Bringing the Americas to Boston

The MFA's new Art of the Americas Wing is the most ambitious project yet for sometimes-controversial director Malcolm Rogers.

Standing in the new wing, Malcolm Rogers says the goal is "telling the story of America in a slightly new way."

Standing in the new wing, Malcolm Rogers says the goal is "telling the story of America in a slightly new way."


Malcolm Rogers has received both acclaim and criticism at the helm of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. His shows have drawn new audiences to the galleries, and his old world charm has endeared him to trustees and donors and helped fill the museum’s coffers. Yet his management tactics as well as promotion of both private collection shows and pop crowd-pleasers have rankled some critics, staff, and fellow museum directors. Now, after 16 years of ups and downs in Boston, the British-born director’s most ambitious vision stands realized: the museum’s Art of the Americas Wing.

The 121,000-square-foot, largely transparent pavilion of glass and granite, designed by Foster + Partners and built at a cost of $504 million, incorporates Spanish colonial, Latin American colonial, and African American slave art into the narrative—something no U.S. encyclopedic museum has done before.

“I think people are interested in telling the story of America in a slightly different way,” says Rogers. “At a time when America is becoming more and more diverse, it seemed a good time to explore the diverse strands of history that make America what it is. Even though there are many cruel points in that history.”

“We want to offer people an opportunity to recognize themselves, and to see the achievements of the cultures from which they sprung,” he says. “We have a long way to go, but we’re hoping for help from collectors and donors so we can be more representative of today’s America.”

The wing has 53 galleries spread over four levels. The installations range from pre-Columbian artifacts on the lower level to colonial-era period rooms on the first floor to folk and modern art on the upper stories, where the glass walls afford views of the city skyline. Galleries drawing attention to Boston’s place in American history include one focused on maritime works and another on the paintings of John Singer Sargent.

The adopted son of an English farmer, Rogers came to Boston after he was passed over for the director’s post at the National Portrait Gallery in London, where he’d worked himself up from librarian to deputy director over the course of two decades. He says he had no particular agenda when he took over the museum in 1994. “I merely felt I’d won a great prize,” Rogers recalls, his characteristic grin animating his face. “I was aware that there were difficulties facing me. But I felt I’d learn on the job.”

The MFA that greeted Rogers was a far cry from today’s institution. Steep budget shortfalls forced the new director to trim one sixth of the museum’s workforce in his first 100 days. Yet even in austerity Rogers insisted on a grand gesture: the reopening of the Huntington Avenue entrance his predecessor had closed. “The public is not interested in our suffering,” Rogers declares. “We needed to balance our budget. But we also needed to invest in something that would show there was life in here.” And even in today’s difficult economy, Rogers insists on keeping the museum open seven days a week, Wednesday to Friday until 9:45 P.M.

Yet this embrace of populism has also been a source of criticism. Rogers loaned 21 Monets to a Las Vegas casino (for a fee of $1 million), and the MFA was the first major museum to show Herb Ritts’s fashion photography, in 1996, and Ralph Lauren’s cars, in 2005. Rogers has also been critiqued for dismissing two popular longtime curators as part of a controversial reorganization, and for plunking a yacht on the museum’s front lawn as part of a show of objects belonging to his friend and MFA benefactor William I. Koch. Koch was among 62 donors who gave $1 million apiece to fund the Art of the Americas Wing.

“Malcolm is a person willing to take risks in a community that isn’t really used to risks,” says Jody Gill, a former civil rights lawyer who joined the MFA board of trustees in 2008 and chairs the museum’s diversity advisory committee. “He’s smart, he’s got a great sense of humor, and there isn’t nearly as much guile as you’d expect in someone who has to raise that much money. Most importantly, he’s put Humpty Dumpty back together again. And people are very grateful for that.”

“I don’t think he gets enough credit for his knowledge of art history,” says Peter Marzio, longtime director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, who also considers himself an industry maverick. “You can be charming and clever and ambitious, but you can’t build a great museum unless you know what you’re talking about. And Malcolm clearly does.”

Ken Shulman writes about the arts from Boston.

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