An extended version of the interview with Malcolm Rogers: curator, fundraiser, rabble-rouser, and director of the Museum of Fine Arts.
What is on your wish list for the museum?
One of the areas we really want to develop is 20th-century [art]. We are a reflection of what Bostonians collected, and they in the past they have not collected 20th-century avante-garde art. So I’d love to see a great Matisse here. I’d love to see a great Lichtenstein or de Kooning or Jasper Johns from a later period. We were just given a beautiful painting by Mondrian, the first of its kind in the museum. I hope we can build on an acquisition like that. But we can’t do it by purchase. We have to do it by collectors thinking, “The Museum of Fine Arts is a great institution; it’s the right place for my treasures.” And part of my role is to go to other cities and say to discerning collectors: “Just the gift of one work from your collection would make the difference that it might not in New York or L.A.” The Mondrian is a case of that: It came from L.A.
One of the things that’s been a hallmark of your tenure has been the big show. How much is that going to be a part of what we see from the MFA?
Sometimes I’ve been criticized for my popular programming, which I don’t understand at all. I want to do a really great popular festival here, so we’re going to mount, in the new courtyard, but also in the galleries below, a full retrospective of the Seattle glassmaker Dale Chihuly, whom everybody can appreciate. And some people will say, “Ugh, Chihuly,” but people will just love it. And I want people to come here in numbers unprecedented…There will continue to be a blend of the old and the new. One of the pleasures in my life is mixing the cocktail exhibitions.
You made mention of the fact you’ve been criticized for doing popular programming — cars, fashion. What do you say to that criticism?
I take a historic perspective. This museum was founded, in many ways, in imitation of the Victoria and Albert Musuem in London. That museum was originally a museum of art and manufacturing. And it was founded to educate people and improve their taste. Not just with fine art, but with fine design, and fine materials. Exactly the same principles inspired the foundation of this museum: to improve the general taste of the public but also of artisans and designers. So to show fine examples of design, in whatever medium, is really serving the mission of the museum. Now, if you take the cars, having exhibited that selection of cars here, I will never ever look at a car in the same way again. It’s an important part of the mission of this museum to educate the popular taste…People who say they want the museum to change sometimes feel uneasy when it does. My idea is to find beauty in unexpected places.
You came in with a mandate to change the museum. Is that a fair assessment?
No trustee said to me: You’ve got to change this, you’ve got to change that. But they clearly felt the museum needed a breath of fresh air. What people have said most to me is, “Malcolm, you’re a breath of fresh air.”