Malcolm Rogers Talks Smugly After Boston Massacre

As the saga of what has come to be called “the Boston Massacre”-the upheaval that has overtaken Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts in the wake of a radical “restructuring” of its curatorial departments and the abrupt dismissal of 18 members of the museum staff-continues to unfold, more details are coming to light about the sheer ugliness of the entire operation. Meanwhile, the cause of the upheaval-M.F.A. director Malcolm Rogers-had added insult to injury by describing his strong-arm tactics as “glorious decisions,” and the city’s principal liberal voice, The Boston Globe , has further exacerbated the situation by endorsing these “glorious decisions” with a page 1 valentine to Mr. Rogers in its Aug. 29 edition, the headline of which affectionately dubbed him “The M.F.A.’s Shakeup Artist”-a sure sign that the fix is in with Boston’s business elite.

For latecomers to this debacle, which has sent shock waves through museum circles the country over, it should be recalled that on June 25, Mr. Rogers announced his plans for what was called “an organizational restructuring” of the M.F.A., designed to meet the needs of a new strategic plan. What these plans would entail was made immediately apparent when 18 members of the museum staff-including two senior curators-were fired on the spot. The curators marked for termination-Jonathan Fairbanks, with 28 years of experience as the curator of the M.F.A.’s Department of American Decorative Arts, and Ann Poulet, with 20 years as the museum’s curator of European Decorative Arts-were promptly taken by security guards to the personnel office, where they were obliged to hand over their keys and museum passes and told to clean out their offices and be out of the building by 3 P.M. As severance compensations, they were reportedly offered the minimum the law requires.

This brutal treatment seems also to have been accompanied by a good deal of unconscionable dissimulation. According to a page 1 report in The Beacon Hill/Back Bay Chronicle , a Boston weekly, on Aug. 31, “At the time of the dismissal, the curators were told that the positions were being abolished by vote of the trustees. However, within the month, Jeffrey Munger, who offered his resignation as associate curator of European Decorative Arts, was told he would be offered the [European Decorative Arts] curatorship. He declined, citing dismay over the drift of curatorial affairs over the past five years [of Mr. Rogers’ tenure as director]. Three positions were cut, which would have hampered its work severely, he added.”

What is also interesting about this story is that we are also told that some trustees of the museum weren’t even informed about the planned dismissals until the closing minutes of the meeting at which the announcement of the “restructuring” was decided upon. All of which gives Mr. Rogers and his press office a measure of credibility in the Janet Reno and Bill Clinton class.

Nor have Mr. Rogers’ supporters in the Boston business community hesitated to suppress dissenting opinions on his “glorious decisions.” The Beacon Hill/Back Bay Chronicle also reported the case of Patricia Hills, a professor of American art history at Boston University, who wrote a letter to the M.F.A. protesting the dismantling of its departments devoted to American art. That was promptly followed by a letter to Jon Westling, the president of Boston University, demanding that he take some action against Professor Hills for writing such a letter to the M.F.A. That letter is reported to have been written by Barbara Warren, an employee of Crosby Advisors, part of Fidelity Investments, whose head, Edward Johnson, is an honorary trustee of the M.F.A., and whose wife, Elizabeth, is head of the museum’s collections committee.

Much to President Westling’s credit, he responded to Barbara Warren’s attempted reprisal as follows: “Boston University is not, as you put it, a ‘public institution,’ but a private university. We do not censor our faculty members’ mail or attempt to control their expressions of opinion.… On the question of whether a university should ‘countenance’ a faculty member in art history expressing views (‘criticizing and second-guessing’) about the policies of the Museum of Fine Arts, I must admit that your objection astonishes me. You may disagree with Professor Hills’ professional judgment, but to object to her right to express that judgment is surely counter to the spirit that ought to animate both universities and art museums.”

Unfortunately, it is clearly no longer the spirit that animates the M.F.A. under its current directorship. As for what has animated the M.F.A.’s board of trustees in the course of this debacle, The Beacon Hill/Back Bay Chronicle quoted one of them as follows: “Malcolm has done a great job; he’s livened the museum up and put it in the black … These visitors, eat, buy in the shop,” etc.

Well, what else would you want from a museum of fine arts these days? So long as the tables are crowded in the restaurant and sales show a nice profit in the shops, what more is wanted from a museum director? And isn’t it the whole point of crowd-pleasing exhibitions of the sort that Malcolm Rogers boasts of that they bring people in to spend their money?

Museum jobs being what they are and human nature being what it is, I have no doubt that Mr. Rogers will be successful in staffing his new Strategic Plan Museum with an appropriate roster of like-minded curators. But the public should understand that the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is now a deeply compromised institution.