Art Curatorial

Join Me on a Visit to the MFA’s “Art of the Americas” Wing

Boston MFA Americas Wing

Last week I visited The Art of the Americas Wing at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and I was delighted by what I saw.  I traveled with several Milwaukee colleagues as we prepare for upcoming installation projects at the Museum. I was delighted to visit old “friends” in Boston’s rich American collection, I was thrilled to experience Norman Foster’s cool and elegant architecture, and I was grateful that several MFA curators took time to discuss the project in detail.

Acclaimed by everyone as a smashing success since its opening in November 2010, the Boston MFA’s $504 million, 121,307 square foot addition reorganizes the American art collection into 53 varied galleries. I found it an academic and sensual pleasure.

I was in the building for almost 12 hours, and I snapped almost 400 digital pictures. Here are a few that share what I saw and some notes on how these things might affect installation here in Milwaukee:

Visitors approach Boston’s new Art of the Americas wing through a soaring glass courtyard. As a visitor, I enjoyed the spaciousness and a place to people-watch, especially since there was a cafe and places to sit. On view was a glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly (the green tower at left), similar to the Chihuly glass sculpture installed in the Milwaukee’s Calatrava-designed Windhover Hall.  There was also Zhan Wang’s Artificial Rock (crumpled metal at lower right), which was for me a preview of the artist’s work in preparation for Milwaukee’s upcoming On Site: Zhan Wang installation opening on June 11.

Shapiro Family Courtyard, Art of the Americas wing, Boston MFA. Photo by the author.
The Art of the Americas wing, Boston MFA. Photo by the author.

Exploring the 53 galleries of Boston’s installation, I was amazed at the variety of experiences and types of art installation I encountered. This is something curators at Milwaukee will discuss at length as we prepare our next projects. Do we like dense, dramatic installations that offer a variety of materials? Or do we want simpler installations that allow your eye to concentrate?  As a decorative arts historian, I didn’t take many photographs of the galleries that had simply paintings. Instead, I personally was mesmerized by dense installations with dramatic lighting, like this one:

Ancient Central American gallery, Art of the Americas wing, Boston MFA. Photo by the author.

In Boston, you’d see clusters of objects across all media–including paintings and furniture, but also light-sensitive textiles and costume–partnered with dramatic wall coverings. Here a John Greenwood family grouping of 1747 anchors a space with a Boston japanned high chest (very similar to the early 18th century lacquered Boston high chest in Milwaukee’s Collection). Do we like object conversations like this? Or do we prefer to let a priceless piece of art or furniture stand alone?:

The Art of the Americas wing, Boston MFA. Photo by the author.

Object vignettes in the middle of gallery spaces offered a slice of a room set within a case. Here, looking at Revolutionary-era Philadelphia furniture:

The Art of the Americas wing, Boston MFA. Photo by the author.

The MFA maintained their 75 year old “period room” tradition with the new installation of nine rooms representing significant American architecture and interior decoration. Here, the 1800 Samuel McIntire carved woodwork at Oak Hill, shown with all the accoutrement of an early 19th century dining experience:

Art of the Americas wing, Boston MFA

As I turned the corner in a gallery of American Aesthetic Movement paintings, I squealed with delight to encounter this densely-installed niche evoking the mishmash of a late 19th century parlor. Our collection at Milwaukee has many small objects (like this Rookwood ceramic and Gorham silver overlay) that could be clustered for this type of impact, so I made many notes about this installation:

Art of the Americas wing, Boston MFA

I found the below installation joyous. Notice the use of carpet on the floor beneath the 19th century furniture. I learned from curators that the arrangement of these objects is inspired by similar displays of patented furniture at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. Would Milwaukee’s George Hunzinger daybed look good in an installation like this?:

Art of the Americas wing, Boston MFA

To give a sense of domestic scale, a gallery of 17th century American objects and paintings is installed within the empty timber frame from the late 17th-century Manning House (Ipswich, Massachusetts):

Art of the Americas wing, Boston MFA

Mid 20th-century design, a particular love of mine, was installed with a low-lying lounge area. This vignette included lamps, sculpture, fine art paintings, Russel Wright’s ubiquitous and adored “American Modern” ceramics, a new form of furniture (the coffee table) and two iconic chairs, all set on a pad of cork flooring:

Art of the Americas wing, Boston MFA

A visitor favorite, I learned, is the salon-style hanging of paintings against a dramatic red fabric wall. I was intrigued to see how the white marble sculptures “popped” dramatically against the delightfully-busy background. I might have imagined that they’d be “lost”, but instead found that the paintings instead were overlooked. On one hand I love being in this space, on the other I worry that it becomes more about installation than about the paintings within.

