Malcolm Rogers, top man at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, has managed to do at his institution what former Harvard president Larry Summers failed to do at his: curb internal self-indulgence and channel creative energy toward serving 21st-century needs.
Agendas as sweeping as this cannot be accomplished by a lone wolf, no matter how focused. Vision may be the essential prerequisite, but it must be fortified by personal political skill, and reinforced with the vigorous support of an institution's trustees.
Only with these qualities in hand can a cultural leader marshal his or her charisma to engage the staff. In any large collective enterprise, leaders can be successful only to the extent to which they can energize the hearts and minds of their colleagues.
The opening, this weekend, of the MFA's stunningly handsome new Art of the Americas Wing is a vigorous manifestation of Rogers's accomplishment.
During the multitude of ceremonies and previews running up to the official opening, Rogers — quite rightly — went to exquisite pains to stress the collective nature of the MFA's advance.
The Art of the Americas complex is more than a new wing housing a reimagined array of collections, some of which had lain for years in storage and others of which were donated specifically to populate this new space.
Designed by UK-based architects Foster + Partners, the Art of the Americas addition would be considered a jewel if it were itself a stand-alone museum. At a glance, it is just that: a discrete modernist structure almost enveloped in the Beaux-Arts embrace of Guy Lowell's 1909 building.
Considered over time, however, the new collections of galleries and public space are clearly part of something bigger, more complex, and — ultimately — more satisfying.
The wing's interior, designed by Foster, is in equal measures dramatic and intimate, built to support the collections it displays and the visitors it welcomes.
In the most expansive sense, the Art of the Americas Wing, while self-contained, operates in service to the larger MFA. It provides the well-established collections with room to breath properly and re-establishes a harmonious flow among the staggering number of older galleries.
The idea of service is the glue that binds Rogers's 16-year tenure. In the past, the MFA was run as something of a private preserve that just happened to be open to the public.
The degree to which this was true may have varied from department to department, but the old MFA was a collection of fiefdoms that only appeared to operate in concert the farther away you viewed it.
Rogers, with varying degrees of skill and success, has managed to recast the MFA into a multi-disciplinary whole dedicated to internal growth and institutional survival by serving the public.
Noting that British-born Rogers is an example of that under-recognized archetype, a Brahmin by adoption rather than birth, historian Douglass Shand-Tucci, thinks that Rogers's years at the MFA will be considered vital by future generations.
As the biographer of Isabel Stewart Gardner, an earlier adoptive Bostonian as well as a museum-maker, Shand-Tucci's judgment carries the weight of relevance:
"Malcolm knows how to keep the exceptional extraordinary, which is not as easy as it may sound. Lord knows, I don't agree with every one of his decisions. But the sum of his achievement is nothing short of magnificent. He has allowed the MFA to succeed where other world-class institutions may have — as yet — failed."
READ:OMFG: the new MFA. By Greg Cook.