In 2003, when Salem's Peabody Essex Museum opened its new Moshe Safdie–designed wing, it heralded a local museum building boom that corresponded to a national expansion of museum infrastructure. The Museum of Fine Arts, Institute of Contemporary Art, and Addison Gallery have debuted renovations or expansions. Harvard and the Gardner Museum are in the midst of construction. Meanwhile, the museums have recruited curatorial firepower — chief curator Lynda Roscoe Hartigan at the Peabody Essex, Helen Molesworth at the ICA, Dina Deitsch at the deCordova, to name a few. The confluence of additional museum capacity and curatorial vision has come into focus over the past year. The following rundown of the best art exhibits of 2011 shows how greater Boston is now consistently offering some of the richest institutional art exhibition programs in the country. And the Peabody Essex has just announced another expansion.
GIRLS AND BOYS
Outgoing MFA curator George Shackelford once again demonstrated what that museum does best: big, beautiful blockbuster historical shows. His "Degas and the Nude" (through February 5) surveys the Impressionist master's tender, intimate observations of naked ladies unselfconsciously stepping out of tubs and toweling off. The show also paused to consider the MFA's newly acquired Gustave Caillebotte's painting of a muscular nude dude toweling off (for which the MFA sold off eight paintings, including a Monet). Along with the luscious marble hermaphrodite at the heart of the MFA's "Aphrodite and the Gods of Love," it was a year when the venerable institution began to show its queer pride.
READ MORE: " 'Degas and the Nude' at MFA," by Greg Cook