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MFA Director Emphasizes Accessibility in Arts

Students and members of the Harvard Art Museums visit the newly opened Fogg Museum on the night of the building's student opening. The museum will be officially open to the public on November 16.
Students and members of the Harvard Art Museums visit the newly opened Fogg Museum on the night of the building's student opening. The museum will be officially open to the public on November 16.
By Nathan P. Press and Samuel E. Stone, Contributing Writers

Three days before the long-awaited opening of the Harvard Art Museums, Malcolm Rogers, director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, emphasized the importance of adaptation and accessibility for the continued relevance of art museums in a lecture Thursday.

The event, jointly coordinated by the Extension School and Lowell Institute, focused on the development of art museums in the 21st century. About 150 people, including Extension School administrators and students, attended the event in Emerson Hall.

Rogers, who became MFA director in 1994, argued that museums must learn to digitize their permanent collections and curate more interactive live exhibits in response to what he called the “electronic revolution.” The longest-serving director in MFA history, Rogers has overseen evolution of the museum's financial, curatorial, and educational programming.

“Art museums in the twenty-first century cannot return to old tactics and must seek out new definitions of beauty and new ways of doing things,” he said.

He cited recent video game and crowd-sourced exhibitions at the MFA as examples of curatorial innovation aimed at increasing accessibility among museum visitors.

Beyond curatorial decisions, the MFA has also made efforts to extend and offer free museum hours to the public and students, he said, adding that all Harvard students have free admission to the museum.

He also argued that changing demographics in the art world call for adaptation and change from museums.

“Museum-goers today are younger, less affluent, and less likely to have children,” he said. “They are social media savvy and seek a cultural experience, not just an art experience.”

In addition, Rogers discussed the prevalence of contemporary art on display in permanent collections. He said that although contemporary art is increasingly popular, it cannot supplant older forms of art.

“All art is contemporary,” he said. “Not just the shock of the new, but the shock of the old.”

Rogers expressed excitement for the future of the Harvard Art Museums.

“Since the reopening, the Harvard museums appear to be trying to be more of a university collection,” he said, noting efforts to make the museums welcoming to students and faculty in addition to the general public. “There is a definitely a refocusing there.”

Charles Houston, an Extension School admissions coordinator who organized the event, expressed similar hope for Harvard’s arts program.

“It’s such a great resource that we have world-class museums right here on campus,” he said. “I’m hoping the reopening of the arts museums marks a renaissance of the arts on campus.”

Thursday’s lecture marked the latest installment of a lecture series sponsored by the Lowell Institute.

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