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Let's make a deal

To beef up its collection, the MFA went shopping

By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff / November 14, 2010

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IT’S A DREAM directive for a curator: The museum is expanding, the board is raising money, and we want you, the expert, to go shopping.

That’s been the reality at the Museum of Fine Arts, where the staff has long been preparing for the opening of the building’s new Art of the Americas Wing. Curators were urged to scour auction catalogs, match donors with dealers, and start lining up high-profile loans that could turn heads on the big day.

For visitors, this will mean seeing dozens of new works among the familiar portraits of Paul Revere and John Hancock.

And for the museum, it has meant beefing up areas of the collection that were either long neglected or never focused on. Those areas ranged from contemporary art to work by Latin American and African-American artists. The approach, said Elliot Bostwick Davis, chair of the Art of the Americas department, has been part investigative, part luck.

“Sometimes you follow things up and they end up dead ends,’’ she said. “We get into an auction and get everybody ready. Then someone else tops our price. You have to really be persistent and in it for the long haul.’’

So what did they get? Here are four key examples.

JACKSON POLLOCK

“Flight of Man’’ (about 1939)

THIS BOWL is an oddity, a ceramic piece painted by the splatter king.

At the time he created it, Jackson Pollock was “really blocked and having a lot of trouble with alcohol and depression,’’ said Davis. “This bowl was actually owned by one of his analysts, who gave it its name.’’

The piece features a swirling design with an illuminated figure at its center. By the late 1970s, it had become part of a private collection before eventually ending up with art dealers Dickinson Roundell Inc. In 2008, MFA overseer Hope Barkan and her husband, Mel, purchased it for the museum.

The bowl itself was the kind you might find at a paint-your-own-pottery store, given to Pollock by Rita Benton, the wife of his mentor, Thomas Hart Benton, said Davis. “She’s the one who suggested, ‘Why don’t you try painting ceramics to get through your painting block?’ Pollock was at the point where he was looking at old masters, and so he’s thinking of artists like El Greco and these figures illuminated in the light. You can see it as death and rebirth, which is the process of what he was going through in terms of Jungian analysis.’’

MIGUEL CABRERA “Don Manuel Jose Rubio Y Salinas, Archbishop of Mexico’’ (1754)

THIS ACQUISITION began with a tip from a colleague at another museum. He told Dennis Carr, the MFA’s assistant curator of decorative arts and sculpture, that an important 18th-century portrait by the Mexican artist Miguel Cabrera was available through a dealer in Madrid.

Carr didn’t need convincing. “He was the leading artist in Mexico at the time,’’ said Carr. “You could compare his portraits to the [John Singleton] Copley paintings.’’

Except that the MFA, rich in Copleys, didn’t have a single Latin American portrait. The subject of this work stares forward intensely, his red robe billowing to the ground.

Cabrera’s portrait sold for $25,700 in Paris in 2003, when it was last at auction. The MFA won’t say how much it paid the dealer in Madrid. But the work’s cultural value is clear.

“For the MFA’s collection, it’s a particularly important work because we had no Mexican paintings,’’ said Carr. Now it has a remarkable one.

AL LOVING

“Cube 27’’ (1970)

IN THE LATE 1960s, Bob Freeman and his future wife, Bettye, both students at Boston University, walked through the Museum of Fine Arts. They loved art and visited museums wherever they went. That they couldn’t spot any works by African-American artists didn’t surprise them. They were used to that.

“In the ’60s, we were still living in a segregated country,’’ said Freeman, who is African-American. “Look at the housing in Washington, D.C., where I was from. There were places you just couldn’t buy. I couldn’t go to Glen Echo [amusement park] because there were black days and white days.’’

Freeman also learned firsthand what it meant to be an African-American artist. He remembers driving from gallery to gallery on Newbury Street in the 1970s, looking to place his work. Sorry, the gallery owners told him, there was no market.

Flash forward to 2008. Now an overseer at the MFA, Freeman set out to raise money for a purchase through the Heritage Fund for a Diverse Collection, which had been set up in 2005 to help the museum buy works created by people of color.

He learned of a coveted piece going up at auction by Al Loving, an African-American whose works were already in the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

It was easy to raise the money, said Freeman, who ended up halfway to his goal after the first weekend of making calls. Last year, the MFA had the winning bid of $84,000 for Loving’s “Cube 27’’ at the Swann Galleries in New York.

Though he’s pleased, Freeman said he knows that the Loving acquisition and others like it are just a start. “This is a work in progress,’’ he said. “The museum has started late, like every other museum, but they’re on their way.’’

HÉLIO OITICICA

“Painting 9’’ (1959)

NOT EVERYTHING’S FOR SALE.

When it comes to pricey contemporary works, sometimes it makes more sense to borrow than to buy. The Cisneros Foundation is loaning the MFA 13 works for the new wing, and the most prized is a painting by the late Hélio Oiticica.

Pieces by the Brazilian artist, who died in 1980 at 42, have become harder to find since a fire last year in which 2,000 of his works were destroyed. (So significant was the loss that the National Museum of Brazil acquired ashes and put them on display.)

Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro, director of the Cisneros Foundation, said he wanted to support the MFA’s decision to broaden its American collection by getting the Oiticica painting to Boston.

“The fact that they’ve taken a broader view of what an American wing is is very much the message we’re trying to communicate from the foundation,’’ said Pérez-Barreiro. “It was a good fit.’’

Nine colonial-era works are on a renewable, year-to-year loan. Four contemporary works are on a nine-month loan that will be renewed, or other similar pieces will be offered.

But don’t expect the Oiticica to hang around for long.

“We already had a request from a foundation in Spain,’’ said Pérez-Barreiro. “It’s the kind of work that MoMA would want to show. We don’t know where it will go, but seeing the rates of requests we’re getting, we’re pretty sure it will be replaced.’’

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

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