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The MFA’s Misguided New European Art Gallery

Not every new gallery or exhibition is automatically or immediately reviewed. Yet I expected some reaction by the Boston media to the newly refurbished and rehung Koch Gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which was unveiled on Saturday.

Why? This was the first (I believe) gallery that Malcolm Rogers, MFA’s director, has specifically taken charge of  since he named himself “acting” director of the Art of Europe there late last year, after the former chair of Art of Europe, George Shackelford, announced his departure to the Kimbell Art Museum in Ft. Worth, Tex.

The MFA is calling this gallery its “Great Hall,” harking back to the castles built in Europe in the Middle Ages. This biggest, most impressive room in the museum seems tailor-made for billionaire William Koch, its namesake. Not aligned with his conservative brothers David and Charles Koch, Bill Koch is a bit of a renegade — he gives to both parties — and Rogers has been courting him for years, even giving his eclectic collection an exhibition in 2005. It was controversial. At the time, the Boston Globe said the 100 objects on display ranged from “antique firearms to French Impressionist paintings and 20th-century sculptures,” plus of course his two (in)famous “racing sailboats, their masts rising 125 feet in the air — nearly twice the height of the MFA’s roof.”  Few people applauded.

In the last few years, the MFA’s installations have been less controversial: not everyone loves the new Art of the Americas wing or the Linde Family wing for contemporary art, but they are defensible.

But now, with the Koch gallery, Rogers seems to be returning to his strategy of being iconoclastic to stir things up, despite the fact that he told me in 2010 that “I don’t feel the need to be controversial anymore, but I want to do new things,” which I used in an article for the Wall Street Journal.

What is now the Koch gallery had shown paintings from 16th- and 17th-century Italy, France, Spain, and Flanders, and it still does. Rogers has also pulled four 17th Century tapestries from storage, and hung them amidst the paintings. Fine, I guess, as I believe this gallery was built for tapestries (which it contained until 1996; some people says it’s dreadful for paintings). But at the center of one wall, Rogers has made a huge, garish display of Hanoverian silver pieces. It extends 18 feet from top to bottom and includes 103 pieces. The silver has little if anything to do with the paintings in the gallery.

A bit horrified for myself, I’ve inquired around among art historians. The consensus: Rogers seems to be decorating, not hanging great works of art. He’s equating the likes of a Velasquez, whose Don Baltasar Carlos and Dwarf is among the paintings on view, with household decorative furnishings, made for a drawing room.

Now, the museum says that 40 paintings hang in the gallery. See more details here. Cutely, the MFA has produced a speeded-up video of the transformation, here.

The museum isn’t shrinking from the decorative descriptions. In fact, a Gallery Talk, set for later this month, is entitled “A Display Fit for a King: A New Installation of Hanoverian Silver for Art of Europe.” It will focus not on the paintings, but on “Hanoverian silver and gold illustrating the magnificence of the Hanoverian court from the mid-seventeenth to the early nineteenth centuries.”

As much as anyone can admire silver, it doesn’t really rise to the artistic and aesthetic value of masterpiece paintings, does it?

I think the MFA has gone wrong here. Unfortunately, for fear of retribution (no loans from the MFA), no one wants to agree with me on the record. And the critical silence, to use an old cliche, is deafening.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of the MFA (and Photoshop)

Comments

  1. Josh Reynolds says:

    Chicago got patted on the back when they incorporated the hanging of paintings, drawings, prints, sculpture, AND bits of furniture all from the same period all in the same room – this was about 10 ro 15 years ago. Now Rogers gets boo’d for basically doing the same. The name of the game in the museum business is the same as in the dance world or music world (anything to do with the arts) DO WHAT SELLS. People like to have their senses tickled. A new and different display of familiar works intersperced with objects that may well have been associated with them or their equivolents in centuries past is frankly an education.

    No one scolds the Met’s Greek and Roman Dept. for mixing pots, sculpture, arms & armour, etc. in the same room. I’m with Rogers. And art museum isn’t a church, it is an instilation work in progress – constantly!

    Back in ’1968 I was in school in Boston and visited the MFA frequently. On the rotunda walkway were hung several small Impressionist works. One was Degas’s A Day at the Races depicting a well-off couple in a carriage at a distance from the race course. The right half of the painting was cleaned, while the left half was filthy under old discolored varnish. It was an educational moment. Wrong, we would say today, but then it was an idea they tried to benefit the general public – who pays their bills. Beneath the rotunda walkway was a fairly closed tight curved walk at the midpoint of which was installed Sargent’s painting, The Boyte Girls – unframed. It was fitted into the stone work to make the museum goer think he was looking into a room in which the Boyte girls stood. That would freighten the average curator today, but then it was an idea they tried and it worked. Kenneth Clark was on TV and the public was excited about art. To try and bring the public into closer contact with art and engage them with art was the goal. We were a culture evolving then and these ‘engagement stunts’ worked – interestingly enough they were in Boston. So, what Rogers is doing now is no big deal. Enjoy it. I never liked the stone walls of that great hall anyway. I think the damask looks much better. Good for you, Malcolm.

