New Americas wing opens at Boston's MFA

MFA's new Art of the Americas wing boosts the field of American art, which has often been seen as a poor cousin to Europe.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
John Singer Sargent's 'The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit' (1882) is shown with the same vases he used in the painting. The Art of the Americas wing at the Museum of Fine Arts opens to the public on Nov. 20.

Is it the last of an art museum building boom that began in the affluent 1990s? Or is it state of the art for a 21st-century facility?

The new $504 million Art of the Americas wing of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) is likely both. And a boon to the study of the art and culture created in the “New World,” from the Arctic to Tierra del Fuego, as well.

“This is the biggest project in American art and culture being undertaken by any major American institution at the moment,” says Malcolm Rogers, the MFA’s director.

The new wing, which aims to tell the story of the arts of the entire Americas, not just the United States, features 53 galleries, including nine period rooms, which combine furniture, silver, textiles, ceramics, paintings, and other objects in a single room.

The building, designed by Pritzker Architecture Prize winner Norman Foster, is a modest four-story rectangle that aims to make the treasures within the stars of the show.

The wing, which opens to the public Nov. 20, adds 121,307 square feet to the museum, bumping up its size from 483,447 square feet to 616,937. More than 5,000 works will be on display, more than double the number of pieces from the Americas previously on display.

The fund raising, largely gathered from wealthy patrons before the stock market swoon of 2008, was itself an impressive feat.

“It’s a huge project,” says Ford W. Bell, president of the American Association of Museums in Washington D.C. It comes as a coda to a spurt of museum building between 1993 and 2005, when museum construction grew at three times the rate of all construction, he says.

It’s also a boost to the field of American art, which has sometimes been seen as a poor cousin to Europe, says Betsy Broun, the Margaret and Terry Stent director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.

“As recently as the 1990s, Harvard didn’t teach American art history. It was not yet accepted into the ultimate Ivy League school,” Ms. Broun says. “It was long thought to be merely imitative of Europe. Not really a worthy subject in its own right.”

That perception is changing.

“Many museums are rethinking and re-presenting, and allocating more space for their American collections,” she says. “The MFA has a truly magnificent collection of American art from pre-Columbian times to the present. This is an opportunity to showcase it in much greater depth than ever before.”

Often known for works by artists from the United States, such as the silversmith and Revolutionary War patriot Paul Revere and painters John Singleton Copley, Childe Hassan, Mary Cassatt, and John Singer Sargent, the new wing gives new attention to the rest of the Americas.

“We try to tell a variety of American stories, acquiring and showing more art from Central and South America, early Spanish America, and work by women and artists of color,” says Mr. Rogers, who was born in Britain but became an American citizen a few years back during the building project.

While the MFA has “gaps” in its collection from the Americas outside the US, “We do have one of the finest collections of ancient American ceramics of the classic Maya period,” says Elliot Bostwick Davis, chair of the Art of the Americas department.

The Americas wing has “acquired 3,000 works of art since I arrived in 2001,” Ms. Davis said in an interview, and 75 percent of them have never been on public display before.

By providing gallery space, “We’re hinting that collectors can help us” by donating more works, Rogers says.

Some of the galleries were designed with specific works in mind. The massive painting “The Passage of the Delaware,” (1819) by Thomas Sully, for example, required a special installation. Its 12 foot by 17 foot frame stretches from ceiling to floor.

“Foster and Partners created a special cove in the ceiling just to be sure that we could hang it on the wall, because it really did fill the wall,” Ms. Davis says.

The Americas wing is part of a general renovation of the MFA, which includes reopening two entrances, a new 63-foot-high interior courtyard, a new auditorium, classrooms, and conservation studios. The architects visited 29 museums around the world looking for ideas to incorporate in their design, says Michael Jones, a partner at Foster + Partners. The result is “a free-standing building” surrounded by the original century-old building.

It’s all in service of being more accessible to the public, says Rogers, who points out that the museum is open seven days a week. “We had lots of treasures in store,” he says. “We needed the space to bring them to the public.”

The new wing’s use of a great deal of exterior glass means “People outside the building can see art inside, and they can see people like themselves wandering around inside,” Rogers says. “I hope it will be an invitation for more people to come inside and join us.”

By design, the building is not the star of the show; it’s the collection.

“It’s almost like an act of self-abnegation on the part of Norman Foster,” Rogers says. “It’s a very modest exterior skin. Most of the building is a beautiful interior and [with] a function. And the function is the displaying of art and making our visitors welcome.

“Great architecture need not be over-the-top architecture.”

In an Internet age, anyone, from students to adult art lovers, now has access to high-quality images, video, and texts related to works of art. Yet the investment in museum buildings shows that many people still find nothing equals seeing original works for themselves.

“I think it’s crucially important to have the physical, actual authentic objects in a beautiful space that signals our high regard for what these artists have accomplished,” Broun says.

Adds Rogers: “People still have a yearning to be in the presence of the most wonderful products of the human imagination. They find it inspiring, educational, moving.”

In tough economic times, “everyone’s thinking of new ways to keep the public coming,” says Martha Morris, assistant director of the museum studies department at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. “And [building] new facilities is certainly one of the ways you attract continuing visitation.”

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Highlights of new Art of the Americas wing at Boston’s MFA

• The Sons of Liberty Bowl (1768), a historic silver bowl made by Paul Revere, paired with a portrait of the silversmith and patriot by John Singleton Copley (1768)

• “King Lear,” a monumental painting by American artist Benjamin West

• A gallery of more than two dozens paintings, watercolors, and drawings by John Singer Sargent, including “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit” (1882), which is now paired with the two large Japanese-style vases pictured in the painting,

• “Parakeets and Gold Fish Bowl” (c. 1893), a stained-glass window by Louis Comfort Tiffany, on view for the first time and accompanied by two stained-glass windows by his contemporary and rival, John LaFarge

• “The Passage of the Delaware” by Thomas Sully, a massive painting of George Washington on horseback (12 feet by 17 feet) that has been cleaned and remounted in its original frame

• The painting “New York Harbor” (c. 1855) by Fitz Henry Lane, accompanied by 18th- and 19th-century ship models

• From outside the US, ceramics made by the Maya civilization in Mesoamerica and pre-Columbian gold objects from the Andean civilizations of South America

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