Museum of Fine Arts Boston:
1870 – 2020
An Oral History
Audio interviews with museum directors, curators, trustees, journalists, gallerists and art historians gathered over the past 60 years, woven together to tell stories of this famed institution heretofore untold. Remarkably, this is only the second comprehensive overview of a world-class institution.
About The Book
There is an old expression in business relating to negotiations: “Trust the person in the room.”
Over several decades as a gonzo journalist, art and music critic, and art history professor, Charles Giuliano was “the person in the room.” He got the interviews, he made the recordings, he had the discussions, and he elicited the admissions that led to his new book, “Museum of Fine Arts Boston: 1870 to 2020 An Oral History.”
He pressed for answers as to why Brahmin impressionist works were always favored over The Boston Expressionists, even though the Jewish expressionist work had received national acclaim. He cajoled admissions about the great “acquisitions” of East Asian art at the expense of East Asia, and how the MFA came to be the world’s leading museum of Far Eastern art collections.
This book tells stories directly from the mouths of those leaders, recorded by him and distilled over the decades since their telling as both the Museum and American culture evolved. Trust the person in the room, read his words and the words of those in charge, and learn something meaningful about the amazing institution that is the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
One final word . . . the term “gonzo” first appeared in the writings of Giuliano. This is established unequivocally in the written record. It was later confiscated by a Boston Globe scribe who used it when referencing Rolling Stones journalist Hunter Thompson. But make no mistake – Giuliano is the original gonzo journalist.
“ I think the book is an extremely valuable resource for understanding the MFA’s trajectory–especially that of the last 50 years. It is so interesting to see how your insightful interviews anticipate contemporary issues about repatriation /decolonization and diversification of museums. I learned an immense amount about the MFA and art in Boston (and beyond) more broadly. For instance, I had been unaware of the financial relationship between the MFA and National Center of Afro-American Artists. It was also fascinating to read about the Northampton group in the context of Amy Lighthill’s attempts to add area artists to the collection. “
John A. Tyson, art historian, University of Massachusetts/ Boston
Inside The Book . . . . .
The museum as a business
The brief and turbulent tenure of Merrill Rueppel
Jan Fontein, from Asiatic Curator to Museum Director
The museum as a business
Matthew Teitelbaum, from the ICA to MFA
Boston Expressionists Jack Levine and Hyman Bloom
Trustee and art consultant Lewis Cabot
Me and Malcolm Rogers
Avant-garde gallerist Mario Diacono
MFA director Jan Fontein
Dizzy Gillespie and Elma Lewis
Contemporary curator Amy Lighthill
Billionaire collector William I Koch
MFA and ICA trustee Ted Landsmark
Contemporary curator Kenworth Moffett.
Director Perry T. Rathbone.
Matthew Teitelbaum while an ICA curator
Director Allen Shestack
In 1970 the Museum of Fine Arts commissioned a two volume Centennial history by its trustee, Walter Muir Whitehill. That was a time of turmoil as then director Perry T. Rathbone was forced to resign resulting from the questionable acquisition of a portrait by Raphael later returned to Italy,
Instability followed with the quick succession of acting director, Cornelius Vermule, the ill-fated Merrill Rueppel, then Asiatic curator, Jan Fontain promoted from acting to full time director.
Museum of Fine Arts Boston, 1870 to 2020: An Oral History is only the second publication chronicling 150 years of a great museum with aspects of its collection second to none. The book summarizes events of the first century with a vivid update of what has occurred since then.
The fascinating story of a world class museum is updated in the words of each of its directors from Perry T, Rathbone to Matthew Teitelbaum. There are also interviews with curators, trustees, art historians, administrators and arts journalists.
The founders were individuals of class and privilege who gave generously. The tone of Brahim elitism changed by the 1950s as the museum expanded and become more costly to maintain. There was a search for new money and expansion of the board to include Jews and people of color.
By the 1960s the museum drew broad criticism for its elitism and indifference to modern/ contemporary art and Boston’s contemporary artists including the Jewish Boston Expressionists. Charges of racism have accelerated in the past few years as they have for all cultural institutions. The MFA has been charged with a transition from the “Our Museum” of its founders to a “Museum for all the people of Boston” under current director Matthew Teitelbaum.
As an observer and writer Charles Giuliano is a consummate insider. In 1963 upon graduation from Brandeis University he worked for two and a half years as a conservation intern for the Egyptian Department. He later became one of Boston’s most influential art critics covering the museum for a range of publications. This book is the culmination of that coverage since the 1960s.
With no wasted words, Giuliano’s book is all meat. Stories you’ve never heard, straight from those who were in charge, gleaned from numerous recorded interviews and distilled over time by someone who was there, the person in the room.
How did the art of the Far East end up in a Brahmin-financed museum on the other side of the world? How did a Raphael end up at the Museum, and why was it later returned to Italy?
The book provides insight and answers, and so much more.
. . . scrolling down all the digital pages, this is clearly a book of substance, of history, of research, of intense and long labor, a book that needed to be written and that Boston needed. The iconographic apparatus, all the black and white portraits that run throughout the book make it even more historical, connected to a reality of facts, events, and people.
Mario Diacono, Boston Avant Garde gallerist
This is the book Walter Muir Whitehill would wish he had written.
Margaret Supplee Smith
Harold W. Tribble Professor Emerita
Wake Forest University
I read it in less than two days. It is a great read, Charles! You were fearless asking those bigwigs difficult questions and putting them on the spot. You kept asking them about Boston artists and they kept giving feeble answers as to why there are so few in the museum collection. I, for one, thank you for standing up for us.
Miroslav Antic, artist, Palm Beach, Florida
I don't have the background to fully appreciate this history, but simply reading it for the character studies you lay bare in your interviews is fascinating enough. There are universities with programs for arts or museum management - this should be assigned reading.
Mark St. Germain, playwright
Uncovering the mysteries and secrets of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Charles Giuliano’s book exposes the good, bad, and the truly ugly of the last 150 years at the MFA. It’s an encyclopedic history of the museum, told by the author who first fell in love with the MFA when he visited as a 9 year old boy. You will learn countless things you never knew about the Museum, no matter how many times you’ve visited, or how long you may have worked there.”
Gary Lombard, former MFA guard and union organizer
About the author.
Former staff member of the MFA, gonzo journalist on the Boston cultural scene when it really mattered, art history professor, art and music critic, and of late a northern Berkshires curmudgeon.
As impressive as all of that may seem, Charles Giuliano is so much more. He was the man in the room, the relentless interviewer who held people’s feet to fire in order to elicit from them every ounce of truth they could offer. The result is this book, only the second book to be written about the Museum of Fine Art Boston in its 151-year history.
I got tough with the folks who knew and cajoled them to speak openly and candidly about the Museum and their influence over its place in Boston’s art history for many decades. If you truly want to know about the Museum, read this book.