  2. David Dixit says:

    “As much as anyone can admire silver, it doesn’t really rise to the artistic and aesthetic value of masterpiece paintings, does it?”

    Perhaps the silver being displayed doesn’t meet the mark.
    Perhaps the method of displayiing the silver falls short.

    But the artistic and aesthetic value of the greatest silver, which is far from being “household decorative furnishings”, certainly matches that of other domaines !

  3. Haven’t seen this installation yet – but the space is really impossible. The biggest change here is the wall covering, which makes it more of a room and less of a vault. The basic idea, since removing the terribly gloomy tapestries, has been to do a take on pre-museum art displays with paintings up to the (very high) ceiling; I presume that the silver is an attempt to reinforce that sense of a (royal, or at least aristocratic) domestic interior. The MFA has always believed that the decorative arts are, after all, arts.

    Also, of course, the whole thing is to some extent a ploy to get hold of that Modigliani nude.

  4. It looks somewhat like a room an English auction house would design and gives the feel of “the price of
    everything etc . ” It is meant to impress on the lowest level -but that’s our age . You are correct, the silver
    display is “garish” but it is a great museum no matter who runs it -it used to have a” homey”atmosphere but
    true to our age it has gone show bizz. We used to go often with guests, now rarely.

  5. James Clifton says:

    It’s surprising (and disturbing) that you seem to think that artistic and aesthetic value is medium-specific. In any case, the installation here (which I haven’t yet seen), like all installations, must negotiate between the view of the whole and the view(ing) of individual works. The two aren’t always compatible, particularly in a very large and high-ceilinged room. Personally, I dislike the double-hanging of large pictures and the installation of smaller works (i.e., the silver here) at great heights. It suggests that the installation is aiming only for an overall effect of some sort, and that the individual works are unimportant and not worth close examination.

    • Thanks for your comment. Let me respond by refining — artistic/aesthetic value isn’t necessarily medium-specific, but I am not alone in thinking that a painting by Rubens or Velazquez would be better as the focus of a room than the silver, which with 103 pieces overwhelms the paintings. And I agree with your more direct statement of what I was trying to say — that this installation diminishes those paintings.

      • James Clifton says:

        I understand your point that the inclusion of the silver in this way diminishes the paintings, alhtough I’m not sure that I agree with it. I do, however, think that the individual pieces of silver are diminished. It’s a great issue to raise. Thanks.

  6. Pretty much the whole idea of the room is not to have a focus; and certainly the MFA doesn’t own a great painting big enough to dominate that space. One can argue that massing the silver like that creates too much of a focus, and is therefore bad design – I think that may be right – but it’s not a matter of silver versus painting.

  7. Kim Vanderheiden says:

    Not knowing much about the museum otherwise, the photo of the room looks like an interesting place to go to, which is worth something.

    I thought of a question while considering the appropriateness of the display — How would the painters have expected their work to be displayed at the time they were painting them? Are these pieces in a more natural habitat, so to speak, or does the display show them in an environment that is neither of their time, nor of ours?

    If the environment mimics the way the painters would have expected their work to be shown, then to me it seems a valid option for displaying the work, however I’m not sure whether or not that’s true in this instance.

  8. Sesquipedaliana says:

    As a retired museum curator (and little fear of loan request retaliation), I tend to agree with Ms. Dobrzynski and my anonymous colleagues. This room is decorated rather than installed as an exhibition gallery. Other than the inclusion of the silver collection, which appears to be nearly impossible to view or study as installed, it has little educational or aesthetic merit. The role of museum curator differs dramatically from that of a museum director, and often one individual has the diversity of talent to succeed in both arenas (I can think immediately think of one former MFA curator/director), but this phenomenon is rare. I think Mr. Rogers should play to his strengths.

