A thinker's guide to Boston museums

By now, the fanfare surrounding the opening of the new West Wing at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) has reverberated across the country. Critics and feature-writers have poured through the $22 million project. They have marveled over what is probably the largest skylit gallery in the world.They have discussed its three restaurants, its 380-seat auditorium, and its spacious museum shop. They have commented on the sculpture in the gardens outside and the exhibition of the Great Bronze Age of China within. They have explored the relation of the new 80,000-square- foot wing to the stately but labyrinthine 1909 neoclassical original. And they have mentioned (perhaps less loudly than it deserves) the climate-control system that keeps Boston's salty humidity from eating into furniture, paintings, and tapestries.

And so they should. The MFA is one of the five or six leading museums in the country. Architect I. M. Pei -- who has already given Boston its City Hall Plaza, the Kennedy Library, the new John Hancock Building, and the christian Science Center -- is a world- class leader in his field. And art is a growth industry. By any standards, the opening is an event of broad significance: It both charts the progress of and sets new standards for the relationship between artistic compositions and the spaces in which they are displayed.

At the risk of being both parochial and abstract, however, it seems worth raising several issues that otherwise might escape around the edges of the current celebrations.

What is the significance of the opening to Boston itself? What does it tell us about the relation of the museum to its public? And what, finally, is the purpose of a museum these days?

First, Boston. It is a city of museums. Not only can the area put on display the 50 centuries of art gathered over the past 100 years by the MFA. It also has:

* The Gardner Museum, where an impressive collection hangs just as it did when Isabella Stewart Gardner decreed in her will that no painting should be loaned, sold, or even moved. Housed in the dim fin de sieclem grandeur of her Fenway house, the museum preserves not only the art but its period context.

* The Fogg Museum at Harvard, where a fine collection supports exhibitions designed with an eye to scholarship and teaching. The Fogg, too, is planning an extension -- a combination of gallery and office space designed by British architect James Stirling and described, perhaps prematurely, by Ada Huxtable of the New York Times as "the architectural event of the 1980s."

* The Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), housed in a renovated brownstone police station on Boylston Street. With no permanent collection, it mounts both contemporary and recent art-historical exhibitions, and in the last three years has doubled its budget and tripled its attendance.

* The Hayden Gallery at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which for the last 10 years has focused on contemporary art. It now has a permanent collection of about 1,000 works and generates shows for nationwide tours.

Nearby, too, are the De Cordova and Dana Museum in Lincoln (which spreads its collection across various corporate settings), the Brockton Art Museum (which has a special relation to the MFA, operating as a kind of suburban wing for specially designed loan shows), and the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University (with good contemporary shows). Also within commuting distance are the Jewett Art Center at Wellesley, the Addison Gallery in Andover, Harvard's Busch-Reisinger Museum, and the new Danforth Gallery in Framingham. Add to these the superb and much-undervisited Worcester art Museum, and you find an art world of pretty high density.

And, it seems, of high quality as well."In terms of population and intensity of effort," says ICA director Stephen Prokopoff, "I think Boston is better off than many cities." He finds here "a literacy, a greater degree of understanding, than in Philadelphia and Chicago" -- two cities in which he formerly held positions. He also speaks highly of the quality of local art reviewing.

Into this context, then, comes the new West Wing -- with, most significantly, the Graham Gund Special Exhibition Gallery. Devoted primarily to major traveling exhibitions -- such as the inaugural one of the Chinese artifacts or (if it had opened earler) the block- buster Pissaro exhibition still on display in the old building -- it can bring together 10,000 square feet of gallery space. By contrast, the new Fogg building will have 2,200 square feet of gallery space; Brockton has 6,000, the ICA about 5,000, the Hayden 2,000. The West Wing, in other words, is in a league by itself. No one sees its presence as competition. It is the only big, high-security, climate-controlled, heavily foundation-supported site this side of New York.

It also has the public. Expected traffic next year: 1 million visitors. That kind of influx may well have a spill-over effect on other museums -- like the Fogg, which mounted a show on Pissaro's circle earlier this spring to coincide with the opening of the MFA's Pissaro exhibition. Says the Fogg's Suzanna Doeringer: "I think that if there are two wonderful exhibitions in town, people come for both."

