These changes, she says, demonstrate that the museum is focusing on contemporary art, with plans to strengthen and highlight its holdings, particularly in the Jazz Age and the Depression era, and to build a collection of 20th-century Boston Expressionist work, artists like Bloom and Jack Levine, whom the Danforth exhibited last spring, work that’s seldom seen in local institutions. “I would like to be the museum where we tell the story of Boston Expressionism. It’s not the only thing that happened here, but it’s important for somebody to be telling that story.” French is hoping that the museum’s more ambitious stance will attract collectors and donors. It’s clear that the kind of changes the Danforth has made affect not only square footage but also the nature of a museum’s mission.
In Salem, the Peabody Essex Museum opened a new wing and soaring glass-roofed atrium back in 2003. The project clarified an identity change that had been in motion before the construction began, turning the Peabody from a dusty collection of relics of the New England China trade, with all its colonial overtones, into a multicultural museum celebrating the art of this region as well as masterpieces by Asians, Africans, and Native Americans. The 207-year-old institution expanded its exhibition space from 140,000 to 250,000 square feet and doubled its room for temporary shows. The architecture itself showed the Peabody straddling old and new: Moshe Safdie’s modern design is complemented by the import of a breathtaking 200-year-old merchant house from southern China that the museum bills as “the only example of Chinese domestic architecture in the United States.”
The Peabody remains devoted to historical shows (American design, Chinese decorative art, Native American and Thai works, and 150 years of local art in “Painting Summer in New England,” which opens April 22), but this programming is invigorated by exhibits of recent art from the United States, Africa, India, the Caribbean, and the Inuit Arctic. And the renovation and expansion has inspired curators to rethink how they present the permanent collection, mixing old and new as they increasingly favor themes (the lives of men or women, nature, architecture) over chronology.
Sometimes the exhibitions still strike middlebrow National Geographic tones, like the “intimate look at the exclusive world of geisha culture” in 2004. I couldn’t bring myself to visit the recently closed “Artful Teapot” show. And though the installations throughout the complex are exquisite, the ravishing atrium offers few vistas to lure visitors into new surrounding galleries, instead funneling people into the old halls. Curators have begun to address this problem by placing samples from the new galleries in the atrium.
The most surprising development is that a year from now the museum will host a 200-piece Joseph Cornell retrospective, the first in more than a quarter-century. At first blush, Cornell seems far outside the Peabody’s usual Yankee-English maritime trade territory. He had vague local connections (attended Phillips Academy in Andover), but his work was oriented toward his nostalgic dreaming in Queens, New York, and love of things French. Chief curator Lynda Hartigan says the show reflects the museum’s aim to connect past to present, but I suspect it has more to do with allowing her to finish up a project she began while working at the Smithsonian. No matter, the result should be smashing.