Now Banned in Boston: A Decent Art Museum

Nothing is more ominous in the museum world today than announcements of grandiose bureaucratic ambitions for expansion, restructuring and–the worst malediction of all–some overreaching Strategic Plan in capital letters. For current fashions in museology all tend to subordinate esthetic distinctions to a variety of extra-artistic imperatives–political, social, commercial, administrative or some unholy combination of all four. We have entered upon an age of the museum commissars, for whom artistic questions are at best a fringe issue and who look upon such old-fashioned niceties as scholarship, connoisseurship and the esthetic standards that derive from them as expendable impediments to populist appeal.

While many of our art museums have lately been afflicted by this mania for bureaucratic expansion at the expense of art and scholarship, it has been left to the unfortunate Museum of Fine Arts in Boston to give us a glimpse of what this malevolent development is likely to signify for the future when the commissar mentality has fully succeeded in stripping our art institutions of the last vestiges of esthetic conscience.

Earlier this summer, the M.F.A. announced–in the words of the museum’s own press department–”an organizational restructuring to position itself to achieve its Strategic Plan, a design for significant transformation of the Museum over the next 10 years.” As a sign of the institutional ethos that could be expected to prevail under this “restructuring,” some 18 longtime employees of the museum, including two senior curators, were summarily fired, and entire departments were absorbed into the kind of senseless mega-divisions that only a mind indifferent to esthetic distinctions could really love.

What this will mean in practice is that the M.F.A.’s great collections of American painting and American decorative arts, which for many Bostonians have a special significance as part of their local history, will now be absorbed into an unwieldy new division called Art of the Americas, where they will presumably vie for attention with Guatemalan textiles, the Eskimo art of northern Canada, Haitian primitive painting and the pre-Columbian sculpture of ancient Mexico. Lest you have any doubt that this reflects an unacknowledged surrender to the imperatives of multiculturalist ideology, the museum has offered assurances that this new Art of the Americas division “will continue the Museum’s collaboration with the National Center of Afro-American Artists.”

The museum’s Department of Contemporary Art is to remain intact, apparently, but while there are now to be no separate departments devoted to painting, there is to be a new department of photography. As for the M.F.A.’s world-famous collections of Asian art, they will now be absorbed into a new division devoted to the art of Asia and Africa. This is guaranteed to make the museum’s modest holdings in African art a mere adjunct to its stellar Asian collections. In any case, it hardly makes sense–artistic or cultural sense–to merge these Asian and African collections, but it was not to be expected, I suppose, that the juggernaut of the new Strategic Plan would be able to accommodate such petty intellectual distinctions. It does rather look, however, like a new department of nonwhite civilizations.

And as no Strategic Plan would be complete without a costly new building program, it had already been announced that the M.F.A. has engaged the services of the British architect Sir Norman Foster “to develop a master plan for renovation and expansion of the Museum.” Sound familiar? Well, yes. The M.F.A. has been undergoing one or another “renovation and expansion” for almost as long as some of us can remember, and they never seem to get it quite right. Will the British knight succeed where American talent has failed? Time will tell, of course. But museumgoers who are familiar with Mr. Foster’s rather cramped and infelicitous addition to the Royal Academy of the Arts in London will know what they can look forward to in this expansion.

The author of all these changes at the M.F.A. is its current director, Malcolm Rogers, whose sole claim to distinction before coming to Boston five years ago was his tenure as deputy director of London’s National Portrait Gallery, a museum that has never been concerned with questions of esthetic quality. (When I visited the National Portrait Gallery earlier this summer, its principal exhibition was devoted to photographs of rock stars that were clearly not selected on the basis of artistic merit. Neither was the sound-track piped into the galleries.) When I first heard of Mr. Rogers’ appointment to the M.F.A.’s directorship, it struck me as an odd choice precisely because the National Portrait Gallery is not really a fine arts museum.

But I can better understand now why the M.F.A. board of trustees made Mr. Rogers their choice. They were desperately looking for a director who could be counted upon to bring buzz to the museum, and in this respect Mr. Rogers has proved to be a resounding success. There has certainly been plenty of buzz this summer as the news of Mr. Rogers’ handling of the restructuring of the museum made headlines–though not, perhaps, the kind of buzz the board of trustees had desired. Donors to the museum were said to be canceling their gifts, benefactors were reported to be writing the museum out of their wills, and the art public in Boston was left wondering what dreadful fate had befallen their great institution.

As to what it will be like for professional curators to work under Mr. Rogers’ new Strategic Plan commissariat, his treatment of the two senior curators he fired in June is certain to haunt him–and the M.F.A.–for many years to come. Jonathan Fairbanks founded the M.F.A.’s Department of American Decorative Arts 28 years ago, and he is everywhere recognized as one of the leading scholars and connoisseurs in his field. Ann Poulet was the curator of European decorative arts for some 20 years, and had been preparing a retrospective of the French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon when she was booted out without notice. This is the way Jason Edward Kaufman reported their dismissal in The Wall Street Journal : “With cold corporate efficiency they were escorted by security to the human resources department, where they were stripped of their keys and passes and told to empty their desks by 3 P.M.” Welcome to the new world of museum Strategic Planning!

About Mr. Rogers’ ideas for the future of the M.F.A. we are given some clues in his mantralike invocation of talk about “context,” “access” and “the visitor experience.” In the name of “context,” the social milieu in which a work of art is created will be deemed to be of greater importance than its esthetic attributes, which it is now considered too elitist to dwell upon. And in the name of “access,” which is now little more than a shabby euphemism for the maximizing of box-office revenues, one of our leading art museums will be transformed into a cultural institution of another kind–an institution in which what is now called “the visitor experience” will be given priority over the experience of art.

As a consequence, the “visitor experience” at the M.F.A. will come more and more to resemble a visit to a shopping mall or a theme-park entertainment center, where little or nothing is demanded of the mind and success is judged entirely in terms of attendance figures and cash receipts. This seems to be the consummation that is devoutly being wished upon us by a new breed of ambitious museum commissars and the trustees that support them. What is even more horrifying is that Mr. Rogers may indeed be giving us a preview of the art museum in the next century.