If, that is, they can find the time and the money. The new West Wing changes the MFA's relation to the local public in tow subtle ways -- one good, one not s good. To its credit, the MFA staff has insisted on designing an addition that can operate independently of the old building. The result: the West wing can remain open evenings -- without opening (and staffing and heating and lighting) the entire museum. Seizing this advantage, the staff has set out a schedule for the new wing that includes Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday evening hours until 10, with the main building also open Wednesday night.

The clinker, however, is the loss of the much-loved free Tuesday nights. The only free time in the new schedule is on Saturday morning from ten until noon. Otherwise, non-member admission is $3 for the whole museum, or $2 for those periods when only the West Wing is open.

These are days, of course, of an increased interest in socalled "user fees." From the Reagan administration outward, cost-cutters are looking for ways to have those who use facilities do the paying. As the nation backs away from the something-for-nothing syndrome, that is a generally laudable goal. But if one believes that art should be widely seen, there are several reasons why the user-fee notion ought to be modified in the case of art museums.

First, of all the arts, painting and sculpture are among the easiest (with the exception of poetry) to share widely. Like concerts, ballets, and plays, they need a warm, lighted, staffed hall, which costs something. And they need to ship in and insure very expensive works.But once the works are in place, they don't need performers -- which, if they are first class, cost a lot more. Opening the museum free one night a week, in other words, costs comparatively little -- compared, say, to offering a free Tuesday night opera.

Second, there is a real need to broaden the base of the arts public. If federal funding for the arts is now endangered, the fault must lie in part with the lack of a wide constituency. How does one develop such a following? Museums, not least the MFA, have been inventive in attracting people into their sanctuaries through concerts, films, restaurants, and gift shop. Some of this is slightly fraudulent, especially as it encourages the public to confuse a real feeling for art with a mere knowledge of museums.But much is valuable, as it nudges people up against works that they might never have encountered. "Museums ," as the ICA's Prokopoff notes, "tend to be places people don't go until they've gotten into the habit of going."

Third -- and especially important to the institution's response to an inner-city public -- is a need to cut through the notion that museums are the private and stuffy preserves of the elite. Everyone needs art. America, especially, is a nation of visual thinkers -- where England, by contrast, seems more comfortable with the verbal arts. It is no accident, for example, that television has pushed aside radio and newspapers here, while those media remain central to British life. Given our nature, where are we to turn as we seek to upgrade our visual environment beyond garish billboards and kitsch tableware? We must turn, it seems, to those artists who are genuinely setting and solving aesthetic problems. And how better to encourage a taste for beautiful solutions than by continuing to lure the public -- all the public -- into the museums?

Or bring the museums into the streets. For what, after all, should be their purpose? Should there be museums? Do they allow society to salvage and broadcast its best examples of design, handing down traditions on which new artists can build? Or are they essentially mausoleums, entombing works almost accidentally and hardening into concrete what should instead be a fluid, dynamic , and ever-shifting relationship between art and society?

It is a debate that has raged on for centuries, not to be resolved in the columns of this newspaper or in the galleries of its neighboring museums. It is a debate, however, that has provoked some world-class thinking about the purpose of art. Listen, for example, to the American painter Robert Henri (1865- 1929), several of whose paintings hang in the MFA. Here, from one of his letters, is his vision:

"In America, or in any country, greatness in art will not be attained by the possession of canvases in palatial museums, by the purchase and bodily owning of art.The greatness can only come by the art spirit entering into the very life of the people, not as a thing apart, but as the greatest essential of life to each one. It is to make every life productive of light -- a spiritual infuence. It is to enter government and the whole material existence as the essential influence, and it alone will keep government straight, end wars and strife; do away with material greed.

"When America is an art country, there will not be three or five or seven arts, but there will be the thousands of arts -- or the one art, the art of life manifesting itself in every work of man, be it painting or whatever."

If the MFA can foster that vision of art, it will indeed be shaping the frontier?

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