Winging it

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston has a present for you.

For you, for me, for everyone.

We didn’t tie a bow around it, but we did put it in a box.

It’s a very nice box, though.
Ruth and Carl J. Shapiro Family Courtyard
© Chuck Choi

The present is its newly opened Art of the Americas wing.

And what’s in it is fabulous!

Five thousand pieces of art on four floors, all from, uh, us. Just the Americas, old and new, South and North, big and small, in fifty-three galleries that make so much sense your brain says to you “Of course! This was always meant to be with that.”

One Big, Beautiful Box

The new wing, the culmination of a 10-year-long effort and a more-than $500 million fundraising campaign, is not glommed onto or smashed into the original building; it feels delicately nudged into place, like the docking of a space ship. Turns out, for “seismic reasons” (I am not making that up) it is actually a separate building, joined oh so gently at certain spots to the other building.

A little bit more…a little bit more…hold it…perfect!
Photo by David L. Ryan, Boston Globe

You enter the new wing through the Ruth and Carl J. Shapiro Family Courtyard, a huge space filled with…space. It actually feels filled with space, not all empty and void-like (I hate that).

For the spatially challenged, this is a very very large space
Ruth and Carl J. Shapiro Family Courtyard
© Chuck Choi

Its walls of glass provide views into the garden and the wings of the original building, not to mention all that sunlight.

Am I outside looking in, or inside looking out?
Landscape Slot
© Chuck Choi

It was designed to become “a new social space for Boston,” as Malcolm Rogers, Director of the Museum, has said about it. The acoustics are great, the space is beautiful.

“Welcome to the wide open space of the Prairie, ma’am.” “You’re still in Boston, Steve.”
Ruth and Carl J. Shapiro Family Courtyard
© Chuck Choi


It’s almost hard to belive that there are 5,000 pieces of art on display, so well planned is the building and the layout.

“Fifty-three galleries” sound like a lot—too much, almost—but it isn’t.

You know how the traditional idea of museum display is seems to be one big room after another in an endless and (let’s be honest) tedious procession to the horizon? Well, this ain’t that.

These are small(ish) rooms laid out around a longer room or two, and the space and placement of the pieces makes it a pleasure to wander about and through the wing without making you think, “Please dear GAWD when will we get to the last picture.”

This is more, “Oo, lookit that! And that! And that!”

The galleries are multi-art-istic, in that they show paintings and sculptures and woodworking and silversmithing and other things that the Museum considers artistically worthy. Why have just Singleton Copley’s famous painting of Paul Revere when you can also have Paul Revere’s famous bowl?

You know, I DID do a good job on that bowl. Now about this teapot…
Carolyn A. and Peter S. Lynch Gallery / 18th-Century Boston
© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

If you can show a mahogany sideboard, why not show a room-that-could’ve-have-that-sideboard-in-it, too? Two-dimentional and three-dimentional art in the same place, in the same space, complementing and enhancing one another. Balancing and rounding out what the visitor sees, kind of like a “Oh, I get it,” moment.

Now THIS is a room with a view!
Photograph: Wan Chi Lau

Peter, Paul, and Mary. And Trevor, and Susan, and Mario, and Fadiyah, too.

One of the things the MFA does very well is making itself feel like anybody can walk into it and enjoy itself.

As someone who had no art in her house growing up that couldn’t be gotten at Sears—and who’s father would “conduct” his record of Grofé’s “Grand Canyon Suite” with her mother’s knitting needles—I am greatly appreciative that the MFA took the time to label each of the five-thousand pieces with a label that actually tells you something about what you’re looking at. (And just one guy was responsible for them all.)

Whatever you think this is about, it isn’t. (Click the label to find out.)
Photograph: Wan Chi Lau

The four floors present Americas art more or less in chrono order, from pre-Columbian unbelievableness to late-20th century coolness.

Start at the bottom, work your way up to the top, then stop at the Café in the Courtyard for quick refreshment.

Walk through any door and find yourself some fabulous art
Ruth and Carl J. Shapiro Family Courtyard
© Chuck Choi

All in all, the MFA’s Art of the America’s new wing is a major step forward in museum-ing. The wing itself is larger than most mid-size museums, and takes a fresh approach to the art of looking at things.

And you won’t feel like a dope even if this is your first/umpteenth time looking at them.

A storyteller by any other name is…a curator

So there you are, possessor of more than 15,000 pieces of us, all of it having value, but even with 133,000+ square feet of new exhibition space, you only have enough space to show 5,000 of them.

How do you decide what you show and what you don’t, and how do you show what you show in a way that tells the story(s) of what you’re showing?

My guess is, you talk a lot amongst yourselves. You put things up and you take things down. You sleep on it many a night. And finally, it gets decided.

That’s a lot of decision-making. And they did a great job.

