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MFA set to open its first crowdsourced exhibit

Two paintings in the finals of the “Boston Loves Impressionism” contest: Vincent van Gogh’s “Houses at Auvers” and Claude Monet’s “Water Lilies” (pictured).Museum of Fine Arts/© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

It turns out you, too, can be a curator.

At the Museum of Fine Arts, where bucking tradition is something of an art form itself, curators for the Impressionist gallery recently invited members of the public to go online and vote for their favorite paintings, with the top voter-getters earning a spot in an upcoming special exhibit, “Boston Loves Impressionism,” featuring works from the MFA’s vaunted collection.

The crowdsourcing event and the resulting exhibit, which opens on Valentine’s Day, is being shepherded by Emily Beeny, the MFA’s assistant curator of European paintings. And while it has drawn a great deal of public feedback, with more than 10,000 people voting in the third round, which concluded Sunday night, Beeny doesn’t see the event as a threat to curators’ jobs.


“I think a lot of people voting are probably regular visitors. So I have faith in their judgment,” Beeny said. “Ours is an extraordinary collection, so whatever they chose will be compelling and have a story to tell. And I’ll be proud to hang it on the walls.”

Beeny said her confidence in the public vote, which took place Jan. 6-26, is due partly to Boston’s very old love affair with Impressionism, which the exhibit is meant to celebrate.

“Bostonians bought into Impressionism long before it was cool in the 1870s and ’80s, and even ’90s,” Beeny said. “Even New Yorkers, considered to be more cosmopolitan then, leaned toward more academic artistic styles. It was a period where Impressionists were still widely mocked and ridiculed even in Paris. And because of the foresight in Boston, some of the best collections of Impressionism have grown here over the years. It’s quite fascinating.”

“Boston Loves Impressionism” was the brainchild of MFA director Malcolm Rogers, who has demonstrated before that he’s willing to weave out of traditional lanes with exhibitions and show a populist flair. In 2005, Rogers raised eyebrows when he arranged an exhibition of yachts and racing sailboats owned by billionaire industrialist and MFA supporter William Koch on the front lawn of the MFA.


In an interview last week, Rogers said that he considers “Boston Loves Impressionism” to be a great success, because it has given the public insight into how decisions are made.

“The thing that interests me is it’s getting people to express affection, their love for objects. They are choosing the way a curator would and finding out how difficult it is,” Rogers said. “Plus, this is just quite enjoyable, given the subject matter. It’s nice to have an election where the two parties are Monet and Van Gogh.”

While he, like Beeny, has faith in the public’s vote, Rogers said he was surprised at some of what was chosen and rejected.

“I was quite surprised, for example, to find Monet’s ‘Grainstacks’ near the bottom,” he said. “But it reminds me that some of the pictures we regard as very important from a scholarly perspective aren’t as important to the public.”

Rogers admits he voted in this contest, but won’t say for whom. “Now that wouldn’t be proper, would it?” he said, before adding, “It’s a secret. But it might begin with an ‘M’.”

Each week, voters were given a different theme: “On the Water,” “From the Land,” and “Of the People.” Anna Dunbar, a South Shore office manager and freelance art writer, voted each time, consistently casting her lot with Paul Cézanne.


“It’s not that I don’t like Monet or Manet or Renoir. It’s just that I really like Cézanne, and lucky for me, one of his works has been in contention each week,” Dunbar said. She said she likes the way the event challenged her mentally.

“What’s really drawn me to this project is the dynamic of public voting, yes. But I really appreciated how it made you think differently when viewing the art and how you viewed the art. It made everyone who voted a curator for a little bit of time.”

Involving the public in selecting art is not exactly new. The Baltimore Museum of Art has crowdsourced exhibitions. The Chicago History Museum recently hosted a crowdsourcing event to determine the contents of an exhibition on Chicago’s literary history. The Smithsonian American Art Museum crowdsourced its “The Art of Video Games” exhibition, and the Plains Art Museum hosted “You Like This: A Democratic Approach to the Museum Collection.”

Final round voting for the top 10 public picks in “Boston Loves Impressionism,” which include Vincent Van Gogh’s “Houses at Auvers,” Claude Monet’s “Water Lillies,” Edgar Degas’s “Little-Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer,” and Camille Pissarro’s “Two Peasant Women in a Meadow,” ended Wednesday night.

Winners will be revealed Feb. 14, when the exhibition “Boston Loves Impressionism” opens with 30 paintings selected by the public, 10 of which will be marked as Boston’s favorites.

The MFA’s Sidney and Esther Rabb Gallery of European Impressionism is scheduled to reopen in June.


James H. Burnett III can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @JamesBurnett.

Correction: Because of reporting errors, an earlier version of this article misrepresented the number of people who participated in the third round of voting for their favorite painting at the MFA. The correct number is 10,000. And Claude Monet’s name was misspelled in an earlier version.