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William I. Koch’s vessels America3 and Il Moro are displayed on the Museum of Fine Arts lawn.
William I. Koch’s vessels America3 and Il Moro are displayed on the Museum of Fine Arts lawn. (Globe Staff Photo / David L. Ryan)

Furor ahoy

MFA exhibit of Koch's collections stirs questions over choices, motives

Usually, Kristen Almechatt walks past the Museum of Fine Arts on her way to work without stopping. Then the yachts arrived and brought Almechatt, a manager at Brigham and Women's Hospital, to a halt. Transfixed, she stared at two racing sailboats, their masts rising 125 feet in the air -- nearly twice the height of the MFA's roof.

''They're beautiful, but I'm still trying to figure out why they're at the museum," said Almechatt yesterday outside the MFA.

She's not the only one. The boats, installed this month as part of an exhibit that opens tomorrow of more than 100 objects owned by multimillionaire collector William I. Koch, are the attention-grabbing billboard in MFA director Malcolm Rogers's latest production. The boats and the show are stirring fresh controversy in the museum world over the choices made by Rogers, who has recently been criticized for loaning paintings to a Las Vegas casino and staging an exhibition featuring fashion designer Ralph Lauren's cars.

The Koch show ranges from antique firearms to French Impressionist paintings and 20th-century sculptures. And critics say that with it, the MFA has gone too far in an apparent effort to romance a private collector in the hopes that he will eventually give the museum his art.

''Years ago, you got a little quiet thank-you note" for supporting a museum, said Marie Malaro, a former George Washington University museum studies professor and the author of the book ''Museum Governance: Mission, Ethics, Policy." ''Today, they put your boats outside. But that is essentially killing philanthropy. Everybody is going to want the same thing. If he can have it, why can't I?"

In addition, Malaro and others say that the exhibition -- ''Things I Love: The Many Collections of William I. Koch" -- is the latest example of a nonprofit museum bowing to commercial pressures in order to put on an exhibition meant to attract bigger audiences, gather more revenue, and cash in on America's celebrity-obsessed culture.

Critics also say they are uneasy with the show's financing. A show of this nature costs in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. MFA officials will not disclose the total cost of this exhibit, but they have said Koch is paying a large portion of the total sum to stage the show and to publish a 203-page hardcover catalog that includes an interview with the collector, photographs of his wine cellars, and descriptions of his art by museum curators. And the exhibition, critics say, does more to glamorize the collector than to fulfill the museum's educational mission.

Rogers says he isn't surprised by the criticism. He says the museum world is ''stuffy" and more concerned with what he describes as ''minor ethical questions" than with what has become his central mission: To bring new visitors to the MFA.

''Is the whole of museum culture going to come crashing down as a result of this? Give me a break," Rogers said yesterday while standing in one of the exhibit's galleries. ''One of the things I want to do is humanize the arts" to show what drives a passionate collector, he added. ''It's about individuals who really care."

Bill Koch isn't just any collector. Koch founded the Oxbow Corporation, an energy conglomerate with annual sales of about $1 billion. He began acquiring art in the 1980s with the help of then-MFA curator of European art John Walsh. Over time, the collector, who has homes in Osterville and Palm Beach, Fla., assembled a collection renowned for its range and quality.

Among other things, he owns paintings by Monet, Renoir, Cezanne, Matisse, and Picasso, sculptures by Jean Arp and Fernando Botero, and the ships, including the America{+3}, which he and his crew sailed to victory in the 1992 America's Cup, and the Il Moro, the boat his crew beat, which he then purchased. Koch's wine collection numbers more than 30,000 bottles. Koch is also famous for several high-profile court fights, including one opposing family members over an inheritance, and another against a mistress who, he contended, wouldn't leave his Boston condo.

Through a spokesman, Koch refused repeated requests to be interviewed by the Globe about the MFA's show.

