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Broader outlooks at Mass. museums

MFA’s new wing, other moves open up fresh vistas

The Museum of Fine Arts’ new Art of the Americas Wing at twilight. The Museum of Fine Arts’ new Art of the Americas Wing at twilight. (David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File)
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / December 26, 2010

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It was, in New England, a banner year for American art.

By far the most consequential story of the year was the opening of the new Art of the Americas Wing at the Museum of Fine Arts. It’s hard to pin down or quantify exactly what this massive new investment will mean for New England in the long run. But it’s worth noting that the investment was not just financial, it was intellectual: The museum has completely rethought key components of its collection, greatly expanding its scope, and establishing a sturdy platform for future growth.

The new wing makes the MFA look and feel like a totally different museum. No longer does this venerable institution feel like a 1970s Jaguar with a jammed passenger door, a misfiring engine, and fogged-up windows. It feels closer to what it should be, and is: one of the world’s great museums.

Physically, the MFA’s master plan — the reopened entrances, the new internal orientation — is already working. Things will make even more sense when the repurposed Linde Family Wing of Contemporary Art opens next year.

What’s less clear is whether the museum’s leadership, with the biggest logistical challenges of the expansion now behind it, can get down to improving its performance in the two areas in which it has lagged: organizing exhibitions and filling holes in its collection.

Now is the time to gear the museum toward producing a steady stream of important, beautiful, scholarly, and audacious exhibitions — not just the occasional blisteringly great one, like last year’s “Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice.’’

Acquiring major new works is expensive. But there are tremendous private collections out there, and their owners would, in many cases, love to be made to feel good about giving them to a museum like the MFA. These are the people the museum needs to get talking to, so that it can attract the gifts it so badly needs in areas such as modern art.

The Art of the Americas Wing was not the only new space dedicated to American art to come on line in 2010. One of the country’s finest American collections, the Addison Gallery of American Art, reopened after a two-year renovation, looking sharper, brighter, measurably better.

Most of its improvements were back-of-house (a new study center and library, on-site storage). But the contrast between the Addison’s display and the MFA’s new wing was revealing.

Although the Addison sits on the campus of one of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious schools, it has never been afraid of modern art. Unlike the MFA, it embraced it from the outset.

Even though both are art museums, not social history museums, neither the MFA nor the Addison ignores social and political life in America. But where the Addison addresses these subjects largely through its abundant photographs (which are mixed in with its paintings and sculptures), the MFA addresses them largely through its decorative arts. The difference is palpable.

So much for American art. What about contemporary?

The last two years have seen several of the area’s most important museums appoint new curators of contemporary art. Jen Mergel came to the MFA from the Institute of Contemporary Art. Helen Molesworth came to the ICA from Harvard Art Museums. João Ribas came to the List Visual Arts Center from The Drawing Center in New York.

At this stage, none of these curators has been in the job long enough to really make a mark. But the early signs are auspicious: All three are ambitious, smart, and out to prove points — about themselves, presumably, but also about contemporary art. It will be fun to look back five years from now and get a sense of the differences they have made.

Competition from places such as the DeCordova Sculpture Park + Museum and the MFA is increasing, but the ICA remains the standard-bearer for contemporary art in the Boston area. And it’s had a good year, especially with its Charles LeDray and Mark Bradford shows, but also Roni Horn and Dr. Lakra. The James and Audrey Foster Prize, at the ICA until Jan. 17, is patchy, but it struck me as an improvement — more various, more stimulating — on the 2008 edition.

All eyes will be on this museum next year, as Molesworth’s reputation for producing inspiring and original shows is put to the test.

All I’d like to see changed at the ICA in coming years is the odd, ambitious group show (up until now they’ve favored solo shows), and a greater commitment to its permanent collection.

At the DeCordova, meanwhile, we’ve begun to see some major changes. There are new, big-name works in the sculpture park, displayed to better (and less crowded) effect. And the exhibitions have been impressive. Both the Chakaia Booker and Leonardo Drew shows were bold, uplifting forays into contemporary sculpture, and the 2010 DeCordova Biennial was brilliant. Over the next year or two, I expect the DeCordova to establish a national reputation as one of America’s most dynamic venues for contemporary sculpture — not just a great place to take the kids on a sunny Sunday.

The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art had a fine year, with such logistically hair-raising, occasionally eye-popping shows as “Material World’’ and “InVisible: Art at the Edge of Perception,’’ as well as extraordinary installations by Petah Coyne and Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle.

The Peabody Essex Museum mounted what was in many ways the most impressive show of the year, with “The Emperor’s Private Paradise: Treasures From the Forbidden City.’’ The fruit of years of scholarly dedication and institutional diplomacy, the exhibition gave audiences a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see into the private world of the 18th-century Qianlong Emperor.

But for me, there was no show more revelatory than the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute’s “Picasso Looks at Degas.’’ Visually splendid and sexy to boot, the exhibition was put together by Richard Kendall and Elizabeth Cowling. Its premise — that Picasso looked closely at Degas at crucial points throughout his career — came as a surprise to many. By the end of the show, the curators’ case felt watertight.

Finally, it’s worth noting some deaths. Jack Levine, who made a tremendous contribution to American art, died in November at 95. Jason Berger, a fine artist who, like Levine, was associated for a time with the so-called Boston Expressionists, died in October at 86. Neither deserves to be forgotten.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.

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