Boston MFA takes Flight with New American Wing

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The Boston Museum of Fine Arts, one of the great public museums established just after the Civil War, has recently opened “Art of the Americas,” a new wing filled with its outstanding collections of American fine and decorative arts.  As some of you know, the Boston MFA underwent a controversial restructuring more than a decade ago, shifting from departments organized by media (e.g., paintings, ceramics, furniture) to geography (e.g., Europe, Asia, and America) and firing some longtime curators (including Jonathan Fairbanks, who created the American Decorative Arts and Sculpture department at the MFA).  I’m assuming one of the results of this restructuring is “Art of the Americas.”  This four-story exhibit consists of 53 galleries tracing the history of art from pre-Columbian to Modern periods for the continents of North and South America, so along with the expected Chippendale chairs and Copley portraits, there are Peruvian funerary urns and Acoma pots.  It’s so large that it took me nearly three hours just to cruise through it at a walking pace and I didn’t make it to the fourth floor, which explored the 20th century.

Unlike most art museums, the exhibit mixes fine and decorative arts, so you often encounter paintings, furniture, silver, and ceramics in the same installation.  It also includes different types of period rooms (sometimes even buildings) using the architectural elements (such as wall paneling and door surrounds) that the MFA collected early in the 20th century (a type of collecting that is rarely possible today without raising the ire of the community).  But the interpretation is greatly enhanced by labels that include not just the usual “tombstone” text of title, date, and artist, but also much more context, such as a short bio of the person depicted, the meaning and significance of the object, notes about alterations and conservation, and references to other objects on exhibit.  This change is subtle but important:  it broadens the traditional focus from the artist to the period in which these objects were created.  The wing also includes some behind-the-scenes exhibits that allow visitors to explore the challenges of art conservation and curating (but they are located behind the exhibits so it really is behind-the-scenes).   The galleries are beautifully installed and you will encounter some marvelous artifacts, and yes, as many critics noted, there are serious gaps (but what can you expect for a topic so ambitious).

A more prominent weakness was the confusing arrangement of the galleries which suggested an old fashioned intellectual perspective.  For example, the Hopi, Acoma, and other native peoples are placed together in the gallery adjacent with 17th century materials of English immigrants, as if these native cultures were all the same and disappeared with the Pilgrims.  And while decorative arts (e.g., chairs and desks) has finally been integrated with fine arts (i.e., paintings and sculpture), folk art is in its own segregated gallery once it hits the 19th century.  Finally, I’m not sure what the MFA wants me to think about as a result of a visit.  Sure, art museums focus on aesthetics and there are many beautiful things displayed beautifully, but it’s not random.  Each object is carefully selected and located, but other than noticing a chronological order, what’s the point?  The book that accompanies the exhibit may have the answer, but I had hoped to discover it in the galleries (perhaps it was in the last gallery I wasn’t able to reach before closing!).  So, you’ll have to find out yourself when you visit Boston–and be sure to allow at least four hours.

For more thoughts, check out the reviews by Sebastian Smee of the Boston GlobeChristopher Knight in the Los Angeles Times, Ada Louis Huxtable in the Wall Street Journal, and Holland Cotter in the New York Times.