Art of the Americas, Boston MFA. Photo by the Author.

As we explored the wing, in addition to absorbing the installation on the grand scale–density of object arrangement, flow of art historical ideas, specific selected objects–I was also trying to record and remember minor details that could inform our work here in Milwaukee. For instance, often objects were not housed within plexiglass vitrines, but were painstakingly mounted on top of furniture.

You can see here two gold painted hooks reaching around to secure an ornate Tiffany & Co. clock to Nelson Gustafson’s magisterial cabinet:

Art of the Americas wing, Boston MFA. Photo by the author.

Below, you can see hooks painted silver and brown attaching an 18th-century silver candlestick to the top of a Boston gaming table. Except, of course, you can’t attach the mounts to the table, so the table’s entire surface is covered by a clear plexiglass layer that also protects the textile inset:

Art of the Americas, Boston MFA. Photo by the author.

Throughout the wing, my colleagues and I admired the stunning casework. We learned from curators that these were built in cooperation with the architects Foster + Partners by an Italian company, Goppion S.p.A:

Art of the Americas wing, Boston MFA. Photo by the author.

Dramatically, some of the cases were lit from below to add even more glitz to an object. I wouldn’t have realized that a dazzling 18th-century silver sugar bowl needed the help, but it is certainly eye-catching. Perhaps this is something to keep in mind for a gallery where light levels need to remain low to protect prints or textiles:

Art of the Americas wing, Boston MFA. Photo by the author.

Our team noticed how elegantly the galleries were named, putting the sponsor information high above the artwork in a lettering and font that coordinated with the rest of the architectural program:

Art of the Americas wing, Boston MFA. Photo by the author.

Many of the paintings galleries featured the artwork hanging on picture wires. A curator explained that this was in part a visual consideration, but also pragmatic because the coveted artwork is lent to other institutions so frequently:

Art of the Americas wing, Boston MFA. Photo by the author.

Notice the wires and hooks carefully painted to match the fabric colored walls:

Art of the Americas wing, Boston MFA. Photo by the author.

I loved this installation detail. Precious jewels set against a glittering silver-gray cloth:

Art of the Americas wing, Boston MFA. Photo by the author.

This is a close-up shot of the fabric covering the walls in the John Singer Sargent gallery. Notice how the object labels are printed onto color-matching paper labels, but the audio guide information is vinyl adhered directly to the fabric:

Art of the Americas wing, Boston MFA. Photo by the author.

I also tried to monitor and snap any photos of how I saw visitors interacting with the spaces. As a curator, it is often a challenge to remove art to make room for gallery seating, but I’m personally learning by observation that visitors enjoy the art more when they have comfort. Here, I witnessed visitors taking a moment to rest their feet and consult their maps, or spend longer staring at John Singer Sargent’s masterpiece, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit:

Art of the Americas wing, Boston MFA. Photo by the author.

Boston included two “Behind the Scenes” galleries that explored curatorial and conservation decisions that informed the installation. Curators discussed the history of collections and how one object was selected over another. They recorded much of the process of installation, so large video monitors showed dramatic installation, like hanging Thomas Sully’s behemoth The Passage of the Delaware. As you can see, this information was presented in a very slick way:

Art of the Americas wing, Boston MFA

I also took some time to explore the new wing with the MFA’s iPod touch multimedia guide. Below, I’m looking at a Paul Frankl Skyscraper Desk and Bookcase while the MFA’s curator of decorative and arts and sculpture (on the screen) shows off all its hidden features:

Art of the Americas wing, Boston MFA.

Our team walked away with inspiration for projects here at the Milwaukee Art Museum, both on the grand scale about major objects we’d like to acquire for our collection, and for little details about signage for the restrooms. If you aren’t able to travel to Massachusetts to experience The Art of the Americas Wing in person, you can see many of the highlights and behind-the-scenes content on the dedicated website.

Enjoy, and stay tuned to see if any of these observations show up in future Milwaukee Art Museum installations!

Mel Buchanan was the Assistant Curator of 20th-century Design. Mel’s curatorial responsibility included interpreting, displaying, and building the Museum’s collection of craft, design, and decorative objects.

3 replies on “Join Me on a Visit to the MFA’s “Art of the Americas” Wing”

How fantastic – thank you for all of the images and reactions – I can not wait to see this in person in June. I love the use of bright colors and pattern in the exhibits. KDM

Hello! I realize this is an old post but I m researching the skyscraper desk and found this. I’m hoping to find a video highlighting all its features but the link from this post no longer exists. Are you aware of where I might find something like this that still works? I know it’s a long shot and I’ve already reached out to the mfa for info but wanted to reach out ere as well. Thanks!

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