An extended version of the interview with Malcolm Rogers: curator, fundraiser, rabble-rouser, and director of the Museum of Fine Arts.
You reorganized the museum 11 years ago, and there was a lot of tumult that came out of that; when you think back on that episode, would you have done anything differently?
I don’t believe in looking backward. And you can’t make me…What is undoubtedly true is that we could not have built an American Wing, and fundraised for it, without creating an American Department. It’s so strange that that was portrayed as a controversial decision, mainly by the media. The Metropolitan Museum in New York has had an American Department for decades. As you might expect, I have a slightly different perspective on what happened in the past than the media.
As a member of the media, I can tell you, we love conflict.
Conflict and controversy…It’s absolutely the case that it’s nice for people to be talking about the museum. You don’t always want them to be complaining about it, but you don’t want to be seen as a totally placid, bland institution. So a little controversy, whether it’s around one of our exhibitions or whatever, is helpful. What is clearly the case is that the changes I made, however many years ago, seem to have encouraged people to invest in the museum. We could not have mounted a successful fundraising campaign if people didn’t know we were headed in the right direction. This is something that fascinates me. I would feel I was irresponsible if I went to the supporters of the museum with a vision that I didn’t think was compelling, and right. There are all sorts of institutions that I’ve heard say, “Well, no one will invest in us.” People will invest in us if there is a strong, clear vision that serves the mission of the museum; that serves the community; serves the public. Everything I’ve been trying to do: rationalizing the organization, revitalizing the staff, is to underpin the idea that we are vital to this community and that we fulfill our mission well. Some refocusing has been necessary.
You were criticized during that time, yet one could say your ideas have been vindicated, whether you look at attendance numbers, or fundraising. Do you look at all that and say, “I was right”?
I wouldn’t say the phrase “I was right” is something that goes through my head very often. I tend to be looking forward. I see what I’m doing here as a process. And I see what I do here as a partnership with the trustees. And I have been blessed with very, very good boards who have been prepared to work with me and supported me. The leader of any nonprofit organization is only as strong as the trustees who back him or her. So I’ve been really blessed: intelligent. Generous. Generous with advice, time, money. If I didn’t have a strong board of trustees I could have achieved nothing. An organization like this is rather like a complex city built up of departments.