Top of Mind: Malcolm Rogers

In 1994, when Malcolm Rogers became MFA director, the museum was seen as the Carlton Fisk of cultural institutions: legendary but aloof. Rogers was determined to change that. He eliminated admission fees for children, extended hours, and, more important, expanded the idea of an MFA exhibit to include popular (and polarizing) shows featuring things like fashion, cars, and guitars. Later this year the museum unveils its American Wing, the culmination of a $500 million fundraising campaign completed, with fortuitous timing, in September 2008.


No trustee ever 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.

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.

We could not have mounted a successful fundraising campaign if people didn’t know we were headed in the right direction.

Great institutions have come to terms with their historic buildings. If you live in a palace, don’t pretend it’s a bungalow.

I remember years ago when we put on the Herb Ritts exhibit, one person said to me, “It’s fine that you’ve got all these people here, but they’re not really museum people.” People have funny notions about museums.

Those who say they want the museum to change sometimes feel uneasy when it does. My idea is to find beauty in unexpected places.

I wouldn’t say the phrase “I was right” is something that goes through my head very often.

This museum was founded, in many ways, in imitation of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. And [that museum] was founded to educate people and improve their taste. Not just with fine art, but also with fine design. The same principles inspired the MFA. So to show fine examples of design, in whatever medium, is really serving the mission of the museum.

I will never, ever look at a car in the same way again.

We could not have built an American Wing, and raise funds for it, without creating an American department. It’s so strange that that was portrayed as a controversial decision. The Metropolitan Museum in New York has had an American department for decades.

I’m not a Brit. I’m an American.

What we’ve tried to do, within the American collection, is 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.

As Oscar Wilde said, “The only thing that’s worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”

We are a reflection of what Bostonians collected, and in the past they have not collected 20th-century avant-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’re going to mount, in the new courtyard but also in the galleries below, a full retrospective of the Seattle glassmaker Dale Chihuly. And some will say, “Ugh, Chihuly,” but people will just love it.

I would never want to leave the museum at a time when anybody could say, “Rogers had great vision, but he left without paying the bill.”