One hundred and three years after it first opened its doors on Huntington Avenue, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) is celebrating another milestone in its history—the opening of the Art of the Americas wing. More than a decade in the making, the new building is more than just an addition; it is the culmination of a complete reenvisioning of the museum in everything from its collections to its architectural footprint to its interaction with adjacent neighborhoods and the city at large.
The MFA's building history is characterized by periods of expansion and periods of stagnation as the museum met the challenges imposed by two world wars and the Great Depression. When current director Malcolm Rogers arrived in 1994, the institution was facing a number of challenges, not the least of which was an operating budget deficit.
Rogers shook things up, reorganizing curatorial staff and staging exhibitions that dealt with more mainstream art topics. He had a plan, a larger vision of what the institution could be. In 2000, he embarked upon a fundraising campaign that would include resources for a building expansion that was rooted in a comprehensive strategic master plan developed by Foster + Partners in 1999.
Rogers' mission has paid off with the opening of the Art of the Americas wing in November. The 121,307-square-foot building is one of the most significant projects dedicated to American art in the past decade, thanks to the most successful fundraising campaign by any New England cultural institution. (The museum raised $504 million for new construction and renovations, endowment programs and positions, and annual operations.) The scope of work, which includes the new wing, evolved over time, and includes significant renovations to the museum's existing buildings.
The success of the project began with an extremely collaborative process among the museum leadership and staff and the various consultants. In determining how they should proceed, key museum officials joined the architectural team on visits to 29 museums in the U.S. and Europe to study different types of building and gallery layouts. “It was a shared learning experience,” says architect Michael Jones, a partner at Foster + Partners who oversaw the project along with senior partner and head of design Spencer de Gray.
The result of this careful study is a T-shaped addition with two pavilion structures at each corner that carefully fit into the assemblage of older museum buildings like the missing piece of a puzzle. (Because of seismic code requirements, the new wing is actually a separate building.)
In their strategy for the new wing, Foster + Partners revisited the 1907 master plan laid out by architect Guy Lowell when the MFA moved from its original Copley Square home to its current 12-acre site between Huntington Avenue and the Fens. Lowell knew that limited funds would cause the museum to be built in stages. The first stage was his neoclassical pile along Huntington Avenue, completed in 1909. Lowell then extended the museum's north-south circulation axis to the Fens side of the site with the Evans Wing in 1915.
But Lowell's master plan also envisioned the museum growing to the east and the west. Over time, new building occurred, filling out the museum's site, including the 1928 Lowell-designed Decorative Arts Wing and a sculpture garden on the west side of the site, also completed in 1928. Architect I.M. Pei's 1981 West Wing shifted the focus of the museum away from its north-south spine, as the new entrance became the de facto front door.
The new wing on the eastern side of the museum campus now remedies this imbalance, further aided by the reopening of both the Huntington Street and Fens entrances, which had been closed over the previous decades as a cost-savings measure.
The Art of the Americas wing is all about the collection. Its ambitious purpose is to recount the art history of an entire hemisphere. Each of the 53 new galleries are organized by culture, period, region, style, theme, artist, and maker on four levels. And each level features a large center gallery surrounded by smaller galleries to either side and in the pavilion buildings.
The exhibits highlight the breadth of the museum's holdings and allow visitors to see the connection points between objects in the collection, such as John Singleton Copley's 1768 portrait of patriot and silversmith Paul Revere, which hangs alongside Revere's most significant work, the Sons of Liberty Bowl.
Lighting acts as the perfect complement to the gallery design by Foster + Partners. Lighting designer George Sexton has collaborated with Foster since the 1970s, and his scheme for the MFA responds to the mixed-media approach of the exhibits and the rich variety of interior finishes and colors.
A ceiling tracklighting system outfitted with halogen sources is the main lighting system in the galleries. Lighting in the display cases (there are about seven different types throughout the new galleries) responds to what best serves the objects while offering a level of flexibility so that displays can be changed as needed.
Conservation requirements were a serious concern. “Boston has done a lot of research over the years in their conservation department on lighting, and they have pretty strict UV filtration requirements,” Sexton explains.
This necessitated a very elaborate final focusing process. “Because we were contracted to physically adjust the exhibition for the opening, part of that task was to work directly with their conservation department to make sure the objects were lit within the standards they've created,” says Brian McIntyre, Sexton's lead designer on the project. MFA conservator Dawn Kimbrel followed McIntyre, measuring and documenting the light levels on every artwork and object on display. She then entered that information into a database to track the exposure history of the object.
That same level of attention to light transmission occurs in the technical specifications for the glass curtainwall of the Shapiro Family Courtyard and a skylight that continues from the courtyard through to the third floor contemporary art galleries. Foster + Partners worked with German curtainwall specialists Seele for both the overhead and vertical glazing, each a complex matrix of glass panels with different coatings, interlayers, and laminations that responds to changing lighting conditions throughout the day. The skylight is made up of three layers: a top layer of glass with a UV filter, a middle layer of louvers that can be closed for blackout conditions, and a bottom layer of V-shaped ceiling louvers that provide the final layer of light filtration.
Light, space, and art all work harmoniously in this monumental project of elegance and ease. It is a testament to the clearly defined vision for the museum's future, led by director Malcolm Rogers, and the talented team of architects, lighting designers, curators, and conservators who steward this collection for future generations.
"The MFA is more than just a great cultural institution—it is the catalyst for the rejuvenation of an entire neighborhood in Boston. Over time the museum had lost its connection to the Back Bay Fens and the beautiful landscape of Frederick Law Olmsted's 'Emerald Necklace.' In restoring Lowell's original master plan and in opening up and reasserting the grand Fenway entrance, we have rediscovered this link." —Norman Foster
Project: Art of the Americas Wing, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Client: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Design Architect: Foster + Partners, London
Executive Architect: CBT/Childs Bertman Tseckares, Boston
Lighting Designer: George Sexton Associates, Washington, D.C.
Project Cost: $345 million
Project Size: 121,307 square feet
Manufacturers: Edison Price Lighting, Erco, Litelab, Lithonia, Nulux, Zumtobel