What happens in the period immediately after a major museum opens a massive new wing and, then, 12 months later, repurposes another one? Does it get to have a cup of tea and a good lie down?
Not on your life. Not, anyway, if it is the Museum of Fine Arts.
When, in late 2010, the MFA opened its gleaming new Art of the Americas Wing, its staff knew the launch celebrations signaled merely a brief pause in a continuously unspooling story.
And even after it followed up a year later by opening the Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art, in an annex originally designed by I. M. Pei in 1981, it was just another chapter heading.
So much remained to be done. But who had the energy to do it?
It was clear during the planning stages that both new wing openings would necessitate massive alterations elsewhere in the museum. Even as they forced the temporary closure of galleries affected by the construction, the new wings opened up vast spaces hitherto unavailable. They triggered new acquisitions, the return of many works from storage, and the rehanging of other works already on display.
Once the new wings opened, and after he had drawn breath, MFA director Malcolm Rogers, who recently announced plans to retire sometime in the next few years, also had to face the fact that many parts of the collection, although associated with neither wing, had been badly neglected for years, and in some cases, decades. The high standards set by the new galleries, particularly in the Art of the Americas Wing, only made the neglect more glaring.
Today, it is surprising, even after so much upheaval and tangible achievement, how incoherent the galleries devoted to some of the museum’s most important collection areas still seem. Asian art, one of the MFA’s richest and deepest departments, is fragmented and severely constrained. Egyptian art is a mishmash. The art of ancient Greece and Rome is just now beginning to get the kind of makeover it has needed for well over a decade. And so on.
And yet it is also true that over the past 18 months, the MFA has quietly opened many small but brilliant new galleries. In fact, a visitor today who had not been to the museum since the opening of the Linde Family Wing in 2011 might be astonished to discover how many new or newly installed galleries there are.
In January 2012, after the departure of George Shackelford for the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Rogers surprised everyone by appointing himself chair of the Art of Europe. In this new role, working with his senior curators, he has personally overseen the redecorating of the European old master galleries.
Already his personal stamp is everywhere in evidence. The integration of decorative arts with paintings and sculptures is a touchstone of his approach. Eclecticism is in. A sense of sumptuousness and surfeit prevails.
First, the Koch Gallery for old master paintings and Hanoverian silver was overhauled. And then, after almost a full year, the gallery for Art of the Netherlands in the 17th century was redone.
Less richly colored than the Koch gallery, the huge Dutch and Flemish gallery nonetheless looks splendid with its damask walls, its smattering of handsome Dutch furniture, and its modern vitrines containing Delft pottery and silver.
The hang, which includes no fewer than seven paintings by Rembrandt, was orchestrated by curator Ronni Baer (working with Rogers), and features 30 mostly large-scale paintings by the likes of Gerrit van Honthorst, Jan Steen, Carl Fabritius, and Gerrit Dou.
Baer has managed to secure a number of wonderful loans. Among them is a knockout portrait of a boy wearing a turban by Jan Lievens, a magnificent Rembrandt depicting his wife, Saskia, as the goddess Minerva, and a selection of works from the celebrated Van Otterloo collection.
Even before the Art of the Netherlands Gallery opened, two smaller galleries had opened on the eastern side of the museum’s original building. One is a gallery devoted to gems and jewelry of the ancient Mediterranean. Barely bigger than a domestic pantry, it nonetheless boasts some stunning objects, none more charismatic than a golden earring made in Greece between 350 and 325 BC.
One of the most famous objects in the museum, the earring is really a tiny, miraculously assured sculpture of the goddess Nike driving a two-horse chariot.
The jewels and gems are fleshed out with a few small ancient paintings showing women wearing jewelry, a discreet video showing a contemporary gem maker at work using ancient techniques, and magnifying glasses attached to movable rails that help you appreciate the dazzling details, colors, and mechanics of the objects.
Magnifying devices, an interactive digital screen, and four iPads play a crucial role in a larger, nearby gallery dedicated to ancient coins. The Michael C. Ruettgers Gallery for Ancient Coins, which, like the gallery for ancient jewelry, opened in September 2012, has quickly become a favorite — especially with younger visitors who, thanks to books like Rick Riordan’s “Percy Jackson” series, tend to know their Greek myths better than many adults.
Coins open a window onto ancient history and mythology like few other objects. But they can be hard on the eyes and pose challenges to one’s powers of concentration. This new gallery’s open layout, its handy but unobtrusive technology, and its ingeniously straightforward labeling – not to mention the collection itself, which is stunning — conspire to make numismatists of us all.
Among the coins are the world famous “Dekadrachm of Syracuse with quadriga” (circa 465 BC) — a Greek coin that also features Nike and a two-horse chariot — and a Roman denarius from 43-42 BC which boasts the head of Caesar’s assassin, Brutus, on one side, and the cap of liberty flanked by two daggers on the other.
