Visiting the Museum of Fine Arts during Malcolm Rogers’s tenure has been like booking into a grand hotel with an impeccable manager. From the New England-themed cuisine in the cafe to the sound of his plummy voice on audio tours of major exhibitions, Rogers has seen to detail like a gently hovering host. He’s tickled to share his treasures, and he aims to please.
All Bostonians owe a debt of gratitude to Rogers, who last week announced plans to retire. His 19 years at the helm of the city’s premier museum coincided with its impressive growth. He reconnected the museum to the city — literally, by opening more entrances, and figuratively, by creating the spectacular Art of the Americas wing.
Despite its broad title, the new space primarily focuses on the art of Boston, with especially loving attention to colonial portraitist John Singleton Copley and, a floor above, the great John Singer Sargent, who captured the Bostonians of the late 1800s. The expansion gave sharper definition to a museum that had previously been best known for its antiquities and told Boston’s story in a vivid new way: A trip to the Art of the Americas wing has become essential for visitors who hope to understand this city.
At times, Rogers has been accused of being a little too eager to please. While shows celebrating glass artist Dale Chihuly, celebrity photographer Mario Testino, and Edgar Degas’s nudes drew big crowds, a top-notch museum can do more to challenge conventional tastes and draw attention to underappreciated works. But that sounds like a job for Rogers’s successor. Every new regime is, after all, a comment on the one before it. And no director can match Rogers’s skills as a showman and master builder.