Museum directors set their sights on city’s future
Among them, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum director Anne Hawley, Institute of Contemporary Art director Jill Medvedow, and Museum of Fine Arts director Malcolm Rogers have led their institutions for a total of 58 years. They’ve raised hundreds of millions of dollars, led massive museum construction projects, and expanded staff and programming. But running a major Boston museum remains a challenge, they say, particularly in a city that provides few resources (re: cash). That’s why all three directors are closely monitoring John Connolly and Marty Walsh’s battle for City Hall. What do they hope to see from the next mayor of Boston? We gathered Hawley, Medvedow, and Rogers at the MFA recently to talk about city politics, their missions, and more. Here are excerpts.
Q. In September, MASSCreative held a packed mayoral forum on arts and culture. We heard candidates talking about creating a new cabinet-level position for the arts. What did you think of that?
Rogers: We haven’t always felt there’s been a strong representative within the administration. So to have a cabinet position would be tremendous, if that cabinet post is at the table. The arts, generally, have not been around the table when decisions have been made.
Hawley: I think it’s because of the history in Boston, in particular, of private philanthropy really carrying the arts sector. We just assume we will keep on doing what we do.
Medvedow: Part of what we want is for the arts to be made a priority and valued for what they bring. In the introduction to that panel, what was said was that the arts generate 10,000 jobs, 10 million visitors, and a billion dollars in economic activity. Those are big numbers.
Q. Let’s talk Mayor Menino. Matt Wilson of MASSCreative, this new advocacy group, has criticized the mayor for not doing enough to push the arts. Do you agree?
Medvedow: This is a time to look forward.
Rogers: My answer as well.
Medvedow: Already, with filling the Paramount Theatre [for that forum], that showed that with this opportunity of a change in the administration, for the first time the creative community has had this motivation to come together and work in an organized fashion. Having said that, 20 years ago this was a very different city, and a lot of that credit should go to Mayor Menino.
Rogers: Most of my career here we’ve been working on the Avenue of the Arts, which was a great stroke to create that. Could more have been done? Yes, but nevertheless that was a great gesture that framed what we’ve been trying to achieve.
Q. When people talk about the city’s arts and culture during the Menino years, there’s a sense that yes, great things happened, but without a united front from the arts community.
Hawley: The cultural sector doesn’t really have a flying wedge in order to really interact with either the city or the state. MASSCreative has been formed as an advocacy, policy push, but years ago, when I first came to this city, there was the Metropolitan Cultural Alliance. We all are very fragmented. We don’t see each other enough.
Rogers: We spend all our time raising money when we should be talking to one another more.
Q. One interesting thing about that forum: There was lots of talk about small organizations. I think your museums were only mentioned once. One of the candidates said museums should let children in for free, which, of course, you already do.
Medvedow: One of the things is we need some facts. When we have a new mayor, the mayor has to hire hopefully a cabinet-level person. There’s work this person needs to do to actually make recommendations based on some really serious fact- and data-gathering.
Hawley: And they need to hire someone with real gravitas, not just a political appointee.
Q. When the idea came up at the forum, one of the candidates suggested hiring an artist for this position. Good idea? Bad idea? And what should that person do?
Medvedow: They need skills of persuasion. They need to be traveled. I think that would bring something important into the city: Someone who has seen how other cities worked. It also depends who this person is working for.
Hawley: They need to work for the mayor, not for his chief of staff.
Rogers: And you need someone who is a great negotiator, who is very persuasive.
Hawley: Somebody like André Malraux, only in the 21st century.
Medvedow: How about Michael Bloomberg? He needs a job. [Laughs]
Hawley: Someone who has great cachet can often make things happen. If you had Cate Blanchett, for example — not to be frivolous.
Medvedow: I’d be careful. I don’t think we want our message to be we hire a famous artist and let’s keep our fingers crossed that that person can do a great job. I think it’s find a great person and let them do their job. One of the things a mayor has is the opportunity to talk across all the sectors and make sure that some of their political capital is used to raise money from the private sector. We want to see a pool of money, not a project funded, so that an agenda can get moved. I think part of what I’m hearing here is that there’s greatness in Boston, great centers of excellence, but it may be true that the sum of our parts don’t add up to a bigger, more cohesive vision.
