An extended version of the interview with Malcolm Rogers: curator, fundraiser, rabble-rouser, and director of the Museum of Fine Arts.
The director does not need to be a dictator. You’re a hand on the tiller. But you need the trustees behind you, behind that modest steering. I don’t think I’m explaining it very well…Of course, when I’ve done unpopular things, people say, “Well, Rogers couldn’t stand anyone who disagreed with him.” Everybody will tell you, I do most of my work by suggestion. I sometimes get impatient when people fail to hear the suggestion when it’s made repeatedly. But I don’t do things by fiat.
So you don’t micromanage all 800 employees?
Every head of every organization has little things they love to fuss over. The big thing is that you don’t fuss over the big things.
What will the new American Wing allow you to do?
It goes back to the Foster + Partners master plan for the museum. It was a mantra of mine when I worked in London: Great institutions come to terms with their historic buildings. If you live in a palace don’t pretend it’s a bungalow. The great thing with the Foster plan was to return to our two great historic entrances…and recreate the central spine of the museum, which has really rebalanced the whole museum. People used to come in the west and never get to the east. Now they come in the center and can go to the American Wing or go to the Linde Family Wing. You may have to walk a tiny bit farther from the car-park, but it makes the museum a smaller building. I think, in Boston, which in a way is the cradle of America, historically, to have the greatest American collection and really display it as no other museum in America can — this is the largest project I think for American art and culture being undertaken by any museum in America at the moment — I think we almost have a moral imperative here to do it.
Do you think being a Brit gives you a different perspective on all this?
I’m not a Brit. I’m an American.
Originally being from Yorkshire, does it give you a different perspective on what this museum has, and what it means?
Brits almost always have a great sense of history. And you can’t help but feel that Boston is a great historic city. We have great historic collections. Portraits of all those people the British fought against. We have all that material here. What I’ve also tried to do, within the America collection, as best we could, is really show the full range of the artistic achievement of North, Central and South America, going back to ancient times. And to really show all the strands that come together in contemporary America. And I think that will be something new. You will find the traditional Paul Revere material here, but also fabulous pre-Columbian art, great Native American art, art by immigrant artists of the 20th century. The other thing that will be very noticeable, and it couldn’t really have happened without the creation of our American Department, is that objects in different media will be talking to one another, so you’ll have paintings with textiles with photographs with works on paper. But it abolishes the notion of museum departments.