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
With an uncle from New York, at the age of nine, Charles Giuliano first visited the Museum of Fine Arts in 1949. He went home with vivid impressions of mummies and
After graduation from Brandeis University in 1963, he fast talked his way into a job in the museum’s Department of Egyptian Art. For the next two and a half years, he worked in the basement as a conservation intern. He restored numerous Old Kingdom stone vessels some of which were displayed.
After several years in New York as a gallerist, he returned to Boston in 1968 writing for the underground paper Avatar of which he became managing editor. From there he went on to staff positions at the weekly Boston After Dark/ Phoenix and daily Boston Herald Traveler. He was a columnist for Art New England and Boston correspondent for Art News among numerous publications.
As a leading arts critic in Boston, he rose from the basement to cover the MFA over several decades. He interviewed every director from Perry T. Rathbone to the current
director Matthew Teitelbaum.
Over the years, numerous taped interviews were transcribed and saved. The book Museum of Fine Arts: 1870 to 2020: An Oral History comprises a timeline of how the museum has morphed on his watch. He was one-on-one with directors, curators, administrators, trustees, and fellow journalists.
The MFA is now 150 years old. The book provides an overview of world-class collections particularly Old Kingdom and Nubian Art, Classical Greek and Roman, Japanese and Asiatic, American painting and decorative arts from Colonial to 19th century, prints, drawings and photography, and French Impressionism. In many respects, the MFA is second to none. With the exception of 20th century and neglect of Boston artists.
While unquestionably a world-class institution there is a dark side which the book explores. The museum today struggles to overcome a legacy of exclusion, institutional racism, and anti-Semitism. In the 1970s the museum endured scandal and instability. There was the later purging of curators and consolidation as One Museum under bricks and mortar director Malcolm Rogers. Giuliano probes deeply into crisis and change.
In the past few years all cultural institutions have come under the microscope. Through a dynamic director, Matthew Teitelbaum, the MFA is making great strides to become a
museum for all of Boston.
Remarkably, this is only the second comprehensive history of the MFA and first in fifty years. This epic tale is told in the very words of those who shaped its legacy.
Fascinating. A significant contribution. Truly
I appreciate the way you handled the Rathbone years. It’s very fair, and your own personal recollections of that era add a great deal. I’m very glad that we had a chance to talk at length, some years ago, about so many issues.
Many should be grateful for all your work over the years and that you have brought it together in one volume. I am sure it will be a valuable resource for anyone interested in museum problems, and particularly those of the MFA.
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 Rathbone Years
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
Yesterday retrieved your MFA Boston 1870-2020 An Oral History and gratefully recalled K’s (artist Kahlil Gibran 1922 - 2008) admiration for your critical eye. How he would have admired this significant history!! Today, since 7 AM, I’ve browsed the fantastic interviews I plan to enjoy. Can hardly wait for Barry Gaither who spoke at our St Botolph Club’s A. R. Crite exhibit. And just inhaled a fascinating excerpt about William Lane & his NYC art forays. A few minutes ago, scanned early pages & spotted Boston Art Festival, so I read that & came across “the prize-winning life-sized sculpture John The Baptist by Kahlil Gibran …. “Truly tears came with mentions of K & then, me. Thanking you is too lame. Will be devouring every detail of your 303 page epic work.
Jean Gibran, author and curator
The history of a museum — its policies, its personnel, its actual performance — is rarely available to the public. But Charles Giuliano’s oral history of the MFA in Boston (1870-2020) is an exception. He was both an insider and an outsider. He had one-on-one revelatory disclosure/discussions with directors and curators which are reproduced in this book. The historical performance and prejudices of these leaders (and visitors) are openly presented to readers. We are informed in detail of how the MFA’s collection was controlled and limited — prejudiced — from its beginning to the present by the directors, curators and their audiences. The readers are left with wonder about other art museums around the world. This book is recommended to all who have an interest in any aspect of art history.
Carl Chiarenza, art historian and professor emeritus University of Rochester
" 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
I want to see a video of Textile Curator J M Tuchscherer standing up at a meeting called by Director Alan Shestack & saying “Enough talk about money & then emailing colleagues that the Director “didn’t know what he was doing.” WOW! the chase!! AMT chased by guards followed by police who finally caught him. What a scene. Best of MFA history. Thanks for listening & noting all those years, Charles. It deserves a Boston Read-a-thon!!
Jean Gibran, author, and curator.
This is such an interesting focus of your book -- the dialectic between decades of social injustice, of the relationships between the relatively powerful and the relatively powerless, and the supposedly timeless values of art, as played out over the life of an institution.
William Wadsworth, poet and Columbia University professor
Just received your MFA Oral History from Amazon. So much more interesting than Walter Muir Whitehill's commissioned 1970 Centennial History. A real treat to read and think about how long we've known each other and how the time has passed for both of us over the past fifty years. Congratulations on the new book.
Jay Jaroslav, artist
Your poetry fills me with delight, laughs, wry anger, and appreciation. I'm in awe of you for your persistence and refusal to heed anyone but yourself in matters of your own art. And your BMFA book is a labor of love! You got such up-close and personal authentic history from a ridiculous number of the key players while also asserting your own well-educated positions. The book will be used by scholars and enjoyed by many who love the place as you do. You are an inspiration to me!Your poetry fills me with delight, laughs, wry anger, and appreciation. I'm in awe of you for your persistence and refusal to heed anyone but yourself in matters of your own art. And your BMFA book is a labor of love! You got such up-close and personal authentic history from a ridiculous number of the key players while also asserting your own well-educated positions. The book will be used by scholars and enjoyed by many who love the place as you do. You are an inspiration to me!
Amy Lighthill, interviewee and former curator of contemporary art at the MFA
I am positive that there is not another living soul who could have written this history of the MFA. Knowing that you worked there in the early sixties, and then coming back often as a teacher and journalist , you are uniquely qualified to reach out to all of those people who were instrumental in shaping the history of this monumental collection in the heart of Boston. Bravo; you manage to bring this history alive, and to treat us all to the intensity of back room dealing that the art world usually tries to hide. I thoroughly enjoyed this amazing book.
Jim Jacobs, former Classical Department intern and global art dealer
I truly enjoyed your history of the MFA period. Bravo.
Gerald Bergstein, artist
I just finished reading your oral history--it will be a great source of information (and inspiration for your probing and insistent questions). While I already knew something about items of questionable provenance in the MFA (and the Gardner and other museums) and about the MFA's weaknesses in 20th c. and contemporary art, I had no idea about the inner dynamics between curators and directors. In many ways the changes over the years in the MFA parallel the changes in Suffolk over the same time span.
Gerald Richman, Emeritus professor, Suffolk University
I have your book on the MFA and am learning tons of very relevant museum history.
Jon Landau, producer and art collector
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.