, dubbed the Community College Access Pass, builds on the museum’s existing University Membership program, which last year logged more than 100,000 student visits.
“If we can sustain our outreach [to students], we will achieve diversity in life experience,” he said. “If we can get that right, the balance of our audience will start to shift.”
Meanwhile, the MFA plans to roll out a series of splashy events designed to enliven the museum and its grounds as a gateway to the collection.
Building on its popular #mfaNOW series — all-night parties that drew more than 23,000 guests last year — the MFA will launch a “Late-Night Signature Series,” extending #mfaNOW’s frothy blend of art and culture, but unlike its predecessor, winding down each night before the sun comes up.
Starting in July, the MFA will open a new outdoor cafe near the Huntington Avenue entrance and begin hosting outdoor summer film nights on the lawn. The series, which will include lawn games and on-site art-making, culminates in September with Jordan Peele’s runaway hit “Get Out.”
Will buzzy events like this prove more than just an Instagrammable moment, converting partygoers into future visitors — or even members?
The answer remains unclear. In 2016, the MFA had more than 66,000 member households. And though the museum didn’t try to sell memberships during the #mfaNOW series, Teitelbaum says, “we got a lot of e-mail addresses.”
They’re still exploring how such programming can best forge strong bonds with new visitors, Teitelbaum explained. “Are you creating events, no matter how good they are, that really connect to the lifeblood of the institution — its collections?”
Other initiatives include an increased focus on performance art, a residency program for artists, and a paid summer fellowship program for Boston-area teens focusing on career-development. The museum plans to continue its public forum series, “The City Talks,” and in September it will host an event celebrating deaf culture, offering free tours and activities conducted in American Sign Language.
Inside the galleries, the museum will reinstall its Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art, highlighting cross-cultural influences and showcasing a temporary exhibition of 11 works by the celebrated Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko. In December the museum will unveil a new gallery devoted to life in ancient Greece, and next spring it will launch a series of yearlong exhibitions (in association with the Henry Luce Foundation) that explore American identity, focusing in part on cultures that have traditionally been excluded from art-history accounts.
“We live in a time when it’s critical for us to find a way for our art to speak across borders, to cross timelines, and in effect, bring us together,” said Edward Saywell, chief of exhibitions strategy and gallery displays for the museum.
But some things will never change.
“We are not going to be a Monet-free zone,” Teitelbaum joked. Paraphrasing the artist Willem de Kooning, he added, “My house has many mansions. I think we can be many things to many people.”