Malcolm Rogers Has Left the Building

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malcolm rogers mfa boston

Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The first time I met Malcolm Rogers, he mistook me for “the trophy wife of one of the venerable trustees,” as he put it. It was June 1994 and no one was supposed to know that Rogers was on the eve of being appointed the next director of the Museum of Fine Arts. Almost nobody in America knew who he was, anyway. But rumor had it that Rogers, an Oxford-educated scholar and deputy director of London’s National Portrait Gallery, was scheduled to dine with the museum’s board of directors in the Garden Room at the Ritz-Carlton that night. Hoping to confirm his appointment, I staked out the hotel and waited.

At the appointed hour, a moon-faced gent strode up to a uniformed bellman in the hotel lobby and asked, in the Queen’s English, “Pardon, is this the lift to the Garden Room?” I scrambled into the elevator behind him. At first, Rogers was absolutely charmed that I knew who he was—but when I identified myself as a journalist, the magnetism meter went down several notches. He seemed startled and didn’t want to risk spoiling the MFA’s big announcement.

At the time, the hiring of a new director loomed large for the troubled museum, which carried a deficit of $3 million. Layoffs and retirements had depleted the already lean staff, and morale, which had been sliding for years, was subterranean. The MFA had closed its entrance on Huntington Avenue four years earlier, ostensibly as a cost-saving measure, but the move effectively sent a message that neighboring Roxbury residents were not welcome. The museum’s disgruntled security guards had organized a union, and I had recently been thrown out of one of the galleries by the vice president of security for interviewing the chief union organizer.

The MFA was not alone in its misery. As the 20th century came to an end, museums had become hulking institutions, and the requirements for a museum director had grown beyond art expertise to include fundraising skills, financial expertise, marketing savvy, diplomacy, and a showman’s combination of chutzpah and charm. A dozen other U.S. museums were also searching for new directors, and potential candidates were growing increasingly wary of the role’s changing responsibilities. Museum professionals were not exactly campaigning for the MFA’s opening, thanks to its long list of troubles. But Rogers, who had recently been passed over for the directorship at the National Portrait Gallery, lobbied unapologetically for the job. “In those days,” Rogers says, “the attitude of a Brit to a great job like the director of the MFA was that it is a prize. And I wanted to win that prize.”

The feeling was not entirely mutual. MFA trustee Ann Gund recalls asking, “Why are we interviewing this man? He is from England. He has never had any development background, and he knows nothing about Boston.” After all, Rogers was an expert on portraiture, had never held a director’s post, and had no experience at an encyclopedic museum like the MFA, where the collection ranged from internationally renowned holdings of Asian and Egyptian treasures to an enviable collection of Impressionist work. It didn’t bolster his image that he was staying at the budget-friendly Midtown Hotel on Huntington Avenue—a long distance in mindset and pedigree from the upscale Ritz-Carlton favored by the museum’s directors.

Still, Rogers blew the trustees away. “He knew exactly what was needed,’’ Gund says. At a dinner organized by the search committee, Gund was seated next to then-trustee Ted Landsmark, a prominent leader in the African-American community who is now a member of the Boston Redevelopment Authority board of directors. Rogers told the group of trustees that the first thing he wanted to do was reopen the Huntington Avenue doors, because the museum was turning its back on Roxbury. Landsmark turned to Gund and asked, “Did you put him up to this?” She hadn’t. Rogers had done his homework. He understood that the MFA needed to change.

Now, 21 years later, Rogers—who seldom shied away from publicity or controversy—has retired, leaving new director Matthew Teitelbaum an MFA that has been radically transformed. Rogers opened the museum’s doors; made strides in diversifying its collection and audience, if not its board and staff; and oversaw 102 new or renovated galleries and a refurbished building. The campus now includes a spacious new Art of the Americas Wing, the Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art, a vast visitor center, and a high-ceilinged interior courtyard with a sleek café.

