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Museum of Fine Arts hosts the Obama portraits and unveils a new look

A woman stands before the Obama Portraits Tour exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
A woman stands before the Obama Portraits Tour exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Iconic portraits of President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama go on display this Labor Day weekend at the Museum of Fine Arts. Boston is the hit exhibition's final stop on its seven-city tour, which included Chicago, Atlanta and Los Angeles.

As visitors seek out the Obamas, the MFA also hopes they'll take note of its first rebrand in 30 years, featuring a new logo and welcome banners that read, "Here All Belong." Director Matthew Teitelbaum said timing the updated messaging's launch with the arrival of the acclaimed portraits was intentional.

“They both have this feeling of outward facing, sense of belonging, invitation to be part of what the MFA is,” he said, “you know, an expression of what I really believe, which is a museum is only as strong as its relationship with its communities.”

The portrait of Barack Obama by Kehinde Wiley, left, and the portrait of Michelle Obama by Amy Sherald. Both portraits are part of the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery. (Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
A portrait of Barack Obama by Kehinde Wiley, left, and a portrait of Michelle Obama by Amy Sherald. Both portraits are part of the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery. (Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

The large-scale portraits have inspired audiences since their debut at the Smithsonian in 2018. Artist Kehinde Wiley's work features the former president sitting in a chair surrounded by lush greenery. In Amy Sherald's interpretation, the former First Lady wears a flowing white dress covered with modern, geometric patterns.

The two artists were the first African Americans tapped by the National Portrait Gallery for presidential commissions, and both of their subjects gaze out at the viewer with calm, confident directness.

For Teitelbaum, the sense of approachable leadership the portraits project aligns with the museum's upgraded visual identity, but also with goals laid out in the museum's 2017 strategic plan.

That roadmap "had 64 initiatives and commitments," he explained, "one of which was the rethinking of what generically might be considered the brand of the MFA – how could we rethink how we identify ourselves and the values we want to consistently communicate?”

Then Teitelbaum said the COVID-19 crisis threw cultural institutions like the MFA into financial tailspins, forcing a halt of some of his institution's strategic goals. The pandemic caused layoffs and two closures at the museum. Visitations dropped from about 1.2 million people annually to just over 200,000 in fiscal year 2021.

But Teitelbaum said the prolonged, painful pause enabled leadership and staff to reflect more deeply on the museum's core values and responsibilities. Now, he said the rebrand is communicating the museum's vision to the outside world. Starting next week, the campaign will expand to social media and paid advertising.

The MFA’s new imagery is part of its first rebranding campaign in 30 years. (Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
The MFA’s new imagery is part of its first rebranding campaign in 30 years. (Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
(Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
(Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

The old logo was white and red, now it's a bold black. The tilting forward “MFABoston” was crafted by the New York firm Base Design. Teitelbaum said the museum's name “leans into Boston” in a way that's both "solid" in its "sense of tradition," but at the same time "playful in the sense you can be part of it."

The museum faced criticism in 2019 after seventh graders from a Dorchester school reported they were racially profiled during a field trip. In response, the MFA apologized and directed $500,000 toward diversity and inclusion initiatives.

While reflecting on the MFA's ongoing institutional “resetting,” Teitelbaum said staff pursued the Obama portraits; the original exhibition tour did not include Boston.

For him, it's the show with the broadest appeal the museum has hosted in years. Boston Public Schools ninth graders have been invited to see it for free, and community members were asked to submit their own “Portraits of Leadership” that will also be displayed. According to the museum 2,600 people from around the world.

In terms of future programming, Teitelbaum said audiences can expect an increased commitment to contemporary art and exhibitions exploring vital cultural issues. The museum is also creating a program to add multilingual labels that include Spanish and other languages.

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Despite continued challenges, Teitelbaum is optimistic about the museum's future. Attendance numbers have climbed to more than 600,000 for 2022, about half of what they were before the pandemic. The director acknowledged there's still a long way to go, but said the Obama portraits channel a positivity he holds.

“We believe that people are prepared to gather, they are prepared to be in public space with others,” he said. “And so we are resetting with a real sense of hope.”

The public can view the Obama portraits for free on Labor Day. Also, a Smithsonian documentary about them premieres on Sept. 10.


Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify that Boston Public Schools ninth graders were invited to see the exhibit for free.

Related:

Andrea Shea Twitter Senior Arts Reporter
Andrea Shea is WBUR's arts reporter.

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