Museum  December 27, 2019  Cynthia Close

MFA, Boston Turns 150: Here's How They're Celebrating

© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Winged Isis pectoral, 538-519 B.C.E. Napatan Period, reign of Amaninatakelebte Gold. Harvard University—Boston Museum of Fine Arts Expedition.

Inclusivity and diversity are the bywords at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston as it prepares a slate of exhibitions and events throughout 2020 to commemorate 150 years as a public museum. Officially incorporated on February 4th, 1870, the institution bounced around several city locations until 1907 when it settled in to its imposing granite Guy Lowell designed neoclassical structure in Boston’s Fenway neighborhood near the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. It has undergone a number of renovations and expansions over the intervening years, perhaps the most notable being the I.M. Pei designed West Wing in 1981, renamed the Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art. An Art of the Americas Wing designed by the London-based architectural firm Foster and Partners opened in 2010 making the MFA Boston now the fifth largest museum in the United States.

© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Georgia O'Keeffe (American, 1887-1986), Deer's Skull with Pedernal, 1936. Oil on canvas. Gift of the William H. Lane Foundation. © Georgia O'Keeffe Museum / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York.

The first 100 years established the major permanent collections including a world-class group of ancient Egyptian artifacts, Dutch Golden Age painting, extensive French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works, and the largest museum collection of Japanese art under one roof outside of Japan. Venerable defined the museum then and now, but in 1970 the MFA owned few works from living artists, leading some to find it “stodgy.” It wasn’t until 1971 when, under pressure stoked by protests from the local art community, museum director Perry Rathbone hired Kenworth Moffett, their first curator of contemporary art. Since then the MFA has done much to redeem itself, building an exemplary collection of contemporary work, and showcasing challenging work by a diverse group of artists as part of its programming in 2020.

Well-known and not-so-known female creative pioneers will occupy seven galleries throughout 2020 in Women Take the Floor, a mega exhibition of approximately 200 artworks by more than 100 women drawn primarily from the permanent collection, marking not only the MFA’s anniversary but also the centennial of the women’s suffrage in the U.S. Women Take the Floor will feature paintings, sculpture, jewelry, ceramics, and furniture as well as rotations of textiles, prints and photographs. Local women leaders were solicited for their feedback on the project, an example of how far the museum has come in welcoming the outside world to its curatorial decision making, something unheard of back in 1870 or 1970.

© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Sonya Clark (American, born in 1967), The Hair Craft Project: Hairstyles on Canvas, 2013. Silk threads, beads, shells, and yarn on eleven canvases; 3 of 11. The Heritage Fund for a Diverse Collection, Frederick Brown Fund, Samuel Putnam Avery Fund, and Helen and Alice Colburn Fund Sonya Y.S. Clark.

Moving forward in this vein, Black Histories and Black Futures, an exhibition of 20th-century art by artists of color from the Americas is curated by six teenage participants in the Bloomberg Arts Internship Boston, opening on Martin Luther King Day, January 20, 2020. This philanthropic initiative is supported by former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg's Bloomberg Philanthropies, part of his commitment to mobilizing the power of cities and their institutions to make the world a better place. These young art entrepreneurs were paid, an important element in showing how seriously the museum values their contributions to the exhibition.

© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Frida Kahlo (Mexican, 1907-1954), Dos Mujeres (Salvadora y Herminia), 1928.  Oil on canvas. Charles H. Bayley Picture and Paintings Fund, William Francis Warden Fund, Sophie M. Friedman Fund, Ernest Wadsworth Longfellow Fund, Tompkins Collection—Arthur Gordon Tompkins Fund, Gift of Jessie H. Wilkinson—Jessie H. Wilkinson Fund, and Robert M. Rosenberg Family Fund. © 2018 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

In April, Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip-Hop Generation, an exhibition of the post-graffiti movement as seen through the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat and his peers, will be accompanied by a community mural project led by local artists Rob “Problak” Gibbs and Rob Stull, yet another outstanding example of how far the museum has come in its recognition of the community outside the institutions hallowed halls.

Many more celebratory events and exhibitions will occur during this anniversary year. The museum is offering a gift of free first-year memberships during eleven community gatherings and three seasonal MFA Late Nites, which will provide free access to the museum for a full year to folks who may not have felt welcomed previously. A significant gift to those who help make the museum great is the MFA’s inauguration of free lifetime admission for all living artists represented in its collection, a boon to those who have been waiting a long time for this benefit.  

About the Author

Cynthia Close

Cynthia Close holds a MFA from Boston University, was an instructor in drawing and painting, Dean of Admissions at The Art Institute of Boston, founder of ARTWORKS Consulting, and former executive director/president of Documentary Educational Resources, a film company. She was the inaugural art editor for the literary and art journal Mud Season Review. She now writes about art and culture for several publications.


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