After a Massacre at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Sargent Reigns Serene

Wall Street Journal, 5 Aug 1999, p. A16.

“After a Massacre at The Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Sargent Reigns Supreme,” The Wall Street Journal, August 5, 1999, p. A 16

by Jason Edward Kaufman

BOSTON. On a slow news day just before the Fourth of July weekend, Museum of Fine Arts director Malcolm Rogers put into effect a re-organization so radical in its conception and so heavy-handed in its implementation that some have dubbed it “The Boston Massacre”. In one seismic jolt, Rogers dismantled the venerable museum and instituted a new organizational structure he’d devised in secret with a small management committee. When the dust settled, eighteen longtime employees were gone and departments had merged into superdivisions

responsible for immense tracts of cultural terrain, each to occupy its own wing of the future MFA.

     As the shockwaves swept through Boston high society and the U.S. art world, scores of angry letters swamped the board, deploring in particular the brusque treatment of two senior curators: Jonathan Fairbanks who founded the American decorative arts department 28 years ago, and Anne Poulet who headed European decorative arts for 20 years. After decades of dedicated service, both were told literally “to clear out their desks by the end of the day”. “I understand why

people feel strongly,” said besieged MFA chairman Robert Henderson, “but the action has taken place and we’re not going to change it.”

     The scandal epitomizes the clash of old and new management paradigms as museums and other not-for-profits adopt corporate strategies to compete in a more competitive environment. “We’re not a business,” maintains Rogers, the former deputy director of the National Portrait Gallery in London, “but because resources are scarce museums have to be businesslike in the way they use their resources — that includes their human resources.” Rogers opposes the

balkanization within U.S. museums — separate fiefdoms fighting for turf — and advocates in its place a “museum-wide culture” of integration and coordination which the present restructuring aims to promote.

Turning the MFA around

     In the five years since he took over, Rogers has utterly revivified the institution, erasing its crippling deficit and generating unprecedented publicity, crowds, and cash. After a traumatic initial downsizing of 20%, he increased public hours to seven days per week, expanded the restaurant and gift shop, and mounted heavily merchandised exhibitions of celebrity photographer

Herb Ritts, t.v. clay-animation characters Wallace & Gromit, and sure-fire-blockbuster impressionists Monet, Cassatt, and Sargent (on view until Sept. 26).

     Boston Globe critic Christine Temin accused him of “malling” the museum with commercial tactics, but her objections were drowned out by the whir of turnstiles and the kerchings of cash registers as annual attendance hit a record 1.7 million, membership soared over 100,000, the budget grew by almost half topping $100 million, and the endowment went from $200 to nearly $350 million as the trustees completed a $137-million capital campaign, the largest

in the museum’s 129-year history. A few months ago the museum opened the first of a series of loan exhibitions to a museum in Nagoya, Japan that will net $50 million in art-rental fees over the next 20 years. And in May the M.F.A. announced that Pritzker-prize-winning British architect Sir Norman Foster will design a master plan that will renovate and expand the museum for the new

millennium.

     Positive cash flow, increasing market share, globalization and growth — Rogers’ performance would make any shareholder smile. But are corporate practices helping to facilitate the museum’s mission, or are they supplanting it? Every museum director must negotiate a balance between scholarship and presentation. On the presentation front Rogers is making admirable strides. He envisions a larger yet more easily navigable museum, its collections packaged in

manageable blocks, its galleries commingling media to better illustrate each period’s general character. Boston-based architect Verner E. Johnson worked with him to create a tidy scheme in which European, ancient, and non-Western art occupy discreet wings of the main building, contemporary art (post-1950) fills I.M. Pei’s West wing; and American art gets a brand new Foster-designed home on the site of the present parking lot (replete with an underground garage).

