Art galleries go dark

Sebastian Smee

THE WASHINGTON POST – When Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) marked its 150th birthday in February, it spread the celebrations over two days.

The first, a Tuesday, was for the staff. No meetings were scheduled. The museum’s Director Matthew Teitelbaum was among many who gave impromptu talks in front of favourite works.

And when the museum closed to the public at 4pm – earlier than usual – there was a team photo in the Shapiro Courtyard, a bar serving hot chocolate and, a yoga class and a staff sing-along.

The next day, the public was welcomed without charge. Crowded collection tours focussed on 15 works of art (each representing a decade since the MFA’s founding) selected by Maureen Melton, the museum’s historian.

Among the 15 were a painting of a grain stack by Claude Monet and a 13th-Century sculpture, Sho Kannon, the Bodhisattva of Compassion from Japan.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue in New York. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST
In this 1910 archival photo, visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art view ‘George Washington Crossing the Delaware’ (1851) by Emanuel Leutze

The hashtag #mfa150 trended in Boston. Local political leaders passed on congratulations.

And a tweet from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, also founded in 1870, declared, “Birthday twins! Happy 150th anniversary @mfaboston.” All this, like so much else, feels incredibly poignant now.

The Metropolitan Museum turned 150 last Monday, but it is closed to the public. So is Boston’s MFA. Both institutions are haemorrhaging money: a projected USD100 million at the Met; USD12 million to USD14 million at the MFA by the end of June.

Thousands of events, including long-planned 150th-anniversary celebrations and fundraising galas, have been cancelled. And two months on from that staff sing-along, the MFA announced that it would furlough more than half of its employees, from April 23 through June 30.

When the Met closed on March 13, it was a little more than two weeks away from opening its 150th-anniversary exhibition, “Making the Met 1870-2020”.

Already three quarters installed, the show was a chance to tell the Met’s story and to show off many of its most charismatic objects, including an Egyptian statue of the female ruler Hatshepsut, John Singer Sargent’s ‘Madame X’ and Pablo Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein.

Most of the works are now covered with brown paper. Scattered between them are ladders, work tables and other installation supplies. The galleries are completely dark.

Outside, meanwhile, New Yorkers are afraid and isolated. The avenues of Manhattan are empty canyons. Hundreds of people are dying every day.

For the Met’s President and Chief Executive Daniel Weiss, the moment is surreal.

“It’s a terrible global tragedy. And at the same time, we’re quietly marking the 150th anniversary of this great institution,” he said. “We will get through this moment. The institution will endure. But it is not a moment to celebrate a birthday party, that’s for sure.”

Reconfiguring the programming, Weiss said, has been complicated and labour-intensive. The Met has a superb website and has been fleet-footed and ambitious in finding ways to connect with the public digitally. The numbers, he said, “are way up”. But, like the MFA, and almost every other museum, the Met is facing significantly changed circumstances, and is having to make tough decisions.

With a large portion of its revenue stream cut off, and a projected 20 to 30 per cent drop in attendance expected even after the museum reopens, the Met’s Director Max Hollein said he remains committed to major projects, including a new wing for modern art.

But, he acknowledges, “We will have to see what the new environment means for a project on that scale and ambition.”

The MFA, meanwhile, is reevaluating plans to open a new conservation centre and a centre for Netherlandish art later this year.

It has scrambled to rearrange exhibitions and put off several permanent-collection revamps, all planned for the 150th-anniversary year. Teitelbaum, who has taken a 30 per cent pay cut, said he is working to make sure furloughed employees can use government programmes to “come close to” their compensation levels.

He expresses optimism about the institution’s future but said staff morale is uneven.

It’s difficult to accept that these two great museums are temporarily closed to the public. It’s even harder to think of them not existing.

“Imagine how New York and Boston would be different,” Weiss said. “Even if you don’t go on a regular basis, they add something that is absolutely foundational to what makes a city a place where people want to live.”

The Met and the MFA were not the United States (US) first public art museums: The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, and the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut, preceded them by decades.

But their founding came out of a period of surging post-Civil War optimism fuelled in part by the nation’s upcoming centennial.

The Art Institute of Chicago and the Philadelphia Museum of Art opened the same decade.

“America was putting itself back together and thinking of its place in the world,” Teitelbaum said. “It wanted to put America in the middle of international conversations.”

The Met was envisioned by a group of Americans in Paris, 16 months after the surrender of Confederate General Robert E Lee.

