When the MassArt Art Museum opens in February, many donors, supporters, and leaders at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design will deserve credit. But the project’s driving force has been Lisa Tung, the museum’s executive director.
“Lisa, from my point of view, has been the catalyst, but also the dogged, tenacious champion all these years,” said Kay Sloan, who was president of MassArt, the only public art college in the US, in 2008 when the idea of supercharging the school’s Bakalar & Paine Galleries into a museum first arose. “She has stuck with the vision.”
Working with Sloan and her successor, David Nelson, Tung raised more than $12 million to renovate the two big galleries and office space — 15,000 square feet in all — in the heart of the school’s South Building. The once hard-to-find venue with terrible climate control and poor access for the disabled will soon be an institution unto itself: galleries, preparator’s studio, education studio, lobby, offices, and an elevator. The new climate control system is standard in the museum industry — humidity at 50 percent, temperature at 72 degrees.
For Tung, the long process of opening a museum has been one of learning by doing.
“I know what I know,” she said. “Did I know how to be a director? No.”
Walking through the newly renovated galleries, she marveled at the changes to the original structure, built in 1906. “The walls now meet at 90 degrees,” she declared. “The walls meet the ceilings at 90 degrees.”
For years, Tung and her staff worked with wonky walls, always cautious of what the ceilings could support. When designLAB Architects and Dimeo Construction tore the ceiling down in the second floor gallery in 2018, they found high terra-cotta vaulting ranging from 27-36 feet high.
Then again, they also found original steel girders that can support 500 pounds each. “We can hang anything to our heart’s content,” Tung said.
The museum’s signage is already up over the new front door, facing onto a plaza (still being landscaped) on Huntington Avenue, placing MAAM in the culture-rich Fenway. It will be the newbie among Boston’s oldest art institutions, the Museum of Fine Arts and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
The museum already has its own unique agenda: light-footed, cutting-edge, and free and open to the public.
“It will be a kunsthalle, an art hall where exhibitions are temporary, and there’s no collection,” Tung said. Not having a collection keeps cost, staff, and spatial demands reasonable, she added. “We will be nimble. We won’t have a bazillion dollars. We’ll have to economically and creatively problem-solve.”
MAAM will inaugurate its exhibition programming this winter with Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos’s first solo show in the US (with an installation suspended from those steel girders) and a group show, “Game Changers: Video Games & Contemporary Art.”
A lobby installation by the collective Ghost of a Dream will celebrate the venue’s history, which has featured smart, up-to-the-minute, international programming since the mid-’80s. After working as a curator in the space for nearly 10 years, Tung was promoted to director in 2008 and quickly hatched the notion of opening a museum.
With help from the college’s administration, she wrote a grant to hire a consultant to develop a strategic plan. Marcy Goodwin of Albuquerque-based M. Goodwin Museum Planning was working with Harvard Art Museums, and agreed to stop by when she was in town.
Goodwin made four suggestions: put in a front door so visitors can find you and the museum has a public presence; professionalize the facilities to match the high-quality exhibitions; expand the educational offerings; come up with a brand.
Tung took the assessment to Sloan, who wrote the museum into the college’s master plan. Other capital projects in the plan — a new dorm, the new Design and Media Center — drew on state funds allotted to the school. The museum didn’t technically fit under the same educational umbrella, so they had to seek private donations.
“Fund-raising was not in our blood,” Tung said. “But we’ve learned.”
That effort commenced in fits and starts during the 2008 recession. It hit another bump when Sloan retired in 2011. After a quick succession of leaders, Nelson became president in 2016.
“I got here and the project had kind of stalled,” Nelson said, sitting at a table in the museum’s education studio, with plate-glass windows out onto the plaza. “I asked to meet Lisa . . . and in five minutes, I realized this is something we have to do.”
Nelson sees the museum as intrinsic to MassArt’s mission. The school was founded in 1873 in response to the Massachusetts Drawing Act of 1870, a mandate for public schools to teach drawing.
“A space like this is the perfect fulfillment of the founding of the institution — a place where people would come to learn to see,” Nelson said.
To that end, education at MAAM is as central as art.
“We’re an art school,” Tung said. “Seventy-five percent of our students are on scholarship and they don’t have the time to go to New York or Los Angeles. The museum brings the art to them.”
Roughly 50 MassArt students work at the new museum, learning everything from how to build a wall to how to teach art.
“I’d like to think we are shaping the museum profession, which has been mostly made up of more well-to-do white men than women or people of color,” Tung said. “Our students are 30 percent people of color. They will go and work in other museums.”
Faculty across MassArt will tie curricula to exhibitions. Tung points to Vasconcelos’s large-scale, site-specific installation as an example. The piece, titled “Valkyrie Mumbet,” will honor Elizabeth “Mumbet” Freeman, an enslaved woman who sued the Commonwealth to win her freedom in 1781, and paved the way for abolition in the state. The college’s office of Justice, Equity, and Transformation can tie in, but so can the Fibers department.
MAAM’s educational imperative reaches beyond MassArt. Educational outreach has ballooned as the museum project developed. More than 2,000 visitors now take part in free programming each year. They include Looking to Learn, which sends art education students into schools and invites schoolchildren into the museum, a regular community Family Day, and Drawing Together, a community drawing session.
It’s been 11 years. Still, Tung recognizes she has only just begun. “I’ve learned some about fund-raising. There’s more. An ongoing strategic plan. Capturing data. You’re never going to know it all. And year one will be a huge learning curve,” she said. “But so far, it’s working.”