He also leaves a community deeply divided over his legacy. Rogers increased attendance and made the museum more accessible, but he did so in part by staging exhibitions that were more about flash and cash and less about artistic standards. He brought cars, guitars, and the boats of conservative billionaire Bill Koch to the museum’s lawn. He summarily fired two esteemed curators and ordered them to be escorted out of the building by uniformed guards, like rogue employees who had shared company secrets. Rogers raised $504 million for the additions to the building but is also leaving behind $140 million in debt, a little-known secret that raises questions about his financial prowess. After more than two decades at the helm of the city’s most distinguished museum, he leaves the MFA as one of the most polarizing figures the city’s insular art world has ever seen. And he also leaves a significant question in his wake: Can the MFA prosper without him?


When Rogers arrived for his first day of work in 1994, he was the 10th director to lead the museum—a storied institution that held dear to its long-entrenched values. The MFA was chartered in 1870 by a group of 12 Boston Brahmins, fellows with surnames like Eliot and Cabot. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, was founded the same year; the Boston Symphony Orchestra wouldn’t be established for another 11 years.) City leaders gave the group a prime parcel of land in the new Back Bay neighborhood, which recently had been transformed from a muddy swamp. The founders raised money to build a red-brick terra cotta building on land that now houses the Fairmont Copley Plaza, and the original MFA opened on July 4, 1876. The largest single gift, of $25,000, came from the widow of Colonel Timothy Bigelow Lawrence, who had died unexpectedly seven years earlier on a trip to Washington, DC. It would be another 78 years before the first woman, Frannie Hallowell, was elected to the MFA board of trustees, in 1954.

Stuffiness was baked into the concept. The founders were, according to MFA archivist Maureen Melton, “men of science and men of letters” who aimed to educate and enlighten the public. There was, of course, a bit of noblesse oblige involved. The upper classes in the U.S. were frightened by waves of immigration from Ireland and southern and eastern Europe, and they viewed cultural institutions as civilizing agents. “It was fairly Puritanical,’’ says Alan Wallach, professor emeritus of art and art history at William & Mary College. “They wanted to sponsor institutions that were educational, not simply for aesthetic or sensual pleasure.”

The MFA eventually outgrew its headquarters in Copley Square, and the trustees bought the 12 acres of land where the museum now sits—at the time, it was a rental ground for circuses and rodeos. The Beaux Arts building, designed by Guy Lowell, opened in 1909. The museum’s more than 110,000 objects were moved from Copley Square by horse and cart.

From 1918 to 1966, the MFA offered free admission every day. During the Depression, it became a haven for folks who came not just for the art, but also for the warmth. The museum’s Brahmin trustees referred to the unemployed as “people suffering enforced leisure,” Melton says. The MFA’s visitors may have been changing, but its board members weren’t. “Fundamentally, you were looking at the same kinds of trustees,” Melton adds. “Many were still drawn from that same sort of white Protestant male.”

The MFA remained a sleepy temple of art until the postwar period, when there was a huge upsurge in college education and more people were fluent in art history. Museums suddenly began focusing on visitor services. Perry T. Rathbone, who was appointed director in 1955, ushered the MFA into the blockbuster era, staging crowd-pleasing exhibitions of works by Rembrandt, Cézanne, and Matisse. He eventually resigned in 1972 after a scandal involving the acquisition of a dubious Raphael, but by then he’d thoroughly shaken the place up. A showman known for his publicity stunts and his ability to work the crowd, Rathbone also added new blood to the board that was considerably less blue. His daughter, author Belinda Rathbone, notes that her father was compared to another guy with the initials P.T.—the one whose last name was Barnum. Similar claims have been made about Rogers, whose populist approach to exhibitions at times recalled the location’s former use as a circus ground.

malcolm rogers mfa boston

Malcolm Rogers courted celebrities and high-profile artists such as photographer Mario Testino (right), whose work was showcased at the MFA in 2012. / Photograph by Paul Marotta/Getty Images

Over the years, the museum expanded several times, but the demographics of its audience remained largely white and middle- to upper-middle class. There was a long-held perception in Boston that the MFA was not welcoming to other ethnic and socioeconomic groups. Melton, the longtime archivist, remembers that as a child who grew up in a working-class family outside of Boston, she felt distanced from the museum. “I would get dressed up to go to the MFA and be nervous,’’ she recalls. Despite the occasional blockbuster, many of the galleries were all but empty during the years leading up to Rogers’s appointment.