They were in a mood “to celebrate the rewards of peace,” said the Met’s Andrea Bayer, who organised ‘Making the Met’ with Laura D Corey.

The museum’s creation, Hollein said, is “a story of extraordinary – and to a certain extent almost presumptuous – ambition.

“If you think of these Americans going to Paris and seeing the Louvre, maybe sitting in a cafe, and saying, ‘Okay, so we want this scene in New York right now’.

“But they didn’t have one piece of art. They didn’t have any money really. They didn’t even have a building. But what they had was this New York ambition and a certain kind of can-do mentality: Things are possible.”

Although New York was growing as an industrial powerhouse and quickly outstripping Boston – the one-time “Athens of America” – it was also, as Weiss puts it, “a pretty grim city”. Civic leaders were becoming conscious of what the great cities of Europe had that New York did not.

The US, Weiss said, “was this country filled with vast natural resources, growing economic power, an industrial base that was formidable, a military that was growing – and no culture”.

The Met’s founders envisaged artists and artisans from the nation’s manufacturers sketching in the galleries and learning the decorative arts of other cultures.

Indeed, artists played a key role in the museum’s earliest days, Bayer said. “They contributed their own artworks, they contributed things from their collections, they contributed to exhibitions and they were on all the founding committees.”

Meanwhile, to the north, footloose Bostonians were returning from overseas with crate upon crate of art that they deposited at the MFA, then at Copley Square.

The trustees believed in displaying everything, so the museum was impossibly crammed.

A new site had to be found, and it was – near Isabella Stewart Gardner’s new Venetian-style palazzo in the Fenway.

By 1911, the MFA was receiving Egyptian and Nubian treasures from George Reisner’s archaeological digs in Africa and thousands of works of Asian art from such collectors and scholars as Edward Morse, William Sturgis Bigelow, Ernest Fenollosa, Okakura Kakuzo and Denman Waldo Ross.

As in baseball and the building of subways, a productive rivalry existed between the two cities’ newly minted museums.

There was, Bayer said, “a sense of shared aspiration and shared interest, but also of ‘We’re going to get your best guy and bring him to New York!’.”

That happened when the financier John Pierpont Morgan lured MFA Director Edward Robinson, a classicist and archaeologist, from Boston to New York, where he soon became the Met’s director.

Morgan’s own influence on the Met, Bayer said, can’t be overstated. He professionalised the museum’s staff at the beginning of the 20th Century, helped bring thousands of works to the museum and oversaw the construction of spaces to accommodate them.

“His belief in the Met as a great museum,” she said, “was absolutely fundamental to its growth.”

The interests of both museums’ wealthy and powerful benefactors (many of whom made their money in ways that might today be regarded as objectionable) inevitably determined the character of the collections.

But those who supported Boston’s MFA in its early decades, as Teitelbaum said, “didn’t have to do what they did. They started with a commitment to creating something for their city.

“That’s a great thing. Do I think museums need to do a better – a bigger – job of opening up their space to more narratives, more points of view, more interpretations?

“Yes, I do. But it’s not an either/or. It’s a building upon.”

Both the Met and the MFA have struggled with a perception that they are too conservative. Opportunities have been lost, none more alarming than when the Met decided to decline – twice – Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s offer of 700 works of modern American art.

The result – a good one for New York – led to the founding of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

“We keep celebrating the successes and we look at all the great acquisitions,” Bayer said, “but we also know that behind this are a lot of stories of failures and things where we were wrong.”

Both museums have endured other crises. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the MFA had to close its renowned Japanese galleries to protect artworks from potential vandalism. Met curators such as James Rorimer, a medievalist, and Edith Standen, an expert in tapestries, were among the “Monuments Men” who made sure that thousands of objects looted by the Nazis were returned to their owners.

After the attacks of September 11, 2001, visitors were drawn to the Met, Weiss said, because “it gives them solace, it gives them inspiration, it gives them time and space for reflection. All of that is hard to do when you’re not open to the public. So we’re pressing very hard to make sure our digital presence is meaningful to people, and we’re looking forward to being able to open the doors again.”

When Teitelbaum looks back on the MFA’s 150-year history, what amazes him most, he said, is “the generosity of people who wanted to create a space of convening and sharing around great art. All of these institutions were founded by people giving to the public trust. It’s still deeply moving to me that that is at the core of America.”

Hollein marvels, too, at how the Met “was built piece by piece by the citizens themselves – by everyone feeling this is their museum and they want it to flourish. It’s emotional, it’s awe-inspiring, and it’s magnificent what has been accomplished.”