The Making of a Masterpiece

Over the past decade, the Museum of Fine Arts has raised more than $500 million as part of an ambitious plan to reinvent itself. This month, the public finally gets to see what a half-billion dollars gets you these days.

Talk about an extreme makeover: In 1999, the MFA came up with a master plan to transform itself from a revered but intimidating archive of classic works to a user-friendly home for all art lovers. Entrances would be restored after years of neglect, and the total building area would grow by more than 25 percent — thanks mainly to the construction of a massive new addition, the Arts of the Americas Wing. The campaign would end up being the most ambitious effort in the museum’s history.

[sidebar]“I felt that having this wing would be particularly significant here in Boston, the cradle of America,” says the MFA’s director, Malcolm Rogers. “You can tell so much about American history, and see how America has changed, through its arts.”

All it would take was a mere $504 million — or about as much as it cost to build Gillette Stadium and Newton North High School. Combined. Fortunately, the fundraising campaign benefited from some fortuitous timing: It concluded in September 2008, a few weeks before the economy officially tanked.

On November 20 Bostonians will finally get to see what all the fuss is about. Even better, they’ll get to see it for free that day. What they’ll find are 53 new galleries totaling more than 50,000 square feet. In fact, the museum has been able to double the amount of American artwork on view to include many new acquisitions and pieces that have been mothballed for decades.

The new wing was designed by the London firm Foster + Partners, best known for topping Berlin’s Reichstag with a glass dome. They’ve put the same emphasis on transparency with the MFA: The building’s glass walls help break down the barrier between the salon and the sidewalk — a dramatic departure from the museum’s once-cloistered image.

As Rogers puts it: “If you look in from outside and see people with strollers or in regular clothing, you think, ‘Oh, I don’t need to wear black tie to go to the MFA.’”



  • Jeannie

    Dear Mr. Baker,
    Great article on the “new” MFA! However, it should be noted that the George Putnam who founded Putnam Investments was not married to Amelia Earhart. Earhart’s widower was George Palmer Putnam of Rye, NY, publisher of G.P. Putnam’s Sons, NYC.