With Much Fanfare, MFA Opens New Wing for Contemporary Art

Abstract: Sometimes I get to be a journalist/ critic. Co-written with Alex Pearlman, in this article we explore the opening of the Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art at the MFA. From new galleries to social media we pick apart the good, the bad and the fun of opening weekend. 

Originally published on TNGG/Boston.com.

Not unlike any other bumpin’ club in Boston this past Saturday night, the Museum of Fine Arts hosted what many hoped to be an all-night rager, complete with a full bar, food, and an audience of the young(ish) and decadent, for the opening of the Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art.

At 7 p.m., the doors opened on a 24-hour party celebrating the unveiling of seven new galleries covering 80,000 square feet, including a dedicated space for video and new media. Tickets were sold in three waves, at three price points, for 7 p.m., 11 p.m., and 3 a.m. start times. While the crowds dwindled to almost non-existent as the moon set and the sun came up, the idea for the event was certainly a novel one, even if prices were too high to engage the audience of young, artsy Bostonians the Museum seemed to be aiming for.

With approximately 240 contemporary works across all forms of media, the wing also includes four “art walls” that occupy the wing’s main concourse and incorporates two works in neon. One sign reads, “All Art Has Been Contemporary” (by Maurizio Nannucci) — it’s a nod to the bridge between past and present the Museum hopes to offer.

The Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art is a turning point for the Museum, which now proudly boasts a truly encyclopedic collection of art. “Fundamental to our vision for the new collection of galleries is an emphasis on how contemporary art develops new meaning in our current moment and continues to be in a dialogue with the art that came before,” said Jen Mergel, the Museum’s senior curator of contemporary art.

The MFA has also re-tooled how they speak about art to make the new collection more accessible and create a dialogue with younger audiences. Contemporary art by nature is often nebulous and obscure, and in a refreshing change of pace, the Museum has made strong efforts to explain what all the Campbell’s Soup is really about. However, they’ve fallen a bit short by, as the Globe’s Sebastian Smee aptly put it, “patting people on the head” in a way that’s almost patronizing.

The Opening Party

Christian Marclay’s “The Clock” is the centerpiece — and arguably the most anticipated part — of the new wing, and its debut in Boston did not disappoint. All night long, until about 4 a.m., when these reporters sat down in the theater, the line was out the door for the 24-hour collection of clips ranging from the 1920s to the present. The work is possibly the greatest use of cinema and storytelling of the human experience the MFA has seen in years, and even in the middle of the night, when sleep threatens eyelids and droops chins to chests, it’s impossible to look away. “The Clock” was also better served by having a continuously full theater, forcing everyone present to involve each other in the experience.

Downstairs, in an effort to be “cool” (or something) was what looked like the adult side of a dance floor at your average bar mitzvah, where uncoordinated middle-agers swayed to Top 40 songs by artists like Cee-Lo Green and Beyonce. Yet the rest of the space was well utilized, with bars set up in two places and Amanda Coogan performing her piece “The Passing,” in which she walks up and down stairs for 24 hours. Students from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts perched themselves on the stairs and observed her, whispering to themselves.

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Ellsworth Kelly: “Blue, Green, Yellow, Orange, Red”

The Ellsworth Kelly piece “Blue, Green, Yellow, Orange, Red,” which has been the focal point for most promotional materials for the new wing, didn’t disappoint either, and groups of party-goers wearing colors that corresponded with the piece posed for photos in front of it, an inventive way to really incorporate the viewer into the art itself.

It was shocking, however, that by the wee hours of the morning, so few young people were present. The adrenaline rush from the possibilities of wandering one of the world’s best museums in the middle of the night should have been enough of a draw for the college set, let alone the wing’s great collection — but it was a depressing turnout, especially considering the amount of effort put into promotion via social media (see below). The price ($50) was simply too high for a 3 a.m. party. If tickets has been $25 or less, there would have been a real bash to celebrate the art. (Keep your audience in mind, MFA.)

Gallery Themes

It’s refreshing to see 21st century up-and-comers like Cecily Brown and Mark Bradfordincluded with 20th century masters Picasso and Warhol, and hopefully this trend will continue as the MFA gets its hands on more young work. The Museum does an incredible job of shaking things up by organizing the new galleries thematically, to revolve around concepts and ideas, rather than in chronological order.

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Gallery Wall Text: “Quote? Copy? Update?”

Arranging the works in these clusters makes engaging with them much easier and a lot more fun, yet there are some hiccups, specifically in “Quote? Copy? Update?,” a space in which artists pay homage to other artists. Sherry Levine’s “After Walker Evans,” a photograph of Evans’ famous Depression-era photograph is perplexing and a little insulting (a TNGG photographer wanted to “throw his camera at it”), as is a mini version of Warhol’s famous soup can. Louise Lawler’s photograph of Monet’s “La Japoinaise,” with the words “Is She Ours?” stuck to the wall is trite, and having the original Monet in the same room overshadows Lawler’s piece. That said, with the exception of these two works, the space is marvelously arranged and thought-provoking, specifically on the issues of reproductions and copyright.

The dedicated gallery for video and new media is a welcome addition to the MFA. Sigalit Landau’s Standing on a Watermelon in the Dead Sea is beautiful and captivating, but Carlson/Strom’s Sloss, Kerr, Rosenberg, & Moore, lawyers dancing about being lawyers, brings to mind Christopher Walken dancing in a similar setting (although that’s better). There are works on YouTube more deserving of a featured spot in this gallery, such as Rick Mereki’s Move, Learn, Eat, a fantastic piece that takes full advantage of the possibilities of film in the digital age.

Finally, and a welcome change from the stuffier plaques in other wings, wall texts and labels placed throughout the new galleries provide stimulating statements and questions about art. In addition, conversation cards, available at the entrance, ask questions and encourage visitors to look more closely and interact with the works. However, it’s a shame that no one thought to include QR codes linking to more in-depth analysis.

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Jason Potteiger: “Blue, Green, Yellow, Orange, Red, Delicious”

Social Media and Art

The Museum really is engaging with people across social media and developing their digital presence. Still, their efforts are somewhat green and unfocused. An hour’s worth of tweets from Malcolm Rogers does not inspire a dash to Twitter, though his “Malcolm Minute” video was well done. And Boston.com’s stream of live tweets with the #mfaclock hashtag was nowhere to be found in the actual gallery, which would have encouraged attendees to comment and see other reactions.

The Ellsworth Kelly crowdsourcing project is interesting but lacks direction and a point. Visitors were “encouraged to make their own bold statement using the painting as inspiration and [post] pictures to Facebook,” but this didn’t really happen, despite our best efforts.

Most noteworthy is the Museum’s “Ask Us Anything” project, where curators post written and video responses to questions posed on Facebook and Twitter. This idea is fantastic and could prove to be an interesting resource for both students and casual appreciators of art alike. Unfortunately, it lacks a dedicated space on their Facebook and no explanation, or even acknowledgment of its existence, on their main website. Thus, this project will likely fail to gain attention or traction it deserves.

Co-written with Alex Pearlman. Jellybean art by Jason Potteiger.

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