The economy didn’t do the MFA any favors during the early 1990s, when the museum ran large deficits. Morale hit rock bottom in June 1991, when the board ordered the administration to trim $1.7 million off a projected $4.7 million deficit. Forty-two positions were affected, and 21 people were laid off. The financially strapped museum had borrowed an estimated $6 million to $10 million off its endowment, which had decreased to $145 million. Then–board president and financier George Putnam arrived late to a staff meeting that had been called to announce the bad news. “I do find that bad things happen in threes,’’ he told the group of staffers, trustees, and overseers. “I broke a tooth this morning. My train broke down in Beverly. The third thing…” One longtime museum donor waved a $5 bill in the air, offering to take up a collection to fix Putnam’s tooth.

Putnam’s insensitive comments didn’t go over well. The curators fired off a furious letter, and members of the board agreed that they had been remiss in handling the financial crisis that was hitting major museums all over the country. The MFA was in deep trouble. Something needed to change.


This was the museum inherited by the young Englishman I met skulking about the elevator at the Ritz. At best, though, Rogers seemed a curious choice to stage a dramatic turnaround. Raised on a rural Yorkshire farm, he won a scholarship to a prestigious secondary school and another to Oxford, where he excelled. “I’m a fairly conservative fellow,’’ he says now—an intentionally provocative salvo from a man who courted celebrities and displayed their work on the museum’s walls.

When Rogers arrived in Boston, he said he was astonished that the largest gift to the museum to date had been a mere $2.5 million. Early in his tenure, he invited the architect Graham Gund and his wife, Ann, to dinner. “Graham had been on the board since 1974, and he said, ‘My goodness, no director has ever asked me to dinner before,’’’ Ann recalls. Shortly after the dinner, the MFA’s director of development called, not coincidentally, to ask the Gunds to endow the directorship, and Rogers became the first Ann and Graham Gund Director.

A few months into his tenure, in February 1995, Rogers initiated layoffs in an attempt to trim $3.4 million off the museum’s $4.5 million deficit. But he initially avoided the kind of furor that had erupted four years earlier by announcing the layoffs in advance and consulting with curators before decisions were made. (He also refrained from making any quips about dental distress.) Rogers made good on his promise to open the doors on Huntington Avenue, a symbolic gesture that was universally applauded. “I do feel that the museum was perceived as a grand, stately dowager, and in some ways we were,’’ he says. “The brand had to be broken. We had to show change.”

Few people at the MFA, however, were ready for the kind of change Rogers had in store. In June 1999, he launched a blood-letting that was immediately dubbed “The Boston Massacre.” In an event that roiled the rumor-obsessed art world, Rogers unexpectedly restructured the museum, eliminating 18 positions, creating 20 new ones, and carving out new “ super” departments organized by geography rather than discipline. He dismissed two prominent curators who had brought cachet and donors to the museum: Jonathan Fairbanks, the curator of American decorative arts and sculpture, who had been at the museum for 28 years; and Anne Poulet, the curator of European decorative arts, who had been there for 20 years. Both curators were summoned to the executive offices, had their badges confiscated, and were escorted out of the building. “After 30 years, I hadn’t expected it,” says Fairbanks, who, at 82, is now director of the Fuller Craft Museum, in Brockton. “I would have preferred to leave in another way.”

Rogers said the move was part of his goal to create “one museum,” and that it was necessary to dismantle powerful curatorial “fiefdoms.” “I wanted to bring a new professional model where everyone worked together for the museum and respected the professionalism of other colleagues,” Rogers says.

