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Malcolm, X

In 10 unorthodox years, the MFA's Malcolm Rogers has popularized, polarized

By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff / September 12, 2004
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LONDON -- The champagne has already been poured when Malcolm Rogers arrives at Sketch, a hip London restaurant, to greet a group of British art writers. The Museum of Fine Arts organized this schmooze so Rogers, the director, can brief the press on the MFA's planned $180 million expansion and its recent acquisition of a $20 million-plus Degas masterpiece, and trumpet his 10-year anniversary in Boston. That's the script, which Rogers will deliver from the podium.

But before that, Rogers works the room. That's when he faces his critics.

They're not physically here, but their complaints follow him wherever he goes. They started on Rogers in 1996 for giving celebrity photographer Herb Ritts his first major museum show. Three years later, they were back, enraged when Rogers fired a pair of longtime curators and, so the story went, had them escorted from the building. Then, just last January, the MFA loaned 21 Monets to a Las Vegas casino. The Bellagio Gallery of Fine Arts paid at least $1 million.

Christopher Knight, art critic for the Los Angeles Times, wrote that the Vegas show was "without intellectual merit, is educationally corrupt, and puts a fast-buck premium on financial gain."

James Cuno, the former director of the Harvard Art Museums and current head of the Art Institute of Chicago, actually debated Rogers about his decision on National Public Radio.

"I don't think Monet would have wanted his pictures to be seen in casinos," Cuno said in an interview more recently.

Despite the criticism, the MFA announced two weeks ago that the Bellagio show, which had been scheduled to end this month, will be extended through Jan. 9. It has drawn almost 250,000 visitors, making it the most commercially successful show in the casino gallery's four years.

"The Salvation Army would be criticized if it didn't go to Las Vegas," Rogers says, holding court at Sketch. "Shouldn't we be seeking new audiences?"

Ten years ago this month, Rogers, 55, arrived in Boston a virtual unknown, an outsider picked to run the show in the ultimate insider's town. Today, his unorthodox approach has made him one of the most polarizing museum directors in the country. Supporters say Rogers's daring has opened up the MFA. They point to increasing attendance and membership, and to the museum's move forward on a massive expansion project scheduled for completion in 2009.

His detractors counter that Rogers is nothing short of a slick, commercially-driven sellout. They say his tenure has been marked by the museum's embrace of the lowbrow, starting with his decision to plaster the walls with Ritts portraits of Madonna and Jack Nicholson. They're readying their poison pens for this spring's exhibition of fashion designer Ralph Lauren's antique cars.

It's not just the MFA's list of exhibitions that's created controversy. Convinced that the museum was being dominated by uncooperative curators, Rogers fired two powerful figures, Jonathan Fairbanks and Anne Poulet, in 1999, a move some dubbed "The Boston Massacre." Five years have done little to soothe the raw feelings left by the act.

As he updates the British writers at Sketch, Rogers refers to the controversies. Though he hopes the MFA expansion will define his career, he knows others will see the Ritts show and Las Vegas deal as his legacy. As he moves about the room, Rogers meets an editor from The Art Newspaper. That sparks a mention of Jason Kaufman, a writer for the publication who, in 1999, wrote that "patrons may well ask why they should contribute art or money to an institution which so cavalierly treats its own employees."

With a smile, Rogers references the Lauren show.

"Wait till Jason gets his teeth into that," he says.

Curator controversy The root of the criticism, Rogers has come to believe, can be traced to the most controversial act of his tenure: his decision in 1999 to reorganize (his words) departments or fire (their words) two MFA figures with a combined 48 years of service to the museum: Poulet, curator of European decorative arts and sculpture, and Fairbanks, curator of American decorative arts and sculpture.

Today, Rogers says that he did not want to hurt feelings or disrupt the museum. But he felt he had no choice.

Rogers has never before addressed the situation in detail, begging off on the grounds that it's a personnel issue. But after years of what he claims is misinformation delivered by his detractors, he's decided at least to explain some of what he says led up to that difficult day in June.