The gallery also includes wonderful related works and contextual information — everything from a large map of the Mediterranean to a lithograph showing studies of 12 ancient coins by the 19th-century French painter Eugène Delacroix.
Christine Kondoleon, the energetic curator of Greek and Roman art, is meanwhile planning an overhaul of her galleries, which will see Greek and Roman art divided into themes: a “Homer gallery,” presided over by a celebrated bust of the great poet himself, along with objects addressing scenes from the Iliad and the Odyssey; a gallery devoted to ancient Greek theater; and another to the god Dionysus and the Greek Symposium. The new installations will open in September.
The galleries for contemporary art in the repurposed Linde Family Wing have meanwhile not stopped changing. New acquisitions and loans are being installed all the time (according to the MFA, over 80 percent of works in the wing have been reinstalled or rotated), and if the galleries themselves can still seem somewhat lackluster, at least new things are being tried.
Performance art, most recently, has been promoted with the establishment of a live program of performances and the MFA’s first purchase of a performance art piece — a concrete lectern designed for live speeches by London-based Argentine artist Amalia Pica. Important new sculptures have also been acquired, including pieces by Anish Kappor and Martin Puryear.
Of the other new galleries that have recently opened, several are period rooms.
One, the Hamilton Palace Dining Room, was first installed in 1928, but had to be dismantled during construction of the Art of the Americas Wing. Its oak details, including a monumental chimneypiece, were created by the master carver William Morgan.
One wall of the room has been fitted with glass display cases that use modern lighting to show off 95 pieces of early English silver from the Alan and Simone Hartman Collection, given to the museum in 2001.
Another gallery, dedicated to British decorative arts made between 1560 and 1830, has around 250 objects, including silver, ceramics, paintings, and furniture. The museum has also reassembled the 18th-century Newland Half Drawing Room, last seen at the MFA in the 1970s.
Some will say that devoting resources to so many galleries for the decorative arts of the United Kingdom betrays an Anglophile bias in Rogers (who is, of course, English). But these are galleries of which the museum should be proud, and I, for one, welcome their revitalization.
Still, for me, the most exciting of the new galleries is the Benin Kingdom Gallery, which unveils 34 astonishing works in bronze and ivory from the African Kingdom of Benin, most of them dating from the late 16th to the 17th century. These bronze sculptures and reliefs are regal, militaristic, and hyper-masculine. Court life and power were the immediate concerns of the highly skilled artists who made them to decorate the wooden pillars of the royal palace. The authority of the work — its rich symbolism, congested force, and technical virtuosity — makes it utterly distinctive.
Beautifully installed by Christraud Geary, the departing curator of African and Oceanic Art, the objects represent one of the highest and most distinctive achievements not just of African but of world art. They were given to the museum in 2012 by Robert Owen Lehman, and transform the MFA’s African holdings.
If the Benin Kingdom Gallery is a highlight of the museum’s recent openings, the most surprising is the Art of the English Regency Gallery. This installation of yet more English decorative arts celebrates a gift to the museum by Horace Wood Brock. Brock is an expert in forecasting and risk assessment and a discerning collector. His neo-classical and rococo furniture was lent to the museum for an exhibition in 2009, and his generous gifts to the museum have now resulted in a permanent gallery.
For now, unfortunately, the gallery sticks out as an inexplicable sort of personal whim. The room’s tented rich red fabric ceiling makes it look like a vaguely inappropriate boudoir, inducing sympathetic blushing as soon as you enter. But the objects themselves, which include a selection of furniture and wall lights by Regency style pioneer Thomas Hope, are outstanding.
At the moment, there is no other gallery like it in the vicinity, but this is expected to change as adjacent rooms get overhauled. A “Kunstkammer,” or cabinet of curiosities, gallery will open beside it in the summer.
The museum’s European Impressionist Gallery is meanwhile getting a makeover: more fabric-covered walls; fancier flooring and display cases. But the problem facing that gallery goes deeper than interior decoration: It is simply too small to do justice to the depth and quality of the MFA’s holdings, long one of the museum’s main draws.
The Impressionist and mid-19th-century works that spill out into neighboring corridors and galleries are either diluted by space restrictions or made incoherent by a historically confusing potpourri of decorative arts. The rehang of the large gallery containing Manet’s “Execution of the Emperor Maximilian,” Courbet’s “The Quarry,” Regnault’s “Automedon With the Horses of Achilles,” and two major works by Turner is, however, excellent.
Meanwhile, as I said, so many fundamental areas of the collection languish. A plan exists, but at this stage, with retirement looming, it’s hard to know if Rogers has the energy to tackle the many challenges ahead, and in particular the fund-raising. He knows already that when he departs, he will leave a material legacy of which he can be proud.
In the meantime, will the pace of change slow down as he and his leadership team let the clock wind down? Or will they demonstrate that they continue to care not just about tinkering, but doing big things — the big things that need doing?
Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.