By Ted Loos
In museum installations across the U.S., curators are breaking the old boundaries of media and time periods to make us see artworks in new ways.
The biggest museum news in the world this month is the opening of the new Art of the Americas wing at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. On November 20, the grand old comprehensive museum, one of the finest in the world, is debuting its 121,000-square-foot space, a cleanly modern beauty by Foster + Partners, the firm of starchitect Norman Foster. To make it shine in the snazzy new digs, the curators have re-thought, re-arranged and re-interpreted the MFA’s formidable American collection, a process that took a decade to complete.
The observant visitor may have the nagging feeling that something is different after a first spin through the galleries. As you enter the ground-floor level, the galleries devoted to the 18th and 19th centuries, staring right back at you is John Singleton Copley’s justly famous portrait of Paul Revere. It’s not too strong to call it an American icon; the famed midnight rider and silversmith wears a look of stolid complacency that makes the Revolution seem like it might have been a breeze.
Seeing Revere is somewhat expected; what’s not expected is that the picture is displayed right behind Revere’s Sons of Liberty Bowl, the very piece he is holding in the painting. The gallery itself is covered with a boldly patterned reproduction of period wallpaper, which surrounds a broad mix of furniture, objects and paintings. Indeed, there’s something of the period room in the way that the media are combined.
“It gives you the feeling of being in colonial Boston,” says Elliott Bostwick Davis, the museum’s chair of American art and the woman responsible for the look and layout of the new wing. “When I got to the museum, these would have all been in six different locales,” she says, referring to a now-outdated single-media strategy that she calls the “all-the-spoons” method.
Anyone who has been to a big museum knows this scenario well: The visitor encounters a massive lineup of majolica tureens that stretches as far as the eye can see, meant to educate us about the subtle differences between them. But instead, this vanishing-point scenario sometimes makes us glaze over, faced with a splendid isolation of form that tells us little about their function or context.
Up on the third level, in a very different section of the MFA’s American Wing, the gallery devoted to the 1920s and ’30s also reflects the new mixed-media approach. An Edward Hopper painting mixes with a Donald Deskey chair, gleaming silver cocktail shakers and a massive chandelier from the 1937 Cary Grant film Topper. All worthy of being appreciated on their own, they also combine to create a composite picture of an era.
The MFA redo is not an isolated example. It qualifies as Version 2.0 of this trend, just the newest and shiniest version of a re-thinking that is showing up everywhere. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., has been integrating its media for years—although, because it has a more painting-heavy collection than the MFA, it faces more of a challenge in incorporating the decorative arts.
“Our collection was largely created for domestic use,” says Margi Conrads, the Nelson-Atkins’ chief American curator. She cites a stellar presentation at the museum that theoretically could have existed in a high-class American home circa 1920: a Tiffany lamp, two paintings by Western scene master Frederic Remington, a Frank Lloyd Wright reclining armchair and a sculpture by James Earle Fraser. “Seeing these together takes the works out of our 21st-century mindset and back to their original intentions,” says Conrads. “It helps us see what the aesthetic expression of the day was.”
True, it’s cherry-picking to line up all those great names together—that would have been one lucky and talented collector. But museums are learning that one outstanding piece is better than 20 mediocre ones. “It’s not exactly a false impression,” says Catherine Futter, the chief decorative arts curator of the Nelson-Atkins (ironically, some of the curators behind this movement still have medium-based titles and purviews). “But those segregated installations were more false. They were just for curators.”
It’s worth noting that these new displays are about seeing the interplay between works of art, not taking you back in time. “It keeps us away from the dollhouse setup of many period rooms, a fantasy that can often obscure less-than-stellar objects,” says Conrads. In other words, this approach takes the best facets of period rooms and cuts loose the rest.
Boston’s Davis says, “This look evokes the period but doesn’t intend to be the period, with the newspaper open and the spectacles on the desk.” That said, the MFA’s new wing has nine high-quality period rooms—they still have a place, especially when smartly integrated with the material in regular galleries, in terms of the flow among the spaces, as opposed to being stand-alone escapes.
Curators who embrace the new mix realize that there are pitfalls, too. “You have a lot less real estate when you do it this way,” Futter notes. Combining paintings with sculpture and teapots takes up more room than just a line-up of silver, which means the curator can show less of the museum’s overall wares—a serious concession given that most comprehensive museums show a tiny fraction of their permanent collections and are always struggling to display as much as they can. “But I’ll take that bargain,” says Futter. “I’d rather tell a better story.”
Even the mighty Museum of Modern Art has gotten in on the act since Ann Temkin took over as chief curator of painting and sculpture in 2008. “MoMA was set up very rigidly, with paintings versus drawings,” she says, each department warring with the other for space and prestige. But now she is mixing drawings, sculptures and photographs on the museum’s hallowed permanent collection floors, which used to be a mostly painting-only affair. “This is how contemporary eyes see it,” says Temkin. “Nowadays, artists work in all media.”
Curators and museum directors cite three special exhibitions from the mid-’80s—all of which had sumptuous decorative arts interlaced with painting and drawing—as touchstones that helped shape the current thinking within museums (where trends like this one take decades to mature): “In Pursuit of Beauty” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1986), on the Aesthetic movement; “The Treasure Houses of Britain” (1985) at the National Gallery of Art; and “Vienna 1900” at MoMA (1986).
Our eyes have been subtly trained over time to accept a relatively radical change, so that now when the MFA puts a massive Frank Stella protractor painting (Hiraqla) into the same room with sinuous jewelry by Alexander Calder, as it does on Level 3 of the new wing, it looks bold but not crazy. Both are simply great examples of abstract art from the 20th century. “We want you to come around the corner and get a surprise,” says the MFA’s chief exhibition designer, Keith Crippen, of the jewelry vitrines that greet visitors upon entering. “As soon as you walk in, you know it’s not your grandmother’s museum.”
Of the all media, paintings fare a little better when grouped all together—they tend to be large and more easily apprehended by the general public—so most museums will still have salon-style picture galleries somewhere. It’s really the decorative arts and sculpture that are particularly helped by the new shuffling, since they often get less attention than paintings and require more context to understand.
“We have these wonderful art objects, but sometimes they can be mute. They need to be brought to life,” says Liz Armstrong, the contemporary-art curator of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. “It’s all related to what re-groupings and re-installations can unleash.” At the MIA, they’ve taken it a step beyond merely integrating different types of art; the museum’s Remix program goes so far as to show contemporary work with that of previous eras. That’s the most heretical of the all the old no-nos that curators abided by in the old days. For the most part, chronology still rules.
In the MIA’s gallery of European Baroque art, featuring the likes of Tintoretto, flowing draperies and heroic poses surround the visitor at every turn. In the middle of it all, Armstrong has hung a painting by contemporary artist Kehinde Wiley, Santos-Dumont—The Father of Aviation II (2009), a dramatic image of dark-skinned fallen heroes from Rio de Janeiro. The fascinating similarities of style among new and old, when added to the difference in race and subtle pictorial elements, create a healthy dialogue, and the obscurity of the Wiley work’s back story—it relates to the pioneers of Brazilian flight—forces people to think about what’s actually happening in the more famous Baroque works. “It forces people to question these traditional Greek myths,” says Armstrong. “The paintings assume you do know the stories, but these days not everyone does.”
Is the MIA’s ambitious Remix program skirting the edge of what the public can absorb—will it just be confusing, or truly educational? Experimentation is the only way to find out. But the direction that museums are going in is undeniable: Mixing it up so that we’ll appreciate artworks to the fullest.