He says Poulet, currently director of the Frick Collection in New York, and the retired Fairbanks -- both of whom declined repeated requests for comment -- were let go because they had shown they were not willing to be part of what Rogers saw as the new MFA. Instead of sharing information and donors, they were concerned with protecting their respective turf, Rogers says. At one point, Rogers says, he asked Fairbanks to organize an exhibition to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the MFA's 1876 opening in Copley Square. Poulet, Rogers says, refused to loan works from her department to the show.

There were many longtime MFA staffers who Rogers thought could adapt to his mantra of "one museum." By 1999, he decided Poulet and Fairbanks were not among them.

On June 25, a Friday, Rogers asked each curator to see him separately. In his office, he thanked them for serving so ably, but said that he had bad news. Their departments were being merged with others, and their jobs eliminated, along with 16 others. He told Poulet and Fairbanks that they were being offered positions as curators emeritae, and asked them to go to human resources, where they would be offered severance packages.

The story that filtered out of the museum had a different take on the meeting. In that version, the veteran curators were told to leave the building immediately. Members of the museum community seethed.

"More like criminals than loyal servants of the museum, they were given only hours to clear their desks," read a letter in The Burlington Magazine, an art journal, signed by nine art historians, many from the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

Kaufman slammed Rogers in The Art Newspaper. John Walsh, a former MFA curator who was then director of the Getty Museum, wrote to Rogers asking for an explanation. He received none.

"What stunned people at the time was the extreme foolishness of getting rid of the best curator in her field in the country, which was Poulet, and gratuitously pushing out Jonathan Fairbanks, who could have been retired gracefully," Walsh says today. "I don't think the MFA's reputation has really ever recovered from that."

In the end, Poulet and Fairbanks accepted the emeritae positions, but not until months later. That, Rogers believes, created the false impression that he had been pressured by the trustees to make the offer. He insists that he wasn't, and that the deal was the same as the one offered in June, in his office. Complicating matters, two of Poulet's associate curators, Jeff Munger and Ellenor Alcorn, surprised him by resigning several months after the changes. He had hoped they would stay on.

"I was voting with my feet," says Alcorn, who had served as an assistant curator at the museum for 21 years. "He had so curtailed the influence and the experience of the curatorial staff that all we had left to express ourselves were our feet."

Facing challenges The firings left Rogers with a new challenge. Now he had to build a staff that could continue developing the collection and programming exhibitions.

His choices were not always conventional. Not long after arriving in 1994, he had eliminated the department of exhibitions and put Katie Getchell, a 24-year-old secretary with an art history degree, in charge of coordinating shows through his office. By 2000, Getchell would be named a deputy director. Some curators complained that her appointment created a level of bureacracy between Rogers and the staff. Others felt Getchell helped them get a quicker response from the administration, even when Rogers was too busy to meet.

When he eliminated the positions of Poulet and Fairbanks, Rogers merged the museum's European decorative arts and sculpture department with its paintings department into one called art of Europe. George T. M. Shackelford, hired earlier by Rogers from the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, took charge of that department, and Elliot Bostwick Davis, an assistant curator from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was hired to run the corresponding art of the Americas department.

Shackelford, last June, engineered one of the MFA's greatest maneuvers of the Rogers era: the acquisition of an 1876 painting by Degas. At more than $20 million -- the total price has never been disclosed -- it was the most expensive purchase in the museum's history.

The new curators also oversaw a series of exhibitions that would, over time, draw more people into the museum. The majority of these shows didn't shock museum-world observers. They featured such MFA-tested warhorses as Monet, Rembrandt, and John Singer Sargent. Other exhibitions, however, did turn heads. The Ritts show inspired criticism from a host of local art types, including Milena Kalinovska, then the director of Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art.

"It's disheartening for art professionals," she said at the time. "All of us are trying to attract audiences. But we're learning institutions. We're not entertainment. We're not Hollywood. We're not Vanity Fair. If we are, then we're not museums."

Nobody snickered, though, at 2000's "Dangerous Curves: Art of the Guitar," even though it also featured the embrace of celebrity culture, in this case rock stars. James Taylor narrated the audio tour. Guitars once played by John Lennon and Jimi Hendrix were featured.