Rogers: It could be an artist but it has to be someone who has these other skills. Planning skills. Budgetary skills. Political skills.
Medvedow: It has to be someone who wakes up in the morning and this is what they think about. But I think there’s something knee-jerk about saying, ‘We should have an artist.’ Why? They’re completely different jobs. I don’t think I could do that job. That’s a policy job. I’ve never had a policy job.
Q. Malcolm, you recently sent a letter to the city protesting a plan by the Wentworth Institute of Technology to build a tower across from the MFA. What’s one thing each of you wish you could stop or change right around your museum?
Rogers: My main response is that we should try to get together and really think of a long-term plan for the Avenue of the Arts. We at the museum knew about Wentworth’s plans just a few months before they were launched. We were not consulted, and then we have two minutes to speak.
Hawley: The whole area of the Fenway is impacted greatly by the hospitals and the Harvard Medical School, which are in huge expansionary mode both in terms of traffic and ambulances and real estate. Can the hospitals keep moving down toward us and build towers that shadow our buildings, create congestion? Or are there are other ways they can expand? The traffic is really grim on the Fenway.
Q. It’s really hard to park at the Gardner.
Hawley: I know, it’s terrible. I agree.
Rogers: Park at the MFA. [Laughs, then turns to Medvedow] How do you feel about what’s happening around you? Do you always feel you know what’s happening around the ICA?
Medvedow: We have a good sense of what’s happening, but there needs to be a longer term plan. When the ICA won designation of that land and it was against all odds, the land was not that popular. Now we’re healthy and we are rightfully thinking long term about our own needs of expansion. Not now, but we will need that. But when all waterfront land is privately owned, there is very little negotiation possible. So the issue is what kind of a waterfront do we want? That is where a city actually could be instrumental.
Q. Can you expand?
Medvedow: We can’t expand on site. We’re lucky because the developer on Fan Pier, Joe Fallon, does keep us well informed. But the changes are coming faster on the waterfront than anyone could have anticipated as capital got freed up. For us to move that quickly, we almost need our own developer, practically. So we are looking for partners in City Hall.
Hawley: Who is carving that vision now for the waterfront?
Medvedow: The private developers.
Hawley: But not the city?
Medvedow: No, the master plan got approved a decade ago and everybody is operating according to the plan. My strong conviction is that that plan needs to be reexamined, given how much the world has changed since it was created.
Q. It sounds like the three of you are talking about the same problem: not being at the table early enough in the planning process.
Medvedow: And not being valued enough for the contributions we make across all sectors of life.
Rogers: You do see in other cities that commitment that [the arts] should be part of any kind of commercial development. That’s a notion that could be brought here and be extended. If you’re talking a whole area like the waterfront, you should be saying, ‘What’s the green component, what’s the arts component, is there a musical component?’ I don’t think there’s that feeling of ‘This is what makes a rich neighborhood.’
Q. Money obviously talks. What can museums do to increase economic clout?
Rogers: First of all, there needs to be a recognition of what we do. Nobody should be receiving grants unless they can give a statement of what their economic and cultural impact is so we can bring all these things together and show how powerful we are.
Hawley: Of course, you don’t want public policy to be driven by economic impact. Then, really, public policy would have to follow who, say, gets the most tourists and most traffic. That might be the Museum of Sex.
Rogers: And I’m not saying that. But nevertheless, you have to talk to public figures in terms of their self-interest, whether it’s enlightened or not.
Medvedow: We do know our numbers. We need to speak with a more united voice and we need to be articulate and demanding about what we do.
Q. You’ve each been leading your museums for a long time. Is there any kind of succession plan?
Medvedow: This question gets leveled all the time. Every one of these institutions deserves a search for the best, smartest, most creative, energetic, and most fantastic leader. An international search to get the best and the brightest.
Rogers: And in a place where people want to work. So you can’t have a bankrupt institution and you won’t get the best unless you have a city that’s a magnet for talent.
Hawley: In fact, right now we’re searching for a chief curator and we’re getting so many people contacting us who want to leave Italy, want to leave England, want to leave France because of the terrible economic situation. American museums are seen as vibrant and not weighed down by bureaucracies or policies inhibiting creativity.
Q. So if we organize a museum director chat in three years, will we all be at the same table?
Rogers: [Laughs] Well, we’ll probably have built a new wing by then.