The idea of “one museum,” however, turned out to be an institution with one director at the top who diminished curatorial control and micromanaged decisions. Members of the board were stunned and furious about the brutal way the reorganization was handled. Ted Stebbins, who had been promoted to chair of the new Art of the Americas department, resigned angrily a few months later. He showed up at 9 a.m. with his lawyer and handed a letter of condemnation to Rogers. “It was really an outrageous thing to do,’’ Stebbins says today of the layoffs. “It was more than a shot across the bow. It was a real wounding of the curatorial staff.” Stebbins, known for securing such prestigious donations as the 20th-century American paintings in the Lane Collection, was irate that his colleagues were treated like “criminals,” but he was also concerned that every decision about the proposed new Art of the Americas Wing would be made by Rogers. “It turns out that I was absolutely right,” he says. “I have heard from the curators that Malcolm interfered in every aspect of the installation, choosing the awful wallpapers and even rearranging the works in most galleries after the curators had finished.” Rogers says that he did “very little of that,” although he confesses gleefully that those in charge of installing the Art of the Americas Wing “allowed me to edit a little” and that it is “a privilege to be used as a confidant by some of the curators.”

Benjamin Weiss, now the MFA’s chair of prints, drawings, and photographs, was tasked with writing labels for the new galleries. Rogers, he says, was not shy about tweaking his copy. “Malcolm is an extraordinarily skilled editor,” Weiss tells me. “You are a writer. I am sure you know that a good edit is like a bracing massage.”

Weiss relished the collaboration, he says. But some board members say Rogers’s hands-on style intimidated other curators. After the so-called Boston Massacre, external criticism was fast and furious. Patricia Hills, professor emerita of American art and African-American art at Boston University, was vocal in her support of the curators and in her belief that the reorganization was the final blow in what she views as the “corporate model” of the museum. “The curators’ stature was reduced,’’ she says. “It is a model of management that is very top down rather than collaborative.”

David Ross, who as former director of Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art and New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art is hardly a member of the old guard, is still furious. “You don’t treat curators like fungible assets,” he says. Ross, who led the ICA during the infamous Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit in 1990 and was then a mentor to newly appointed MFA director Matthew Teitelbaum, breathes fire when he discusses Rogers. In his view, Rogers was a success according to “the show business metric”—that is, by a measure of generated income and attendance, not artistic excellence. “They are doing the same things they do in the retail and entertainment industries. Why else would you build a giant empty space for corporate parties that is like a carbuncle on the building?” he asks, referring to the huge spaces that house the visitor center and the café. “It is an embarrassment, just like it was an embarrassment to put [Bill] Koch’s boats on the fucking lawn.”

Despite opening up the museum to wider communities, Rogers managed to anger the working-class folks in charge of welcoming those visitors, leading an administration that was in a constant push and pull with the MFA’s Independent Security Union. In 2005, the union took to the streets during the opening party for the Koch exhibit, and its members refused to work overtime for the event. Two days after the party, then–union president Michael Raysson, who is now retired, published on op-ed in the Globe that ended with the blast: “The museum should be setting examples for corporations like Walmart, instead of taking lessons from them.” As for the mega store known for underpaying its employees, Rogers says, “I know nothing about Walmart, and I wouldn’t want to make a comparison. But anywhere you can find a bargain, I’m there.”

Rogers also created a rift on the board when he started using the collection as a cash cow. He has lent out more artworks than any other director in the history of the museum, including sending a cache of Monets to the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas, which brought in at least a cool million for the museum. When I mention the Las Vegas deal, Rogers responds quickly. “Have you been there?” he asks. “Somehow the name Las Vegas brings out an inherent East Coast Puritanism. Our mission is to take art to the people.” But at least one board member quit over the fact that the museum continues to send its art around the world for a price. The mission of the museum is to collect and preserve the collections, not to use them as revenue sources, according to some board members. The board has been divided over this issue, and several members (particularly the serious collectors) have roundly criticized and challenged this practice behind closed doors.