  9. As someone who spent all of his adult life in Boston, studied art history there, and visited the MFA countless times, I welcome this change. The previous arrangement of the Koch gallery was awful and badly in need of an upgrade. The poorly lit, cavernous room with haphazardly hung and difficult-to-see paintings was one of my biggest peeves in the museum, and I’ve longed for a redesign for years. From what I’ve seen in the photos, the lighting has been greatly improved, the description for each work is now set into panels on the protective railings as opposed to pasted on the wall, the wall color is much more visually appealing and period-appropriate. As far as the prominent display of silver, I agree that it seems a bit garish, but in theory, I find nothing wrong with mixing decorative arts and paintings in the same display area. If anything, it makes objects that otherwise would not be seen more accessible, and gives patrons who may have “painting fatigue” to focus on something else for a while. For all the questionable content of “blockbuster” exhibits mounted under Rogers’ watch (and he should be rightly called on that), his work on renovating the museum room-by-room has been mostly outstanding IMHO, and I’ve been really enjoying the journey so far. I know they are planning to focus on the Ancient World next (with a new room coming next year centered around the giant “Juno” statue), and I hope they get to the much-neglected Asian galleries within the next decade.

  10. Chris Crosman says:

    Having not seen the installation in person, I cannot comment on its effectiveness. Ms. Dobrzynski does, however, point to a recent trend in art museums; directors’ usurping the role of curators and turning installations into excercizes in decor. Too often the thoughtful juxtaposition of objects that comment on each other or collectively attempt to tell a coherent story with a point of view are now the equivalent of a haute couture runway show. Purely aesthetic considerations–color, shape, texture, balance, tension, scale, etc.–that most curators’
    attend to as necessary but secondary components for any installation, in the hands of heavy-handed directors’, trump ideas and context. A corollary pitfall that larger museums often stumble into is reliance on installation designers who can be helpful when working to support the curatorial premise behind an exhibition or even a single gallery, but who often rely on a limited bag of tricks and the ubiquitous “wow” factor that fades quickly and underwhelms on repeat visits. Having been a director and a curator, I understand the urge and occasional need to weigh in on the curatorial decisions that impact the institution as a whole. There is also a place for mentoring junior staff. And there should be opportunities for directors to strut their stuff or indulge in a particular area of expertise. But, too often arrogance and ego subvert intelligence and nuance to the detriment of collegial collaboration and effective teamwork. I suppose a Rubens can talk to a silver charger about excess and delight but hopefully there is more to the conversation throughout this gallery. And I wager there is judging by Malcolm Rogers’ reliable efforts to support his curators, notably in the re-installation of the American wing.

  11. Judith,

    Have you actually been to the gallery and seen it in person?

  12. To say that museums have to SELL SELL SELL is utterly inane. In that case, why have museums at all. Now I’m all in favor of lightening up the stuffiness of museum days past, and I certainly don’t see any problem with silver and other decorative arts displayed alongside paintings, but the problem with Rogers’ approach is one no one ever talks about; stacking paintings is the wrong way to display them. Yes, it’s true that that was how it was done in the past, CENTURIES PAST, but even then what was obvious was understood; the best paintings got hung at eye level or so. For a contemporary museum to stack paintings is amateurish, regardless of the nicely polished rationalizations. If a painting doesn’t qualify as a best painting, it shouldn’t be hung. But see, that’s not the point with Rogers. He really is a decorator. The paintings are just atmosphere for him. 103 pieces of silver? It’s blatantly obvious that it will be impossible for viewers to take in individual pieces. A curator should not be a decorator. Sure, the public will likely applaud this. Record numbers turned out at the Guggenheim for Tim Burton. So yeah, let’s have an exhibit about Amy Winehouse (whom I love, but that’s a different story).

    As for the Koch gallery, it’s really sickening what they have done with that. Listen, it was made for tapestries. Yes, the walls were cold, but that was part of the point. Yes the tapestries looked dismal. They needed to try something different. The best approach would have been filling the floor area with decorative arts – so the silver in itself is not a bad idea. Just put it where people can see it. One or two paintings that are meant to be primarily decorative on a huge wall is not a bad idea, amongst the tapestries. The space could be made to work with some imagination.

    Think about the damask or whatever it is that Rogers has put on the wall. ISN’T THAT AN ADMISSION THAT THE ROOM WAS MADE FOR/IS BEST FOR TAPESTRIES? Of course it is. Rogers acts like everyone who came before him is an idiot. Truthfully, he’s made some very good movies. But he’s made some awful moves too. He needs to be called out for the awful ones, and folks need to stop making excuses for them.

    Above all, stacking paintings on the walls is NOT showing them in the way that they were authentically meant to be displayed. It’s a joke. It’s a decorator masquerading as a curator. What would be a good idea would be to build store rooms where stored paintings could be arranged in such a way that people could come in and study them en masse. But out in the display gallery, paintings should mostly not be stacked on the wall.

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