"I don't recall an instance in 10 years where trustees have second-guessed his exhibition ideas," says Frederic Sharf, a trustee since 1994. "I don't see what he's done as risk-taking. I see it as audience-building. He felt that the Herb Ritts photographs would attract and interest an audience that hadn't shown much interest in the MFA, that didn't think the MFA had shown much interest in them. And he was right."

The Ritts show still ranks as one of the top 10 in the history of the Gund Gallery, with its 253,000 visitors outdrawing recent shows on Gainsborough, American folk art, and Gauguin.

Rogers also determined that he had to find ways to drum up money. The museum, which he likes to call "the largest privately funded art museum in the world," receives $600,000, or just over half of 1 percent of its $98 million operating budget, from public sources. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in comparison, gets 13 percent, or $21 million of its $159 million annual budget, from New York City.

Some of his ideas fell flat. An attempt to turn the MFA's catalog business into a separate, for-profit entity backfired, with the museum losing $10 million before shutting down Museum Enterprise Partners in 2003. But Rogers did make the Las Vegas deal, which turned the Monets -- many of them not on permanent display -- into easy money.

Still, Las Vegas became another lightning rod in the Rogers tenure. This time, the debate took place outside the rarified world of obscure art journals. Newsweek and the Los Angeles Times devoted stories to the arrangement. At a conference of the American Association of Museum Directors in New Orleans in May, Rogers arrived late to find a panel of his colleagues angrily denouncing the move.

Director Peter Marzio of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, a supporter of Rogers, says that he can think of only one museum head who gets criticized as much as Rogers: the Guggenheim's Thomas Krens, known for staging "The Art of the Motorcycle" and an Armani exhibit that came with a massive gift from the Italian designer.

"There's something so fundamentally annoying to the museum profession about the efforts to break the academy walls down and kind of rethink the role of great art museums in America," says Marzio. "They're so concerned about these fake, institutional standards that I don't think these people ever look at Malcolm clearly. They immediately have glasses on that blind them to the end product, which I think is a healthy MFA."

The `joy of change' A healthy MFA is not what Rogers found when he arrived in Boston to interview back in 1993. Only two years earlier, director Alan Shestack had been forced to lay off 21 employees and close the museum's Huntington Avenue entrance to try to cut $2 million from the next year's budget.

A financial crisis of the same scale would greet the new director. But Rogers didn't mind. He viewed the MFA as a "plum job," he says. As he pursued it, he was still smarting from a setback of his own. After nine years as deputy director of the National Portrait Gallery, Rogers had recently been passed over for the top job by the London museum's trustees, sparking his search for a job in America.

Strangely enough, the man who would be criticized for his commercial proclivities in Boston was viewed as too academic in England, according to veteran British journalist Godfrey Barker.

"No one saw him as a director in the making," said Barker. "He was always seen to be a scholar or a curator, and not thought to be a man who was shaped for the swashbuckling world of raising money, running a large organization, and keeping everyone happy. He would not be the first Englishman who would become more valued abroad than at home."

The rejection, Rogers says today, emboldened him. It also made him hungry, says his friend, London art dealer Christopher Foley.

"If you're riding a racehorse and you dig your spurs in it and goad it, it goes a whole lot faster," Foley says.

The Malcolm Rogers who showed up in Boston for his job interview was a vastly different man from the one who had spent years at the NPG, writing about such traditional portraitists as William Dobson and Van Dyck. He was also an outsider, a virtual unknown who only got an interview after personally finding the MFA's headhunter and making his pitch.

After being hired, Rogers reported to the MFA without a plan, he admits. But he had developed a philosophy, particularly after seeing how MFA staffers worked, or didn't work, together.

"I had just gone through his huge change in my own life and was enjoying it, so why should I think other people wouldn't enjoy change?" says Rogers. "I remember it was just instinctive because I hadn't done it before, and I wanted this institution to feel the power and joy of change. That was one thing. And that we had to do it as one museum, that we couldn't do this as a collection of departments and special interests. We're all in the same boat."