Making Mega-departments

     It is behind the scenes, on the scholarship side, that the director’s plan seems less auspicious. Rogers’ new curatorial hierarchy mirrors the simplified public presentation, as if display takes precedence over the care, study, and collection of specific media. He joins together departments in unwieldy divisions corresponding to the planned “museums within the (One) museum”. Erstwhile departments of American paintings, American decorative arts, and

Precolumbian art dissolve into an all-encompassing “Art of the Americas” department — embracing every category of art created by every culture from the Bering Strait to Tierra del Fuego from prehistory to the twentieth century. The other mega-departments carry comparably inclusive portfolios: European paintings and decorative arts form the “Art of Europe”; Egyptian, Nubian, Near Eastern, and Classical merge into “Art of the Ancient World”; and all of Asian, African, and Oceanic art combine in “Art of Asia and Africa”. (And the marriage of the M.F.A.’s college-level art school with the museum’s Education department has been rebuked by the faculty as “an unwarranted and unwise intrusion.”)

     The tradition in Western encyclopedic museums (the Louvre, Metropolitan, etc.) is to collect and study Western art by medium (paintings, prints and drawings, etc.) and non-Western art by culture (Indian, Chinese, African, etc.). Rogers applies the less-advanced non-Western system to Western art as well. Some fear less-popular areas may fall victim to shifting taste as the museum favors more “viable” (i.e., marketable) fields, and many lament the apparent “demotion” of the decorative arts, especially the Americana so fundamental to Boston’s unique identity. “I can’t understand this,” protests Rogers, “because in fact the decorative arts are going to be brought to center stage with painting. I am concerned with bringing the decorative arts into the limelight.” Nonetheless, he sacked the chairs of American and European decorative arts and made their counterparts in painting the acting chairs of the new American and European departments.

Treating Curators Like Criminals

     One of the most perplexing questions is why Fairbanks and Poulet were sacked rather than slotted into the revamped chain of command. Henderson calls it “a management decision” and adds, “they didn’t think it was feasible that people of that stature could move down to another position. It just wouldn’t work.” But many feel the victims were purged because their powerbases

competed with the director’s authority. Rogers pooh-poohs “the myth of the dictator-director” but stonewalls when asked for a specific explanation. He denies any connection with the lawsuit being brought against the museum by Poulet’s husband, the former head of the M.F.A.’s retail operations, who was abruptly fired shortly before Rogers arrived. “There was nothing personal,”

the director adds, “and I can say that with my hand on my heart.”

     But perhaps most troubling was the unnecessarily humiliating alacrity with which they were dismissed. With cold corporate efficiency they were escorted by Security to Human Resources where they were stripped of their keys and passes and told to empty their desks by three o’clock — “as if Boston were Belgrade”, quipped one concerned patron. “Obviously, I was insulted and humiliated,” says Poulet, who was working on a retrospective of the 18th-century French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon, to open Fall 2002 at Versailles then travel to Boston and

the Getty. (She has not been invited to pursue the project, and it appears the M.F.A. will not participate.) “We really did a great deal to treat people appropriately and humanely,” says Rogers somewhat defensively, alluding to a “generous” severance package, emeritus status (unpaid, without office space), and vague prospects of contractual assignments down the road (all contingent on not taking legal action against the museum). Both are in negotiation.

     Whether or not the reorganization proves successful, it was all handled very badly. If roles needed to change, why not in a dignified manner that would honor the employees’ achievements, enable them to carry on their research, and preserve their ties to collectors on behalf of the museum? Rogers says “some recognition event” will honor the curators, and the museum is now contemplating a public apology. But he has alienated key constituents and colleagues. At the

moment when the M.F.A. is about to embark on its Millennium make-over patrons may well ask why they should contribute art or money to an institution which so cavalierly treats its own employees — and perhaps someday their gifts. Several benefactors have retracted donations or declared they would write the M.F.A. out of their wills. As yet the losses are negligible, but the message they send may be worth millions: in the museum world manners matter. As one trustee observes, “Financial prosperity does not mean a museum is well run. There are human factors.”

Mr. Kaufman is an art historian and critic living in Cambridge, Mass.

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Jason Edward Kaufman is an art historian and critic with expertise in museums and the international art world.

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