Rogers, for his part, is stepping down without any regrets. “There is nothing I am profoundly disappointed with,’’ he says. But everyone I asked about the Boston Massacre said his handling of the reorganization was less than ideal. Except one. Rogers, to this day, refuses to admit that he made a mistake.

malcolm rogers mfa boston

Clockwise from top left, the Art of the Americas Wing under construction in 2008; Dale Chihuly’s Lime Green Icicle Tower in the Ruth and Carl J. Shapiro Family Courtyard; workers install Thomas Sully’s The Passage of the Delaware in 2010. / Photographs © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Rogers’s decisions seemed controversial because he bucked the old-guard trend, but the modern world of museums has borne him out—the commercialization of art that once seemed so dramatic is now commonplace. Glenn Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art, defends Rogers, saying, “Malcolm is anything but corporate, and that suggestion is kind of a joke. It gets leveled by the old guard against the new guard. The MFA has a budget that is probably close to $100 million a year. It’s a large enterprise. It has to be run well.” Current board chair Lisbeth Tarlow also stands by Rogers. “Once upon a time we were known as a stodgy place,” she says, “and under Malcolm, thank goodness that has changed.’’

Museums, says philanthropist and MFA honorary overseer John Axelrod, “have two speeds: glacial and stop.” But the MFA, he argues, has been at what Trekkies refer to as Warp Factor Five. “Just as the director has to take the blame for stuff that went wrong,” he says, “he should be given credit for what went right.” When discussing Rogers’s tenure, critics cite Koch’s boats on the lawn, the guitars, and the celebrity photographs. They often fail to mention such lauded presentations as last year’s Goya exhibit or the recent display of works on paper by the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai.

Defenders of Rogers often cite his contributions in terms of numbers—you can’t argue with success. When he arrived in 1994, the budget was about $77 million; today, it is more than $101 million. The number of visitors was 864,179 in 1994, and it hit 1,227,163 in fiscal year 2015. The endowment grew from $180.6 million to $623.7 million today.

But one number that stands out, as he departs, is the museum’s debt. When Rogers arrived in 1994, the debt was $35 million; today, it stands at $140 million, which is worrisome to some trustees, who are quietly conducting a campaign to retire it. The debt is due to the construction project as well as the museum’s 2007 acquisition of the former Forsyth Institute, in the Fenway, which the MFA hopes to transform into a curatorial study center. “Debt is a reality for people who have done construction projects,’’ says MFA chief financial officer Mark Kerwin, noting that other museums that have recently expanded also carry debt. The MFA board has reduced the debt, which hit a high of $189 million, and continues to raise money behind the scenes to retire the $140 million remaining. Some board members are alarmed by the debt, partly because they don’t want to saddle the new director with a liability.

Of course, the museum is more than just numbers, and it’s more than just a new building. As Rogers retires, his successor—and colleagues at similar institutions—need to explore big questions. What is the role of a museum in the constantly changing 21st century? What challenges do museums confront as the pace—and face—of the nation evolves? One of the biggest questions museums face is how to attract new audiences. Boston is now a city in which minorities represent 53 percent of the population. And museums, now more than ever, must pay attention to what they show in their galleries, who sits on their boards, and who works on their staff.

John Axelrod, the philanthropist, credits Rogers with pushing through an internal diversity report and action plan in 2002. In 2011, Axelrod sold 67 works from his impressive collection of art by African-American artists to the museum for $5 to $10 million—well below market rate—filling a long-ignored gap in the museum’s holdings. Hoping to help the MFA overcome the perception that it is not welcoming to communities of color, Axelrod also helped fund “Common Wealth: Art by African Americans in the Museum of Fine Arts,” a comprehensive catalog edited by esteemed curator Lowery Stokes Sims.

Edmund Barry Gaither, director of the MFA-affiliated National Center for Afro-American Artists, in Roxbury, applauds the progress that has been made over the past 20 years. “That doesn’t mean we’ve gotten to where we ought to be with the collections,” he adds, “but it does mean that significant headway has been made.” Landsmark, an honorary trustee, has noticed a change in the MFA’s audience as well. “Twenty years ago, you could find a quiet gallery almost anywhere, and the only visitors likely to come in were older, white, largely suburbanites and tourists. Now, there appears to be substantially more diversity.” Both he and Axelrod say that the museum has also made an effort to showcase Latin-American art.

