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Art

The MFA's swelling collections

Posted by Sebastian Smee  November 12, 2010 02:47 PM

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In a press conference that followed on from the dedication ceremony of the Museum of Fine Arts's new Art of the Americas Wing, the wing's head curator, Elliot Bostwick Davis, noted that over 5000 works were on view, and that that number represents over 30% of the entire collection of the Art of the Americas department. That is impressive, and a vast improvement on what was on show before (about half that number of works). But I am curious: many of the works in the show are actually from other MFA departments - photography, fashion and textiles, decorative arts, prints and drawings etc. If you took those works out of the equation, I wonder if the percentage would change? (Stay tuned, I'll try to find out).
In the meantime, there is obviously a bigger issue: museums are acquiring more and more works of art all the time. But they only expand their physical space once in a while (and when they do, that expansion is often accompanied by a huge surge in new acquisitions, as has happened just now at the MFA).
All those new works makes for something to boast about, sure. I?ve been told, for instance, that, in Harvard Art Museum and the MFA, Boston has two of the six biggest art collections in the entire country (again, I have not verified that).
But it also means that there are more and more works that go into storage and never come out. Can this phenomenon continue? Is it healthy? How long will it be before the MFA is contemplating another expansion?
One solution is to put everything online, and the MFA has made tremendous strides in this area. Another is to rotate the permanent collection as regularly as possible. (The excellent Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, for instance, does it three times a year). But it is extremely labor-intensive and difficult to do, especially for big institutions. And besides, there are art works that people expect to see whenever they come back to a permanent collection ? they don?t want them on display one month and in storage the next.
Deaccessioning, unpopular and fraught with risks as it is, is also an option, and one that museums are going to have to face up to in coming years.

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