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Judicial Review #5: After the Hoopla — The MFA’s New Art of the Americas Wing

The Arts Fuse, March 11, 2011 (read there)

The new Art of the Americas Wing at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston is the product of a 10-year effort by director Malcolm Rogers. It entailed a $504 million fundraising campaign, double anything previously seen in Boston, according to reporting by Geoff Edgers, and resulted in a 133,491-square-foot expansion of the iconic Fenway building.

Of note, the project as it was originally conceived survived the economic downturn of 2008. In contrast, when the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) began its expansion in 2006, it was able to do so thanks to a partnership with Washington Mutual. One wonders how well SAM’s director slept between WaMu’s 2008 collapse and the 2009 decision by Northwestern Mutual to acquire WaMu’s share of SAM’s new, mixed-used building. The new wing also avoided insulting the neighborhood’s architectural fabric. Again, in contrast, after the Frank-Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall opened in Los Angeles in 2003, neighbors across the street complained that the sun reflecting off of its curved, mirrored surfaces was parboiling them, and workmen had to be called to grind off some of the sheen. In the MFA’s case, so far, so good.

That leaves the use of the building itself. My initial impression of the new Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, when it opened in 2006, was that the facility was impressive, in some places sublime, but that the art seemed to fit into it like a teenager into a hurriedly tailored suit. It takes time for a museum’s curators to figure out the nuances of a new exhibition space, and I gave them a pass on it. But lack of depth in its permanent collection and curatorial turnover has made this a slow process. And it isn’t for not trying. They recently removed the computers from the Mediatheque and are considering new ways to use it. The moral of the story here is that even with a satisfactory construction project, museological success is hardly assured.

Coming in to evaluate that success is John Pyper, a regular contributor to Daily Serving, and Matthew Gamber, who was one of the driving forces behind Big Red & Shiny. I picked them because both are hard-hitting critics who care profoundly about the status of Boston as an art center. We all want to see it develop further and believe that it can. The new Art of the Americas Wing is a significant addition to the local artistic landscape and likely to be the largest for some time to come.

Word count: 412

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