Driving home tonight, after watching my friend's band play at TT's, I took a detour by the Museum of Fine Arts. Illegally parked in front of that grand building, I started to think about its role in our city, and why so many conversations are dominated by what happens inside its walls.
We at Big RED & Shiny have not been very kind to the MFA. Our pink pages are filled with negative stories, bad reviews, and stern commentary about the actions of the Museum and its director. We have derided their curatorial decisions, critiqued their exhibitions, and pondered their motives on many occasions. To be fair, we have also praised their successes and reveled in their finest moments, but overall it would be fair to say that Big RED has not been very kind to the MFA.
Most of my early experiences in Boston revolve around the MFA in some way. I was a student at the Museum School, and walked down Museum Road every day with my eyes wide open and my heart racing when I was new to the city. I have watched with awe and envy as each new show opens, and continue to feel awed each time I meet Malcolm Rogers. The MFA is sacred to me, in many ways, and it is this feeling of awe and sincere love that, I believe, has led to so many of the negative pieces here on BIG RED.
The Museum of Fine Arts, like many museums around the country and the world, is a keeper of the culture. The MFA houses the accumulated beauty of many cultures, preserved for everyone to view, curated into collections of meaningful scope, and presented as a history of culture for all to see. The MFA is the whetstone upon which many artists sharpen their skills, the place that defines the historical boundaries to which artists compare themselves.
Big RED & Shiny is authored, for the most part, by artists. The people of Boston who care deeply about the arts are often those creating works themselves, and we have never made any pretense of this. The MFA has received harsh words from our pink pages precisely because our staff are artists: The Museum of Fine Arts has no interest in the current moment in art.
Let me repeat that: The MFA does not care about what is happening right now in art.
When you think about it, that makes sense. While the MFA may show certain contemporary artists, they are primarily concerned with two larger goals: showing a collection of works that represent a full history of art in human history, and; making enough money for the continued pursuit of the first goal.
It is the second goal that generally incites the anger of artists and critics in Boston. Raising money is a tricky business, and we all know that artists are not paying $20 to get into the MFA, nor are Big RED writers waiving their rights to press passes. The MFA makes money by bringing in viewers willing to pay to see the works, and does so by hanging works that people are willing to pay to see. This means dusty old chestnuts like Monet and Degas, as well as gimmicks like Ralph Lauren's cars and William Koch's boats.
Artists look to the MFA as a definition of culture, and feel threatened when the MFA defines that culture as something facile, or easy, or outdated, or bland. Artists feel cheated that their work may not meet the standards of 'culture' when the MFA is consistantly cheapening the definition by pandering to their audience. And artists certainly feel injured when the MFA pays no heed to the screams of the art community, and charges ahead with show after show that prove how little they care for the artists of Boston.
The point of this article is not to slam the MFA. They are a great institution and serve many important and vital roles. The point of this article is to say that artists cannot, and should not, measure themselves against the exhibitions at the MFA. It is not a fair fight, and not a good use of the Museum's resources. Artists make work in the present, and this museum collects remnants of the past. The MFA is a source of inspiration, a place to study history, and a decent retailer of books, but not the next line on your exhibition resume.
The MFA gets a lot of grief for their shows. Much of it deserved, some of it I've written myself. The MFA also gets a lot of praise, which is also deserved. They are large, they are important, and whether they want to or not, they affect many lives. However, it is a bad idea, and a misuse of the MFA, to think that they are representative of Boston today, and that their collection of 'culture' speaks to what artists are making in our city right now. Boston is living and breathing, creating new work every minute, and it is with pride that I point out that the bi-weekly schedule of Big RED barely keeps up with all the new exhibitions and events in our city. The MFA can certainly be held to the standards we have set for it, but it will just as certainly disappoint.
I love the MFA, and I hate it. I love what it is, and what it can be. I hate it for pandering, for being greedy and sensationalist and ignorant at times, but I love it for trying to be better than I ever dreamed. Each visit I find new reasons for love, and wish I could overlook the whoring it took to become so great. I look forward to the new expansion, but bite my tongue when I consider the Ralph Lauren cars and the loans to the Bellagio, the Herb Ritts and William Kochs and others who have paid for our (future) grandiosity. The new galleries will house great and inspiring works, but will we have to suffer through an exhibition of Jenna Jameson's dildos to pay the heating bill?
Museum of Fine Arts