And what about the board? Landsmark just laughs. “The number of racially diverse individuals remains extremely small,” he says, and leaves it at that. In fact, just two out of 33 elected trustees represent communities of color.

While there has been some movement on racial diversity, the additions to the building, with their soaring ceilings, wide-open spaces, and huge café, seem designed for fancy corporate functions and well-heeled crowds. Rogers instituted free corporate-sponsored “Community Days” and holiday celebrations that include Martin Luther King Day and the Lunar New Year, but he also raised the price of admission for adults to $25, up from $8 when he arrived in 1994. Children under 17 are free after 3 p.m. on weekdays and weekends, but the $25 admission fee is still cost-prohibitive for many families—and for struggling artists. Rogers readily admits that the price drives people toward membership: Starting at $75, a family membership pays for itself in two visits. But the price is still steep for some families.

The museum continues to be an occasional lightning rod among activists and artists. In July, it sponsored an event on Wednesday evenings called “Kimono Wednesdays,” in which it invited visitors to “channel their inner Camille Monet” by trying on a kimono in front of Monet’s La Japonaise, a painting of a white woman wearing a kimono. Local activists protested at the event, holding signs accusing the MFA of exploitation and cultural appropriation. In a rare turnaround, the museum eventually backed down and announced that it would no longer allow visitors to try on the kimono. There was also a counter protest by women who showed up in kimonos, indicating the sensitivity and complexity of such cultural issues. Before he even started the job, Teitelbaum responded to concerned community members and announced plans to ask for community input and hold a symposium on the issue of cultural representation, showing things will be quite different under the new guy.

The museum faces other challenges as well. Its contemporary-art collection is sorely lacking, something that Rogers noted when he arrived. Part of the reason is historical: Early Boston collectors were not interested in contemporary art after the Impressionists, so while the museum’s Asian and Egyptian collections are world class, it has a huge gap in its holdings from 1913 to the 1970s. Teitelbaum’s expertise is in contemporary art, but the cost of acquiring masterpieces to fill the gap is astronomical.

There are also huge questions about the role of technology and social media in the museum’s future, the rapidly changing modes of communication, the need to be constantly connected. Love him or hate him, Rogers brought the MFA into the 21st century. The $140 million question is whether Teitelbaum can build on what Rogers started.


Teitelbaum can be just as charming and witty as Rogers, but in a less formal way. Rogers had a top-down management style and never backpedaled, despite public and internal criticism. While Teitelbaum has strong opinions, he projects an aura that says he is willing to be convinced. “I think that I am somebody who wants as much as possible to get to ‘yes’ pretty quickly, but I am pretty rigorous in asking tough questions,” he says. “I can fall in love with a good idea pretty quickly, but then I road-test it.”

He is respected in the field as a director who supports, rather than intimidates, curators. “Matthew has an extraordinary ability to deal with people,” says honorary trustee and search committee member George Abrams. “He seems to be very supportive of curators, and I think he will be very good in bringing out the best of the curatorial staff.”

Teitelbaum, 59, comes to the MFA after a string of accomplishments at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO). A Toronto native who was educated at Carleton University and the Courtauld Institute of Art, he spent time as a curator at Boston’s ICA in the early 1990s, a heady time in the city during the culture wars that raged over exhibits like Robert Mapplethorpe’s groundbreaking “The Perfect Moment.” Teitelbaum left the ICA to become chief curator at AGO in 1993, and was appointed director in 1998. AGO has a similar history to the MFA’s. It was founded in 1900 by a group of well-heeled citizens, and under Teitelbaum’s direction it embarked on a transformation, with a $276 million addition designed by Toronto native son Frank Gehry. It has been described as the city’s “hippest hangout.” Its “First Thursdays” events sell out and attract young, diverse audiences with such artists as Patti Smith and Grandmaster Flash. When Teitelbaum’s appointment to the MFA was announced, the AGO was showing an exhibit of the works of the late New York artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose art explores themes of race and identity. Teitelbaum says one of his favorite parts of the exhibit was a “talkback” station, where visitors could record their responses and engage with the piece.

