MFA Director Picks Favorites In New Wing

By Jared Bowen


Our preview of the Museum of Fine Arts’ brand new Art of the Americas wing continues with an insider’s take. MFA Director Malcolm Rogers takes Jared Bowen on a tour of his five favorite spaces.

BOSTON -- Malcolm Rogers has been director of the Museum of Fine Arts for 16 years now. He’s weathered well the hits he took early on for being the brash newcomer daring to populate the museum with the likes of Herb Ritts or the cars of Ralph Lauren.

Because that same unconventional vision galvanized a city of supporters to help erect the new, 504-million dollar Art of the Americas wing -- a decade-long endeavor.

To Rogers, it didn’t feel that long. “We’ve been so busy in those years that its gone like lightning,” he said. “And of course to see a dream realized is absolutely extraordinary.”

Shaman effigy pendant Tairona, A.D. 900–1600. Gift to the MFA by London C. Clay. (courtesy MFA)
Shaman effigy pendant Tairona, A.D. 900–1600. Gift to the MFA by London C. Clay. (courtesy MFA)

The charge Rogers gave his staff was as comprehensive as it was ambitious. When they say Art of the Americas, they mean North, Central and South America – an incredibly broad collection of work.

“Our intentions are really to show all those complicated cultural ethnic which make up the continent and make America what it is today, ” Rogers said.

But amid all that dazzles and beckons in 5,000 pieces now on display, Rogers reveals there are a few pieces that really make him marvel.

We start in the gallery at the bottom of the wing, which is devoted to native North American art. Rogers explains the MFA was one of the first American museums to start collected this material.

Rogers’ first pick is an Apache war bonnet. “Something like this was supposed to intimidate your enemies,” Rorgers said. “It’s curious because now we wear camouflage. It seems people wanted to make themselves noticeable on the battlefield before.”

Next, we head to the pre-Colombian gallery. “We have a fantastic collection. And many of the pieces are tiny. Some are massive. But they all have incredible workmanship and an incredible imagination,” Malcom said.

he Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882 John Singer Sargent. (courtesy MFA)
The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882 John Singer Sargent. (courtesy MFA)

His favorite? “I remember a Bostonian lady saying she’d given us a wonderful pre-Columbian gold pin and she looked at it and said, that used to make a beautiful pin to wear at the symphony,” Rogers said. “And, you know, it was cheap…not cheap, but you know what I mean, decorative jewelry of a certain sort. That’s really Boston. Now it’s in the museum.”

Next where off to the second floor, to the museum’s formidable collection of John Singer Sargent paintings. It’s a unique space – few museums, Rogers said, have a Sargent collection rivaling the MFA’s. He takes me to the iconic painting of four young girls in a parlor. It’s called The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit.

“Well here we are in a gallery full of wonderful Sargeants. But this is the Sargeant,” Rogers said – indeed, the painting is something of an icon for the museum. “One of the most wonderful portraits of childhood there’s ever been. Beautiful children, but also fascinating and mysterious what with their personalities.”

Rogers explained what he knows about their history. “We know they never married, for instance. We knew they were rather pale and ineffective when they were young. But several of them led interesting lives,” Rogers said.

“The thing is, that Sargent makes you ask these questions and he doesn’t give you an answer. So you’ll look at this painting again and again and again and try to solve the mystery but never quite succeed, but you have to come see it again,” Rogers continued.

The Salon Room at the MFA. (courtesy MFA)

Now, we move to the salon gallery. This time, Malcom’s not trying to highlight a single object, but rather a gallery as object.

“It shows American painting from the second half of the nineteenth century exhibited in a way it might have been exhibited in a 19th century exhibition,” Rogers said. “From floor to ceiling, different shapes and sizes of pictures jammed together and obviously combined with beautiful sculpture.”

The gallery highlights how the very hanging of art is something of an art form. “My colleague who hung this gallery…you’re putting together a giant jigsaw puzzle where the pieces fit. But they aren’t shaped to fit if you see what I mean,” Rogers said.

The gallery shows scenes from all over the world, showing how American painters traveled the globe to find them. “The majority of them were painted Europe, in France, in Italy and so on. Some in America, though,” Rogers said. “Actually, some of the most spectacular paintings in this gallery are American.” Rogers is quite partial to the views of Niagra Falls.

The gallery seems a lot more benign than the war bonnet. But Rogers wants to show just how diverse the wing is. “That’s again, the idea that the whole wing should be a place of contrast.”

Carousel Figure of a Greyhound Charles I. D. Looff (courtesy MFA)
Carousel Figure of a Greyhound Charles I. D. Looff (Courtesy MFA)

Our last stop is the folk art gallery.

“I love Man’s Best Friend, this greyhound from a carousel. Just the kind of object you fall in love with. Such a strong silhouette. You want to pat it,” Malcom said, “We shouldn’t pat it we’re in a museum!”

Rogers laughs when I ask him if he had a “heavy hand” in the process of curating the Wing. “I have a light touch is the phrase, Jared,” Rogers said, with a twinkle in his eye. “I’ve been working on this project for 10 years. At the end I wanted a little bit of fun. So I’ve certainly been tweaking some of the displays.”

He likes the folk art room because of the unconventional pieces it holds, like quilts and weathervanes. “This is something that was a real surprise to me. A real delight,” Rogers said, noting that weathervanes are common in his home country of Britain, but rare in the U.S. “And I think in this group of weathervanes here we’ve created something that again every visitor, but particularly kids will remember.”

So how should visitors go around finding new favorites of their own?

“Well, they should make the first visit. But this is a huge project. 53 galleries. You cannot see it all in one visit, Rogers said, “It needs several visits just to begin to understand it.”

And Rogers thinks people will want to keep coming back. “I believe there’s such a profusion of material here, so many treasures that you won’t be exhausted.”

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