Just opened: Art of the Americas Wing at the MFA - Time Out Boston

Boston has always been known for its history, but not necessarily for its art. The new Art of the Americas Wing in the Museum of Fine Arts boosts the clout of the one by using the strength of the other. The wing, designed by London architectural firm Foster + Partners, features four stories systematically chronicling the history of American art.

Housed within the 121,307 square feet of new gallery space, the collection represents a cross-section of American art. And it isn’t just the old U.S. of A. we’re talking about—wing curator Elliot Bostwick Davis has included North, South and Central America in the space, with masterpieces of both indigenous peoples and the white men who later forced them off of their land (yeah, we said it).

Needless to say, this is a massive undertaking for the MFA. The team has essentially built a whole new building inside the one that’s already there, designed around a bold unifying theme. Major artworks and artifacts are represented; from pre-colonial times through the late 20th century, with artists from Copley to Pollock all jostling brilliantly for our attention.

If all this sounds madly ambitious, that’s because it is. The MFA first commissioned Foster + Partners to design and build the wing in 1999. Eleven years later, it’s still very much a work in progress. But in spite of some shortcomings, the wing is a stunner—and poised to put Boston on the art world’s map.

The wing is organized into four periodic levels built along a central spine—with Ancient American, Native American, 17th-Century and Maritime Art on the Lower Ground Level; 20th-Century Art through the mid-1980s on Level 3; and art of the Colonial America and Early 20th-Century in between.

A few feathers have been ruffled over the fact that the art of the ancient cultures has been relegated to the bottom level. But the chronological organization makes sense; stepping through the glass doors atop each staircase is like entering a completely different world. When asked about the choice of level order, Davis replied that modern art simply takes up more space.

And indeed, the 15-foot ceilings of the uppermost level better accommodate the museum’s growing collection of 20th-century pieces. MFA director Malcolm Rogers emphasizes that they are not interested in “being an ICA,” but instead striving to become an encyclopedic museum of American art.

“What we are doing here is not an end,” he said. “It is a beginning.”

According to Davis, it is the art that drove the project. The architects (best known for steel and glass marvels like London’s Millennium Bridge and the Great Court of the British Museum) worked alongside the curators to sculpt a space that would showcase the collections effectively. For their research, the team visited 29 museums and galleries around the world to see what did and didn’t work.

The bulk of the collection is by New England artists from the colonial period and 19th- and early 20th-centuries. On the first floor, Boston-area historical superstars like Paul Revere, Samuel Adams and John Hancock are immortalized in iconic portraits by John Singleton Copley. The faces of George and Martha Washington peek out of the famously unfinished canvases of Gilbert Stuart. Twenty-five works from John Singer Sargent gracefully dominate a portion of Level Two.

Upstairs, Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism fill the naturally-lit white walls—a change of pace from the windowless lower galleries, with walls covered in fabric of rich, saturated colors. Pieces from Georgia O’Keefe, Norman Rockwell, Edward Hopper, Dorthea Lange and Ansel Adams surround period rooms displaying furniture, jewelry, housewares, clothing and other highly-designed objects of the 20th-century.

Still, with all these nods to the past, the MFA is carefully planning for what is to come. “Flexibility for the future is critical to the success of this wing,” remarked Spencer de Grey, Head of Design at Foster + Partners. The firm has built a soaring, airy wing, complete with eco-friendly radiant heating and hyper-insulated window coatings. 21st-century technology is also in use in the museum’s forthcoming smartphone app, which will pipe in period-specific music for an added layer of sensual immersion.

“Today a museum plays a much larger role,” Rogers explained in the indoor Shapiro Family courtyard, a space that will hold regular events of different scale and tone—an intended “living room” for the citizens of Boston to be facilitated by a new Fens-side entrance. “We’re celebrating today.”