Top of Mind: Malcolm Rogers

An extended version of the interview with Malcolm Rogers: curator, fundraiser, rabble-rouser, and director of the Museum of Fine Arts.

Top of Mind Malcolm Rogers

Photograph by David Yellen

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.

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.

What are you most excited about going forward. What’s next?

As you know, we commission from Norman Foster a master plan that was intended to guide us through the 50 next years. Thanks to our benefactors, many of those steps that were planned for years ahead have already happened. We’ve restored the Huntington Avenue entrance, built new loading docks…the one outstanding thing from the master plan that has also come into focus, is that that we were able to buy the building next door, where we hope to establish a study center where all our curators can be together. When that happens — it’ll be years from now — we’ll be able to open about 25 galleries in this building, almost a whole new wing in this structure…perhaps 10 years from now.

Are you still going to be here in 10 years?

I’m getting quite old. My feel is, so long as I can refresh myself, I’m happy.

How do you refresh yourself?

You have to keep your brain working. You need a bit of divine madness that’s throwing ideas out all the time. You also have to surround yourself with strong people who have your ideas before you have them. The other thing I was going to say is that this is not a good economic time. 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 bills.” Does that make sense?

What are your own tastes in art? What do you like? What would you want in your home?

There’s a lot I’d want in my home. I was brought up, as a museum person, at the National Portrait Gallery in London, so I love portraits. Two of my favorite paintings in the MFA: One is the famous Sargent, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, which is just a knockout painting by all standards. In the Koch gallery is arguably El Greco’s greatest portrait, Fray Hortensio, a masterpiece of Spanish painting. I couldn’t single out one image, but something I’m especially proud of and has given me great pleasure is our collection of Japanese woodblock prints, which when I came was wrapped in brown paper and string… I will say, when I came here, I was determined not to have a favorite department. There has been a tendency in the past for directors to spend all the money on their favorite department.

Where do you tell people to go in the museum? What are the things that people often overlook?

People forget that outside Egypt, we have probably the greatest collection of Old Kingdom Egyptian sculpture in the world. And perhaps people don’t expect to find it in Boston. But the Egyptian sculpture here is unbelievable.

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.”

Even when I was at my most controversial, people who didn’t want to be involved in the controversy would come up to me and say, “Malcolm, the museum feels different since you’ve been there.” That’s their way of saying, “You’re doing a good job” without getting into the controversy. Before the controversy, people said thank you for opening the front doors.

You don’t really mind controversy, do you?

We need a little bit of controversy. As Oscar Wilde said, the only thing that’s worse than being talked about is not being talked about.

Given that, what did you make of the ICA and the Shepard Fairy exhibit, when he got arrested? You must have appreciated the spectacle of all that?

The public have all sorts of choices about how to spend their leisure time, and you have to keep saying that this is a lively, welcoming place, without dumbing down, without being vulgar. But you have to change with the times. I remember years ago when we put on the Herb Ritts exhibit, and I suppose I did intend to cause a little bit of a fuss, one person said to me, “It’s fine that you’ve got all these people here, but they’re not really museum people.” Another thing people will say is, “You know, young people are the audiences of the future.” What? That just means they’re the middle-aged people of the future. This is not a place for middle-aged people, necessarily. And if you come here on the weekend that’s very obviously the case. But people have funny notions about museums. Too many preconceptions.