During my experiences in all my courses over the past semester, I’ve realized that spending so much time analyzing exhibitions and thinking about all the elements that go into making a successful show, as well as analyzing arts institutions’ practices on a broader level, makes it rather easy to get caught up in breaking things down, forgetting why you are doing it. Which for me, is, of course, the art. So, in my analysis of the new wing and the ways in which the MFA has activated the museum’s physical and online space to engage audiences, I wanted to make sure I spent some time talking about the art.
The main aspect that is important to touch on, in my opinion, is the fact that the MFA has chosen to widen the canon of what is included in displays of “American” art. The installation has expanded the term to entire art of all the Americas – Canada, the United States, and Central and South America. This is innovative in itself. Most museums keep their Pre-Colombian and Native American collections quite separate from their “American art,” by which they simply mean art from the United states, from the colonial period onward. This is a huge step in terms of how institutions regard exhibiting cultures, and I really felt very positively about the incorporation of all these types of artwork with a tone of equality. The reinstallation has also attempted to widen the canon in regards to incorporating more artworks from minorities, right alongside more well-known figures. As quoted in an article in the Christian Science Monitor, Director Malcolm Rogers states the goal was to, “try to tell a variety of American stories, acquiring and showing more art from Central and South America, early Spanish America, and work by women and artists of color.” The review of the wing in The New York Times finds that this is the key success of the exhibition is this integration of normally separated artworks, stating: “If any museum could pull off such a summit meeting, this one could. And under the leadership of Elliot Bostwick Davis, chairman of its Art of the Americas department, it has.”
A review in The Los Angeles Times finds the incorporation quite succesful. The review states: “Nothing is more surprising than the ground floor, which kicks off the wing’s chronology with an unexpectedly absorbing display of pre-Columbian objects from Mesoamerica. Who knew MFA had such rich holdings — especially great Mayan painted vessels, as fine as anything in the building?” This sentiment was reflected by many other reviews, as well as my own personal impressions. Not normally a fan of Pre-Colombian art, I found this to be the most interesting and visually compelling examples of an installation of these types of artworks.
All the reviews I read applauded these canonical revisions. Where critics seem to find issue was in the modern art galleries and the collections displayed in them. The LA Times went so far as to call it a fiasco. The article points out that this is often the problem with a revisionary approach to art history – when a museum revises upon the traditional art historical approach, they have to struggle with the fact that the items in their collection reflect the old approach, and therefore there are lots of gaps.
A review in The Boston Phoenix had issues with the artwork in the modern installation, noting that the whole exhibition sort of “trails off.” The article also critiques all the areas it finds missing, including the civil-rights movement, feminist works, and social criticism. But, as pointed out in several other articles I read, that now that the museum has space for displaying works, the museum hopes that collectors will fill in the gaps. The New York Times has a much more positive attitude towards this part of the collection, calling it a “correctable flaw…[and] a collection in progress.”
In the article in The Boston Phoenix, Director Malcolm Rogers confidently addresses these missing elements: “Our collections could be strengthened. But it is a statement that we’re looking much wider afield at the cultural, the ethnic strands that make up the continent, to give a more complex picture.”
While the modern floor of the wing, is generally acknowledged as the weak link of the installation, most reviews found that the positive aspects far outshone this small weakness. The Times finds that the point truly is the revisionary nature of the display – that the museum has chosen to put their “institutional weight” behind the decisions to widen the definition of “American” art. While people might take issue with this expanded canon, the Times finds that the “art itself comes to the rescue. So much about the new Americas Wing is so startling, stimulating and beautiful that you just want to lay down your arms.”
I agree that the modern wing is not that strong, but coming from looking at the collections of so many New York institutions, this is often the feeling I get at institutions in other cities. But, I agree with the reviews I read that the inclusive nature of the installation outshines any missing pieces in the encyclopedic approach to art. By creating a space that includes a wider view of American identity, the museum has taken the first step. Hopefully collectors and future donations will allow the museum to fully flesh out what it has started, and create a truly impressive, comprehensive view of the history of all of the Americas.