“Most convicted felons are just people who were not taken to museums or Broadway musicals as children.” Libby Gelman-Waxner pseudonym of Paul M Rudnick when writing for Premiere Magazine
The new 53 gallery Art of the Americas wing opened last November at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Avoiding the opening crush, we visited this past weekend in our group of four ranging in age from 17-93. Regardless of our disparate prior relationships with the museum, this was an all new experience. No mere facelift, the mfa (all small letters for coolness) seemed to have been visited by Ty and friends for “Extreme Makeover- Museum Edition”. It is reaching out to every man/woman/child by eschewing hushed and reverent tones and embracing interactivity, computers and (gasp) giggles. Granted the $20 adult admission may keep some families away but check your public library for discounted or free tickets, plus the mfa has a schedule of discounts on its website: http://www.mfa.org/visit/admission
First we were told we needed to find a new entrance as the old one right off the
parking lot is now for groups only and four does not constitute a group. Next, we were taken aback by two giant baby heads flanking the Fenway entrance. And I have to ask: “Who was the first to say, ‘Gee, this $504 million dollar renovation would be perfect if only it had two giant baby heads?” I preferred sleeping baby – so much quieter than the other type, especially when made from bronze, and virtually immobile standing over 8‘ tall. (Antonio López García’s sculptures are actually titled “Day’’ and “Night’’, though everyone just calls them “Giant Baby Heads” and that is what I intuitively googled to find out their origins.)
I dressed up a bit for the visit and entered quietly and slowly, demonstrating respect for this venerable institution and remembering “the incident”. As a kid, I was so startled by the realism of a life-sized full length portrait of a fat balding man that I touched it. A guard reprimanded me. That kind of curiosity doesn’t go away, however; it just gets tempered. So, as we politely walked behind a couple of older (slower) women, we approached an 18th century wall installation that included a hearth, several drawers and doors. I commented aloud that I wanted to see if the drawers worked. The ladies giggled, and said they did as well, moving behind me hoping I had the nerve to try. But for a usually well-behaved, shy kid, being scolded haunted me, and I was more talk than action. My husband on the other hand yanked on the closet door, and it opened. I asked “Do you think they’ll kick us out?” to which the ladies behind me said “Oh no we clustered around him so the cameras couldn’t see”. Creeped out a bit by that, I hoped their expertise came more from crime shows than crimes. Then silence, no screaming alarm, no guards with tasers. I suspect we were expected to open it.
Hmmm could it be art museum visitation is no longer a spectator sport? There are touch screen exhibits including chair restoration, furniture making, and the process for establishing whether the final portrait in a series (one of five siblings) should be restored. Talk about playing favorites! The maritime section is bordered by accessible drawers that contain additional prints and ship models. You can take advantage of the Sharff Visitor Center’s extensive computer bank, artist’s can apply to paint on location, and there are interactive kids’ guides available. As a preteen I was just ahead of my time as a really early adopter of the interactive art museum experience, maybe I actually inspired the change along with hundreds of other little probing fingers. The permission-based “touching policy” at the mfa seems to be: “if we don’t want you to touch it, it is out of reach”. Pretty much how I handle kids and rabbits. Pinched toes and fallen arches lead us to a fabulous slab glass bench: magnificent somewhat liquid form, lovely light filtering effect, cool to the touch and…… ideal to rest one’s butt upon or, several in the case of our tired group. Ahhh, interactive is good!
If you visit the Art of the Americas wing, it is my experience that everyone notices one painting: George Washington at Dorchester Heights. My stepdaughter asked me to take her photo next to it though she had been begging me to lay off the camera all day. Once home, I googled “George Washington with horse’s butt” and there it was with a number of theories on why one of our founding fathers was painted with the very large and prominent tail end of a beast. Most likely theory: that is the way a man mounts a horse. Favorite theory: Washington was short-tempered with artist Gilbert Stuart and the artist finished the portrait with his commentary on Geo. Stand nearby and watch visitors react to this painting. Definitely worth the price of admission, but note that when I posed Nissi too close to the painting for the shot she requested, a guard silently emerged from thin air watching to ensure “near” was close enough. What was that all about? Is there a photo of pre-teen me taken the day I touched the fat bald guy’s portrait hanging in a security office somewhere? I’ve reformed I tell ya. BTW mfa – mixed messages, I could reach it.
We didn’t actually view the wing in chronological order. We started with lots of
portraits. I am a fan of portraits and was more than a little excited to see a 1760 portrait of Mrs. Jean Dick Stewart by John Hesselius because it bore a remarkable resemblance to my beautiful niece, Meaghan. While studying the portrait, analyzing which features made my niece even more beautiful, I heard my father-in-law taking full advantage of his thunderous theatrical voice pronouncing: “We think girls “today” show off too much cleavage in their skimpy outfits; it obviously has a historical precedent.”
So go play at the mfa, you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll wonder why, and you’ll leave exhausted. I may not agree that every houseware in the museum qualifies as fine art, but it’s a great take, and if Libby Gelman-Waxner is right, it will keep you from becoming a convicted felon.
© 2011 by Alison Colby-Campbell
PHOTOS – Header L-R: Le Domino Rose, John Humphreys Johnston; Maine Coast, Winter, Rockwell Kent; Raven Steals Moon, Preston Singletary; Vache, Alexander Calder; Double Portrait, Max Beckmann; Evening Coat