The completion of the Museum of Fine Arts' new 121,307-square-foot Art of the Americas Wing, which opens Saturday (with a free community day), is an America-the-beautiful, knock-your-socks-off survey of great art. Many months will be needed to get a full sense of it all. And there are gaps. But it is at once the most significant and comprehensive collection of American art and American history in the region, enabling the museum to rival, though not best, its peers in New York and DC.
Greater Boston has seen a wealth of museum building over the past decade (new Institute of Contemporary Art, expanded Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, renovated Addison Gallery in Andover, Gardner Museum expanding, Harvard undergoing renovations), and that's put our most significant art collections in storage. The MFA's $345 million expansion and renovation, of which the new wing is just part, adds 49 sumptuous new galleries (plus four educational rooms) to display more than 5000 objects, twice the number of American works that the museum had had on view.
The collection begins in the new wing's basement with the Americas before Christopher Columbus bumped into the Bahamas, then climbs up three stories, through Revolutionary Boston to swooning 19th-century Manifest Destiny landscapes to the Abstract Existential paint flingers of the past century. Among the highlights, as described in the press material: the "foremost" collection of Classic Maya ceramics outside Guatemala; an "unparalleled" collection of colonial New England furniture, silver, and portraits; an "unparalleled" collection of John Singleton Copley paintings; an "unsurpassed" collection of Federal Period cabinetry and silver; the finest surviving example of American Neoclassical architecture in three rooms from 1800 mansion Oak Hill in Peabody, as designed by Samuel McIntire of Salem; the "most comprehensive" collection of John Singer Sargent in the US; and an "unsurpassed" collection of Winslow Homer.
Suddenly, the Boston art world feels reset on a firm foundation that we may not have even realized we were missing. The collection asserts our kinship with a brilliant line of innovators. And the MFA has made a $504 million declaration ($345 for construction plus a $159 million endowment to fund ongoing operations) from local sugar daddies (that includes, by the museum's count, 25,000 individual donations) that we're still world heavyweight contenders.
London firm Foster + Partners did what it needed to do, but the result is not inspiring like the airports Norman Foster has designed in Asia. Note that this Americas wing has been conceived by a British-born museum director — Malcolm Rogers — and realized by a firm headed by a British lord with German-designed glass, European wallpapers, Italian display cases, French limestone, and Finnish (as well as Maine) granite.
On the plus side, Foster rebalances the museum along its central North-South access, clarifying the building's layout. The new wing's main advantage is that it's big, including a giant new 8280-square-foot special-exhibitions gallery (which will debut with "Fresh Ink: Ten Takes on Chinese Tradition") beneath the large, sunny, but otherwise unremarkable glassed-in courtyard. The scale accommodates all the Americas in one wing; they're not spread out through separate departments (as at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art) or across multiple museums (DC).