His relationship with the museum has not always been close. He was a board member from 1981 to 1991, and one of the European galleries is named after him. But he left the board because of a difference of opinion over the direction of the MFA, Rogers says. Rogers, who took over as MFA director in 1994, invited Koch to the MFA's Monet exhibition in 1998 and then, a couple of years later, visited him in his home in Palm Beach. Two years ago, Koch agreed to become an honorary trustee, and he has recently contributed to the MFA's campaign to raise $500 million for its expansion. The museum won't say how much he's given, but MFA officials say he is designated as a ''Distinguished Benefactor," which represents lifetime giving of $1 million to $2.5 million.

Rogers says that he came up with the idea for a Koch exhibition, the size of which grew as Koch grew more enthusiastic. The boats were Koch's idea, says Rogers. ''He said, 'Would you like to have boats?' I said, 'You know I would. They're a fabulous promotion for the exhibit.' "

But the MFA could not afford to move the boats from Rhode Island and pay for their installation in front of the museum. Koch's America{+3} Foundation is picking up the cost.

''I'm trying to picture another museum doing this," said Tyler Green, art critic for Bloomberg News and the author of a popular blog called Modern Art Notes, in a phone conversation. ''Yachts in front of the National Gallery? Yachts at the Art Institute of Chicago?"

''It's so self-serving, it's very suspicious," said Neil Kotler, a former Smithsonian executive who has written a book on museum strategy and marketing. ''Even if he gives the museum two or three good pieces from his collection, if he's parking two yachts on the lawn, what does that have to do with the collection? He's an egotist."

Rogers challenges the critics' logic.

''You have to show me why a museum that displays teapots cannot display boats, particularly if they're beautiful," he said.

Rogers also says that what the MFA is doing isn't revolutionary. Museums are always looking for fund-raising sources for expensive shows. The Guggenheim Museum, for example, is getting $2 million from a charitable foundation run by the head of one of Russia's leading conglomerates for an upcoming art exhibition titled ''Russia!" (The museum also turned heads when it staged a 2000 show on fashion designer Giorgio Armani after reportedly accepting a $15 million Armani donation.) The Dallas Museum of Art agreed to build a re-creation of a donor's villa in southern France in the museum as part of a deal to inherit a series of art objects and paintings from the donor.

''Villa America," a current show at the Orange County Museum of Art, was made up entirely of works assembled by Myron Kunin, a California collector. The MFA has also mounted several shows featuring works from collectors, including Leonard A. Lauder and Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf, and it has received items from those collectors for the MFA's permanent collection. The Lauren show attracted 194,000 people earlier this year, making it the MFA's most popular exhibition so far of 2005 but also attracting criticism for its celebrity focus.

''It'll be fascinating to see, will this work?" says Walsh, the former MFA curator who left two decades ago to take over leadership of the J. Paul Getty Museum, of the Koch show. ''Will Bill be brought back [to the MFA] by this?"

As the MFA sees it, Koch has already returned.

His loaned sculptures are spread over the MFA grounds. For the regular $15 price of admission, museumgoers can see his boat models, which take up a section of the MFA, and his gun collection, which lines a wall of the Western room. The paintings and sculptures fill the Torf Gallery. Empty bottles of vintage wines, firearms, ancient sculptures, and a Picasso line the gallery entryway.

''We've tried all along to give a sense of the personality of the collector, to see an individual and his passions, great loves, enthusiasms, and not just great paintings," says George Shackelford, one of the show's curators.

But Shackelford admitted that it's Koch's paintings that the MFA covets.

On one side of a room in the Torf Gallery, four Monets hang alongside an 1868 Renoir, ''Ice Skating in the Bois de Boulogne."

''It would be a dream to have something like that," Shackelford says.

In another room, Modigliani's ''Reclining Nude" hangs near Picasso's ''Night Club Singer."

''These are astonishingly rare," says Shackelford. ''A, they don't come up very often. And B, when they do, our endowments aren't sufficient to reach them."

As Shackelford points out a sculpture by Arp, another piece he says the MFA would love, he is asked whether Koch has ever given art to the museum. ''He has given endowment [money]" he says. ''No art yet."

''He says, 'I don't know where my collection will end up,"' says Shackelford. ''Everybody lives in hope."

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

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