Personality of the Year: Malcolm Rogers
Fifteen years ago Malcolm Rogers was appointed Ann and Graham Gund Director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. He talks to Louise Nicholson about his dynamic – and at times controversial – transformation of this great museum, culminating in the American Wing, which opens next year. Portrait by Brian Smale.
Louise Nicholson, Tuesday, 24th November 2009
It is 15 years since Malcolm Rogers got the job of his dreams: director of the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston. And the museum got a dream director. Arriving at a museum that was so dormant that its front doors were closed to the public, he has used his imagination and persuasive powers, oiled with a dose of wit and mischievousness, to restructure it, raise attendance, bring back disaffected trustees, draw significant gifts, and reach out to the world with an innovative database of the collections. The transformation began in 1995 when he flung open the museum’s front doors. The culmination will be the completion of one of the largest projects any museum has ever undertaken: the new American wing, containing 53 galleries, designed by Foster + Partners, which will open in November 2010.
We meet in his office on a sunny autumn morning, the bespectacled Mr Rogers’s sombre suit relieved by a tie covered with prancing pink monkeys. He’s pleased that I arrived through the museum’s back door (Fig. 3), which looks over the tree-filled Fenway Park. Closed since the 1980s, this entrance was reopened in 2008. ‘I want the museum to be a good citizen, the museum in the park. The reopening of that entrance was critical to me in my plans. The 1980s I.M. Pei extension onto the west end was almost too successful. It drew huge numbers but they did not go east through the museum, the east end died. The thing about Foster is he persuaded us to go back to the rhythms of the original plan.’ He is referring to the lavish master plan of 1907 by the Bostonian architect Guy Lowell, in which a central spine, running from Huntington Avenue on the south (Fig. 1) to to Fenway Park on the north, is flanked by wings and quadrangles. ‘Visitors are once more going to come in at the middle of the museum; it makes it less formidable. What Foster is doing is about form complementing function, rather than an architectural statement.’
To explain Mr Rogers’s achievement, Alan Strassman, honorary trustee and former president of the board, gives me a candid description of the pre-Rogers museum. ‘It was a closed social club, if you didn’t come from the right place you weren’t included.’ Current trustee Bill Koch is even more plain-speaking about his earlier term on the board: ‘I found it to be very bureaucratic, run for the benefit of a variety of constituents who were not the viewers. I said “we’ve got to compete with the Red Sox and the movies and bring in some money”. They thought it was sacrilegious. So I called it quits.’
So, why did Mr Rogers want the job so much? ‘I was at a stage in my career at the National Portrait Gallery [in London] when I really wanted to be a director. Do you sit around or take the leap?’ He recalls reading an article in the New York Times saying 23 American museums couldn’t find directors. ‘I looked at the list. Boston and LACMA [Los Angeles County Museum of Art] appealed to me. I had a touring exhibition at the time, and a museum director in Florida said I had to approach the headhunters. I did. I offered to come here to meet the trustees. And about 45 meetings later’, he grins, ‘I became director.’
The fact that he knew little about the ‘impossibly complicated’ nature of being director of an American museum certainly helped. ‘Now, I’ll tell you something’, he confides. ‘In many ways I was very naïve and certainly very un-American. Americans thought the elements were not in place for their success. The British psyche is different: the job is seen as a prize.’ He pauses. ‘And often the more difficult a job is, the more interesting.’ Difficult it certainly was. But full of opportunity, too. His grand vision began to germinate almost immediately. First he reopened the front doors, closed in 1990. ‘Any party I go to even now, someone comes up and says “thank you for opening the doors”. The closing was seen as the museum closing its doors on Boston. The previous director did it as a badge of suffering and to save $85,000 a year, but it lost many millions of dollars in PR.’
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