Expansion Brings MFA To New Heights

By Jared Bowen


Nov. 17, 2010

BOSTON -- The Museum of Fine Arts’ new addition is no mere addition. The freshly opened Art of the Americas Wing at the MFA may well be considered a whole new museum in Boston -- a grand one.

“Just this wing alone is bigger than the Guggenheim,” said MFA Director Malcom Rogers, “I believe it is. I haven’t taken my tape measure out but, well, 53 galleries. I keep saying it.”

It seems so long ago now -- a decade, in fact -- that the MFA announced plans to create a new home for its American art collection. But one enthusiastic groundbreaking and more than $504 million later, the massive wing anchors the museum on Huntington Avenue. Between a new glass courtyard and four levels of galleries, it adds 28 percent more space to the MFA and allows for twice as many objects to be on view -- some 5,000 pieces in all.

Rogers says it’s more than he imagined at the outset of the project. “I have to say the whole team working on this—we found more treasures in our storerooms than we realized. And I never expected both the brilliance of the design from the architect, but also the design team. The way things are displayed is just spectacular.”

The George Putnam Gallery of ship models and maritime arts is on the ground floor of the new wing. (Courtesy MFA)  

New Heights For The MFA

“It’s like being in a dream,” says Elliot Bostwick Davis, who chairs the MFA’s Art of the Americas department. She has overseen the installation, which unfolds chronologically from bottom to top.

“It definitely is an evolution. The earliest collections for us are the art of the ancient Americas for us about 900 BC,” Bostwick Davis explained. “And then we extend as far forward as about the third quarter of the 20th century, and in some cases a bit later.”

Following that path would take you from pre-Columbian gold to artifacts of Native Americans. One level up, there’s a shimmering look at Paul Revere’s famed portrait by John Singleton Copley, and his own works in silver. Here too you’ll find one of the most impressive galleries in all the museum. Next to Gilbert Stuart’s famed portraits of George and Martha Washington—on which the one-dollar bill portrait of the former was modeled – is the imposing Passage of the Delaware.

Bostwick Davis explained that the whole wing was thought through with the MFA’s collection in mind – but for no work is that truer than this one. “The ceiling actually had to be cut out in cove to make sure that the original frame by John Doggett would fit in,” Bostwick Davis said. “So that it could be installed. And it’s installed I think beautifully in terms of really filling the space.”

Another level up, you’re delivered into galleries of breathtaking design with masterpieces from a burgeoning nation courtesy artists like Winslow Homer. Then atop it all, you’ll find modern art with classics by Edward Hopper, Jackson Pollack, Grant Wood and Art Deco design.

So how does one even begin to take this all in? Bostwick Davis says it’s easy. “Follow your path and your heart and see what captures your imagination. We hope that with over 5,000 objects there’ll be something here that will capture everybody’s imagination.”

Structure As Art, Too

The structure itself was imagined by the firm Foster and Partners of London. A signature space in the museum is a new glass-covered courtyard saturated in natural light.

 “This new courtyard is very much a space where people will be able to sit, to think, to ponder, to talk, to have a cup of coffee, to have a croissant, whatever,” said Spencer de Grey, the head of Foster and Partners. “And it’s a sort of release, it’s a breathing space independent of all the wonderful galleries both old and new in the museum.”

The wing as a whole is designed for moments of respite with glass-lined halls that reveal the landscape around the MFA, which de Grey explained are meant to serve as a visual sorbet between art-infused strolls.

 “It’s also important to be able to literally rest your eyes when you’re looking at things very close up, to have opportunities where you get big distant views, whether it’s to the court or whether it’s to the outside,” de Grey explained.

That’s because inside is sumptuous. Rather than staid gray or bright white, the new gallery walls are rich with color.

The Ancient Mezoamerican Gallery. (Courtesy MFA)  

Framing The Work, Framing The Wing

Keith Crippen, the MFA’s head designer, said they tried to stylize the galleries to fit the artwork. “Like a painting has a frame and all the objects should have this framework, the colors of the galleries as well and the other stylized trappings that we’re using,” Crippen said.

The display cases are unlike anything you’ve seen before—because they were designed specifically for the wing in Milan. They feature non-reflective glass and hidden hinges and climate control.

 “The casework would be the most innovative material that we’re using in these galleries,” Crippen said.

Literally pulled from either the basement or their cramped quarters in the former East wing. Many of the works now on display have been painstakingly restored including 4,000 hours spent on the Delaware alone. In a word, the state of the art here is glorious.

Tune in to Greater Boston Wednesday at 7 p.m. for part two of our three-part MFA preview.

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