American Culture On The Charles

Tuesday, March 15, 2011
Travel Writer

For me, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts has long been the best place on earth to experience American art, in all its breadth and historical context.

And with the recent opening of the much-anticipated Art of the Americas Wing, designed by Foster + Partners, the MFA offers a compelling new argument for visiting Boston. If you do nothing else here, the America wing’s 53 new galleries are worth the trip — and with Harvard’s collections largely closed for renovation, art lovers can spare the extra time.

Boston itself can feel like an open-air museum of Americana, especially along the North End waterfront, where industrial warehouses have been converted into lofts near Paul Revere’s clapboard house. The lanterns of the Public Garden and the townhouses along Commonwealth Avenue still look, on a misty later winter’s day, as they did in Impressionist paintings hanging in the MFA.

Generations of visitors have paused in front of that museum’s venerable stone columns off Huntington Avenue, taking in the John Singer Sargent frescoes and graceful classical arches in the lobbies. But with its sunlit, glass-walled addition, the MFA has quite literally opened itself up to a newer, more modern approach to viewing art.

That balance of tradition and novelty is most evident from the perspective of the new Shapiro Family Courtyard, a soaring, light-filled space that bridges the old building and new wing. The original façade is incorporated into the newer structure with respectful ease, much in the way old and new architecture are brought together at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, marking the institutions’ visible growth.

On a recent Sunday, patrons lingered over glasses of New England chardonnays and Boston microbrews well into afternoon at the New American Café, which occupies the courtyard’s central space. I’m still not sure whether it was the architecture or the tempting desserts that prompted my companions to consider a second lunch, but in any case, the ambience is inviting.

You might well pause for refreshment during a visit to the New American Wing, which encompasses four floors and many more centuries of art. But the physical spaces are only one aspect of what is “new” about the American Wing. Also new is the way in which furnishings, clothing, and other period artifacts are integrated into the rooms full of paintings and sculpture, rather than relegated to separate spaces.

John Singleton Copley’s portraits of Colonial-era gentry — so formal, and yet so full of personality — have long been a highlight of the MFA collection, and they engage all the more in the handsome, dark-blue rooms alongside silver tea sets and mahogany. The windswept seascapes of Winslow Homer, Sargent’s society ladies and an eye-popping floor of Abstract Expressionists all get their proper due in expansive galleries, which feature — as always — exceptionally thoughtful wall texts.

Several more new galleries are set to open later this year, including a wing for contemporary art. Meanwhile, across the Charles River, Harvard has closed its Fogg and Busch-Reishinger museum spaces for an extended renovation, consolidating collection highlights into its Arthur M. Sackler Museum.

Currently on view is “Brush and Ink Reconsidered: Contemporary Chinese Landscapes,” one of several notable shows in the Boston area to focus on China, featuring the work of 10 recent artists.

Another perspective on China is found a half-hour’s drive northeast, at Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum. “Fish, Silk, Tea, Bamboo: Cultivating an Image of China,” an exploration of familiar Chinese motifs through art and artifacts, is on view through March 31. With a modern wing designed by Israeli-born architect Moshe Safdie, and a collection begun by acquisitive seafarers two centuries ago, the Peabody Essex is an eclectic institution of Asian, maritime and New England art and architecture.

Back in town, a few subway stops from the MFA, all the chatter is about conductor James Levine leaving the Boston Symphony Orchestra — and who might replace him. This is Levine’s last spring as music director, but it’s also an opportunity to experience new faces on the podium, like John Nelson and Stéphane Denève. Pianist Yevgeny Kissin will tackle Chopin and Grieg, and opera fans will get a concert version of Mozart’s “Abduction from the Seraglio.”

If you’re in town this weekend, you can catch the end of the Boston Jewish Music Festival. This is the second year for the event, which drew more than 5,000 people last year to concerts across the metro area.

This Saturday brings “The Ultimate Purim Party, Part II,” a holiday celebration with a concert by Roberto Juan Rodriguez and his Cuban Jewish Jazz Allstars — which festival promoters describe as klezmer-meets-Santana. And on Sunday, a cappella fans will enjoy the festival’s finale, a concert of vocal groups ranging from high school to professional at the Gan Academy in suburban Waltham. 

Exterior and interior views of the new Art of the America’s Wing of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Courtesy of   Boston Museum

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