Unlike Rogers, Teitelbaum didn’t pursue the MFA; the search committee pursued him. Like Rogers, though, he was enticed by the potential of the MFA’s vast collections, as well as its recent growth. He noticed that some of the galleries, such as the Asian collection, were often empty, and wondered how he could connect ancient art to contemporary times. He began thinking about how an institution activates its community at the same time as it engages in global dialogue.

That struck a chord with the search committee. “The museum has to be international and global, but it also has to be of the community,” says board chair Tarlow. “It can’t operate in a silo.’’ Teitelbaum can help. In Toronto, he was part of a group called the G-8, a collection of arts leaders who met informally to discuss cultural and civic issues. There is a long-standing perception in Boston that the MFA doesn’t have a strong relationship with local artists. For Teitelbaum, the museum experience boils down to invitation, welcome, and engagement: “Is the invitation to the MFA sufficiently sophisticated so that the six-year-old kid, the 75-year-old grandparent, the African-American, the tourist can all see themselves here?” he asks. “The ‘you belong here’ isn’t just a tourist slogan. The ‘you belong here’ is that when you are here, your voice will matter. Right? I think Boston has done some of this, but I think all museums have to do it more.”

The point, Teitelbaum says, is to project the sense that audiences matter, that they have a voice in the institution. “Now how do you do it?” Teitelbaum inquires with an engaging laugh. “We’re going to have to have this conversation in six months.” He already responded to the kimono controversy, even before he started the job.

The MFA faces both challenges and great potential as it prepares to celebrate its 150th anniversary in 2020. When Rogers first took that elevator ride in 1994, he knew that the stately old dowager needed change. And he did, in the end, shake the place up. After a long interview about his tenure, he laughs, perhaps with relief. “The elevator ride was shorter,” he says. For Teitelbaum, the ride has only just begun.

A Brief History of the MFA

malcolm rogers mfa boston

The MFA is chartered by a group of 12 Boston Brahmins, including Martin Brimmer, the museum’s first president.

malcolm rogers mfa boston

July 4, 1876
The original Copley Square location of the MFA opens.

malcolm rogers mfa boston

Perry T. Rathbone is appointed director. He spearheads a blockbuster era of crowd-pleasing exhibitions by Rembrandt, Cézanne, and Matisse.

The MFA closes its entrance on Huntington Avenue, ostensibly to save money. But the decision also implies that neighboring Roxbury residents are not welcome.

Three years before hiring Rogers, the MFA is running a $4.7 million deficit.

malcolm rogers mfa boston

The MFA board hires Rogers as director.

February 1995
Rogers makes layoffs to trim more than $3 million off the MFA’s $4.5 million deficit.

malcolm rogers mfa boston

Rogers reopens the doors on Huntington Avenue.

Rogers unexpectedly restructures the museum, eliminating 18 positions and creating 20 new ones. He also bucks tradition and organizes new “super” departments by geography rather than discipline.

malcolm rogers mfa boston

Rogers creates an internal diversity report and action plan that later leads to the purchase of 67 works of African-American art.

The MFA acquires the former Forsyth Institute, in the Fenway.

After raising $504 million, Rogers opens the Art of the Americas Wing and a new courtyard and café.

The endowment reaches $623.7 million, up from $180.6 million in 1994.

malcolm rogers mfa boston

Matthew Teitelbaum is appointed director of the MFA.


Photographs © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Juliana Cheney Edwards Collection, The Heritage Fund for a Diverse Collection and funds donated by Stephen Borkowski in honor of Jason Collins. © Kehinde Wiley Studio. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (John, 1st Baron Byron)

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