Malcolm Rogers Loves Art, Travel and the MFA Boston

On the eve of his retirement, the highly regarded director of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston gets candid about his past, present and future

Ann and Graham Gund Director Malcolm Rogers celebrates his 20th anniversary this September as master of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, officially crowning him the longest serving director in the world-class art museum’s 144-year history. This past February, he announced plans to retire, although he continues running the show until the right candidate can be appointed to fill his shoes. In Rogers' honor on Sept. 7, the MFA hosts free admission and special events for everyone. We sat down with the native Englishman for a chat about his two decades here in Boston, his love of art and his upcoming travel plans. (Oh, and he planned an artful day in Boston itinerary for us, too.)

So you’ve got retirement on the horizon. Are you looking forward to some extended time off?

I don’t know if there’s going to be time off. I really think I am moving to the next phase of my career, so we’ll see what happens. I’ve been at the museum for 20 years and take great satisfaction in making it a more open, welcoming place, and creating a real sense that it is a wonderful world museum set in quite a small community. It’s been wonderful doing that over those decades.

You came to Boston from the National Portrait Gallery, London, and you’re a native of the UK, right?

Yes. I’m a native of the UK, but I became an American citizen in 2003. We were building the American Wing, fundraising for it, and I thought, you know, I have to visibly be a stakeholder, so I did it then. 

Do you think you’ll stay in Boston upon retirement?

I’m hoping. I have a home in England, but I also have a home here in Boston and at the moment, my plans are to keep it on and spend time in both places. You know, I have 20 years of friends here in Boston now.

You’re recognized as the director who has ‘opened doors,’ figuratively and literally, to art for our community. In terms of art awareness, interest and overall mood, what kind of changes have you noticed over the last two decades here in Boston?

I’ve noticed a growing interest in contemporary art and contemporary programming. I’ve noticed a greater interest in all periods and all cultures in learning more. The museum role in teaching has become more and more significant. More and more people who come here want a learning experience. The other thing that’s changed, and it’s not exactly opening the doors here in Boston, but is that so many people are visiting our collections on the world wide web from around the world and using them, again, as a way of teaching, learning.

What do you take away from your tenure at the MFA as your proudest accomplishment?

Well, obviously, I’m very proud of building the American Wing here. But, I am also—and this is one of those symbolic, practical things—very proud of reopening our two main entrances, the entrance on the Avenue of the Arts and the State Street Corporation entrance on the Fenway. In other words, going back to the rhythms of our original and very fine building.

What is the MFA exhibition to see this fall?

This fall, it’s going to be Goya. A wonderful exhibition of Goya, which is really an exploration of his mind and the habitual themes that he returned to. It’s going to be in all media, so there’s going to be paintings, prints and drawings. Many, many loans from Spain, including the Prado; some things that have never left Spain, and certainly never seen in Boston before.

To guide visitors at the MFA, what are your must-sees from the museum's permanent collections?

This is a great place to come and see French Impressionists. I would love someone to come and look at our great Rembrandts. We are a wonderful place for Spanish painting, with masterpieces by Velázquez and El Greco. El Greco’s “Fray Hortensio Félix Paravicino” is one of my favorites. I love Rogier van der Weyden’s “Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin” and, of course, one of the great favorites of all time is John Singer Sargent’s “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit,” which is almost the icon of the museum. In the Impressionists, I don’t know whether I would choose Renoir’s “Dance at Bougival” or Monet’s Madame Monet à “La Japonaise” or one of his great haystack paintings. We also have great works by Degas.

If you don’t have a few hours in your schedule to spend at the MFA or another museum, where is the best place in Boston to go for a quick glimpse of art?

Well, I think it’s very nice to visit our neighbors at the Gardner Museum. There might still be time for the MFA, you see. Ideally, the visitor to Boston wants to combine art and history. I was prompted a little bit to think about where people would go on a tour of Boston and one of the first pieces of art that many people see and I think is often overlooked, I absolutely love the terrazzo pavements by Jane Goldman at Logan Airport, the ones of sea creatures. Those are some of the most beguiling works of art in Boston and people generally just walk over it in a hurry. But I would start the visit there.

You can hop on a plane and visit three art museums anywhere in the world. What are they?

Anywhere in the world; oh that’s terribly difficult. I would go to The Frick Collection in New York. I would go to The Wallace Collection in London. And, a slightly quirky choice, I’d go to the Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon. 

If you could wake up anywhere in the world tomorrow, where would that be?

Somewhere I haven’t been. I’m longing to go to southern India. I’ve been to other parts of India, but not to southern India.

Do you travel often?

I travel quite a lot. Most recently, I’ve been traveling in Africa. I’ve just gotten back from a vacation in South Africa, combining the wine district around Cape Town with safari in the north.

Where are you headed next?

Actually, I’m headed to the Cotswolds in England, which is beautiful countryside. Lovely gardens, lovely houses and so on.

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