Take a look at the behind the scenes decision-making process with the Wing’s “Behind the Scenes” rooms, both online and “behind” the galleries at the wing.

Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Mo…
Photograph: Wan Chi Lau

My own Dramitis Personæ

Below are three things that made me stop. Granted, most of the things made me stop, but these things made me stop full stop.

Georgie Porgie Puddin’ and…Wow

Being an actual native Bostonian, there are things I know that apparently others don’t:

  • Benjamin Franklin was a Bostonian (he didn’t get to Philadelphia until he was 17);
  • John Adams defended the British soldiers involved in The Boston Massacre when it went to trial; and
  • George Washington really did sleep here, in Longfellow’s House (when it was the Continental Army’s headquarters, I mean).

Since we were here when he was here, it’s not too much of a stretch for the MFA to have assembled a few important paintings that show him being himself (well, the himself we think he was).

And we’ve got one whopping lollapalooza of a painting of him being himself, The Passage of the Delaware by Thomas Sully, so big it needed its own wall.

Of COURSE this is a true-to-life depiction. George Washington was 18 feet tall. Everybody knows this.
Photograph: Wan Chi Lau

And adorning the adjoining walls are the just-as-famous-only-smaller portraits of the very fine fellow, kind of a mini George-town, if you will.

(And if you would like to see the Boston Globe’s video highlight of this getting hung, here you go.)

Dusk still falls exactly like this

Trust me: there is no mouse pad, no canvas tote, no coffee mug, that can remotely show you what Childe Hassam’s Boston Common at Twilight actually looks like.

Wait, that’s Tremont Street? Not Beacon? Huh.
Photograph: Wan Chi Lau

Even if you get this close and personal to the painting in a photo, you still won’t see it.

You know the rule, girls: when the gaslights come on, we have to go home
Photograph: Wan Chi Lau

The actual sun is actually setting in this painting. Really.

They had to come from somewhere

This happens every time.

You bring a kid to the museum and s/he starts to get antsy because s/he can’t touch anything and it’s just stoopid pictures on stoopid walls.

And then you show her/him this:

Mummy likes ME best
Photograph: Wan Chi Lau

And then you put it into context (“These girls were real people. They were sisters, and they lived in Boston! This was painted way before even Granma was born”).

And then you point out that the two vases in the painting are the exact same two vases standing on either side of the painting.

And s/he actually stands still. For a second.

But this painting is not in my cast of characters.


It’s this one:

Yes, from my loins
from the John Singer Sargent Virtual Gallery, www.

Their mother.

A nifty little bit of trivia:

Mrs. Edward Darley Boit by John Singer Sargent was given to the MFA by the littlest girl in the painting.

When she was 85 years old.

In 1963.

One reason you will be glad the Wing of the Americas has opened

There are close to a gazillion thirty Sargent items on display. In this one room.


When one glimpses this through the opening to the gallery:

What the…?
Photograph: Wan Chi Lau

One immediately knows it’s a Tiffany, even if one only knows his style by the knockoff lamps available in ubiquity. But this, this is so much more, Tiffany-iac, that its impossible to walk away from this and think that that $149.99 lamp in that catalog will suffice.

The colors are just stop-and-stareable. Really, you will just stop and stare. And then you will move closer, and look at the different glass, and wonder at the fact that there’s so many different shades of greeny-yellow and yellowy-green. And then you will marvel at the way the MFA positioned the lighting to make it glow.

Wait a second…
Photograph: Wan Chi Lau

And then you will notice the fish bowl.

This stained glass window has the stained glass goldfish swimming around in a fish bowl.

Gobsmacked. It’s an Irish word, slang really, that means astounded. And that’s what Louis Comfort Tiffany’s Parakeets with Gold Fish Bowl will make you.

You will sound both cultured and worldly when you say, “Tiffany’s gold fish bowl stained glass at the MFA left me utterly gobsmacked.”

Another reason you will be glad the Wing of the Americas has opened

Prior to the opening of AOTAW, Parakeets with Gold Fish Bowl was not on view.

Not. On. View.

MFA: “Most Fabulous Art”

The Art of the Americas Wing at the MFA is…something for all of us.

It is NOT a snooty only-the-people-who-contributed-are-allowed space.

It is NOT a sniffy if-you-don’t-already-know-what-you’re-looking-at-you-shouldn’t-be-looking-at-it locale.

It IS a place where everyone can come, and maybe see something that touches them, or maybe just feel glad that we are all part of the same species that can create such work.

The famous and well-known, the obscure and the off-beat, the pieces in the Wing are pieces of us. All of us.

Just walk in that once-again-opened front door, take a right at the visitors desk, and…be in the Americas.

Cool stuff

There are two online resources that are terrific for getting to know the Wing (click on the images to access).

The first is the Art of the Americas Wing section of the MFA’s website:

And the second is the “The MFA Takes Wing” online supplement of the Boston Globe:

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