Mayor Marty Walsh has declared Sunday, Sept. 7, “Malcolm Rogers Day," in honor of the outgoing director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
On Saturday night, people toasted his reign at a moonlit gala. And it seems the party never stops: Rogers is also being celebrated Sunday at the MFA's "Community Day,” an open house with free tours, art-making and performances.
Rogers has been leading the encyclopedic museum since 1994. That 20-year tenure is the longest for a director in the MFA’s 144-year history. I met with Rogers at the museum to find out how it feels to be the center of attention.
He came in on his day off, dressed casually in a button-down and khaki slacks. Rogers joked about being the last person at the museum to hear the news about the mayor's decree.
“People have been very good about keeping secrets,” he said with a laugh. “I feel very honored, and I’m thrilled that it’s a free community day here at the museum.”
The MFA hosts a handful of community days a years, and they occupy a special place in Rogers’ heart. He instituted the concept in 1997, three years after he was hired.
When asked why he piloted the community program, the MFA’s outgoing museum director took me back to when he was a kid living in a remote part of England. He remembers traveling long distances to see art in the big cities.
“And I always think of that possibility that a visit to the museum for a young person can be something that will change their lives,” Rogers mused.
Rogers grew up in Yorkshire, “in a tiny hamlet on a tiny farm,” he said. He pointed to a rural landscape painting hanging in the MFA’s Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art. It’s "Garrowby Hill" by David Hockney. The work’s rolling hills and farmland remind Rogers of his youth.
“I was born about 20 miles in that direction,” he said, gesturing with his hand. “It’s a wonderful vibrant picture.” And Rogers says it epitomized his approach. “It’s fully contemporary art — bold, vivid — and it’s a work that almost anyone can engage with, don’t you think?”
Rogers recalls engaging with an art for the first time at the Bowes Museum in County Durham.
“And I can still remember one or two of the marvelous works of art I saw there, when I was just about 5 or 6," he said.
Rogers says his love for museums grew out of his voracious reading and desire to travel. Rogers hitchhiked around central Italy after his first year at university, drinking in its sculptures and paintings. He’s only worked in one other art museum besides the MFA, the National Portrait Gallery in London.
“I wasn’t really qualified to work there, but somehow I got my first job there,” Rogers said. “The director said as soon as I arrived, ‘You came here as a librarian — but I want to make you into a curator.’ So I was thrown in at the deep end.”
And he’s been in pretty deep ever since. When Rogers got the museum director job at the MFA he wanted to return the institution to its roots.
“People have said that our founders were elitists — they weren't,” he said. “They were philanthropists who wanted to benefit everyone. I think in the 20th century there was a danger that museums were becoming too specialist, almost places where art historians talk to other art historians — and then the public were added on.”
Rogers strived to reverse that trend. And he believes he has succeeded.
Some critics have accused Rogers of taking it too far, though, with pop-culture driven exhibitions featuring glitzy jewelry, fashion and race cars. But he’s tripled the museum’s endowment from about $180 million to $602 million.
Since 1994, Rogers has added staff to the curatorial and conservation departments, with a rise from 34 to 46 curators and 20 to 35 conservators.
Annual attendance has also increased, from about 864,000 visitors to more than a million.
Admission has risen, too — from $8 to $25 a ticket — a number many find prohibitively expensive. But there are between four and six free community days each year, and Rogers is looking forward to the party.
“As I say, education and community are very close to my heart. It gives a great opportunity for me to thank people visiting, to show people that, you know, I’m not some bureaucrat in a suit, I’ll be fairly informally dressed,” he said, smiling.
I will say Rogers usually does wear a very sharp suit. And the outgoing museum director humbly admits he feels a little shy about being the center of attention Sunday.
But Rogers says he’ll cope with the mild discomfort he can feel in front of a crowd. And he reminds me that he’s not going anywhere anytime soon, because the search for his successor will undoubtedly take a long time.