But Foster's design suffers from the same elegant Modernist dullness that marks the West Wing that I.M. Pei designed for the MFA in 1981. The exterior resembles a bland Longwood Medical Area hospital — and looks as inviting. The art and the MFA's great gallery designers cloak many of these flaws, but they don't solve a significant layout problem. The building's T-shaped floor plan hides "pavilion" galleries featuring New England period rooms and much else at the ends of empty, nondescript halls that just beg you to overlook them.
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It begins, chronologically, with a stunning line-up of ceramic Maya burial urns decorated with figures of gods, jaguars, and bats. Nearby in the basement are showstopper displays of ship models symbolizing the international maritime trade that fueled Boston's development, carved wooden colonial chests, and embroidered samplers. But the Native American collection feels slim.
MFA leaders describe the new wing as a diverse, international showcase of the art of the Americas. "What we've tried to do is in the wings to present a broader vision that goes beyond that of North, South, and Central America," Rogers tells me. "In some areas, that represents our good intentions for the future. Our collections could be strengthened. But it is a statement that we're looking much wider afield at the cultural, the ethnic strands that make up the continent, to give a more complex picture."
Just eight of the 49 galleries feature significant selections of artists not affiliated with the East Coast (mainly Boston, New York, and Philadelphia). The majority focus on art tied to New England. "What we have in our collection represents what Bostonians have collected, and what our donors have collected," Rogers says. It makes sense to talk about America through a local lens because, as he notes, "This is one of the great founding cities of America. Again, a central gallery is a gallery devoted to Paul Revere, his silver, to the men like John Hancock who made the Revolution what it was. You can in a sense come to that gallery and meet the people who made American history."
The first floor showcases Philadelphia painter Thomas Sully's sweeping, 17-foot-wide 1819 canvas of George Washington astride a white horse after crossing the Delaware. Bostonian Gilbert Stuart paints George Washington (the canvas is the model for the dollar bill); Bostonian John Singleton Copley paints Samuel Adams, Hancock, and Revere, whose own work here includes his iconic, inflammatory 1770 engraving of the Boston Massacre.
Staring at Stuart's 1823 portrait of the grizzled old John Adams, I think of how he enshrined in the Massachusetts Constitution the notion that it is the patriotic "duty" of our government to promote the arts to help teach people the "wisdom, and knowledge, as well as virtue" that are "necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties." The new MFA is a reminder that these American ideals sprang from the same streets we walk.