The "one museum" mantra would have to wait, though. In February 1995, five months after taking over, Rogers, facing another financial crisis, trimmed 20 percent of the workforce, eliminating 83 of 480 museum jobs. That marked the most serious cut during his tenure.

Rogers did take a step toward rejuvenating the MFA. He had the doors on Huntington Avenue reopened.

"They had been closed by a previous director almost as an outward sign of suffering," said Rogers. "I remember one curator saying to me, `If you reopen those doors you'll have a rebellion on your hands. You're cutting people's jobs and you're doing something as frivolous as reopening those doors.' We opened the doors."

Moving forward Even his most ardent critics have to concede: The numbers don't lie.

After the initial cuts, Rogers added staff, and now -- even after a series of budget-related layoffs -- the MFA has about 1,000 employees. Attendance, which topped 1 million annually only twice in the decade before his arrival, has averaged more than that in all but one of his 10 years. The blockbuster "Monet in the 20th Century" exhibition helped the MFA set a record in 1999 with nearly 1.7 visitors.

"I don't agree with everything he's done," says Thomas W. Lentz, director of the Harvard Art Museums. "But I think people would be very hard-pressed to say that the MFA is not a stronger institution under his leadership."

With the museum's finances more in order, Rogers moved forward on the MFA's expansion. It hired Foster and Partners, the London-based architects who would renovate the British Museum. The expansion calls for new galleries, a covered courtyard, and -- as its most architecturally significant feature -- a "crystal spine" running through the existing building.

One morning during his London trip, the slimmed-down Rogers -- he's lost more than 25 pounds over the last year -- walked through the Great Court of the British Museum, where Foster and Partners completed a renovation in 2000 that has much in common with the MFA's plan. The stone-floored courtyard, once open, has a glassed-in ceiling. And below the courtyard, there are galleries. In the expanded MFA, the Gund Gallery for temporary exhibitions will move from the west wing to a larger space under the crystal spine.

Then Rogers headed to the Foster offices overlooking the Thames. Architect Michael Jones showed Rogers the latest idea for a pair of pavilions that will flank the spine and greet visitors coming up Huntington Avenue from downtown.

"Don't be shocked," Jones said. "You haven't seen this before."

As he sat, Rogers hung his omnipresent sportcoat on the back of his chair. With sleeves rolled up, he took a sip from a cup of coffee. The drawings showed that Jones wanted to use dark stone and tinted glass to complement the crystal spine. Rogers had already rejected a half-dozen proposals for these towers. This look, however, was more promising.

"It's a great relief to me to see this," Rogers said. "The trustees will want to see this, too."

Rogers will tell you that he can take the criticism. After all, he has been blessed, the adopted son of a country farmer who, due to a series of fortunate contacts with gifted teachers, found himself at Oxford. And then, after being hired in the library at the National Portrait Gallery, Rogers worked his way onto the curatorial staff. His history shaped him, and also leaves him with a complicated set of motivations. He wants to take risks, embrace change because that worked so well for him after his NPG setback. But he also longs for approval.

"Remember, I'm an only child," he says, one of the rare moments when he will psychoanalyze himself. "So I was brought up not being spoiled, but with a great deal of love around me and no competition from siblings. Is that a preparation for life?"

Even in his adopted hometown, affection can be hard to come by. Take the Harvard lecture series, held in 2000-2001, by Cuno, then still the director of the university's art museums. Cuno recruited Walsh, the Metroplitan Museum of Art's Philippe de Montebello, the Museum of Modern Art's Glenn Loury, and the British Museum's Neil MacGregor to take part. Rogers was not asked to contribute, even as his institution came under criticism.

To celebrate his 10th anniversary, Rogers has decided to hold a lecture of his own. On Sept. 29, at the MFA, he will give his take on the state of the art-museum world. The words and ideas will be his, but he's decided to steal the name for the lecture from Cuno. It will be called "Art Museums and the Public Trust." This time, though, Rogers is putting together the guest list. Jim Cuno won't be invited.

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com.

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