MFA Boston Draws a Clear Line Between Fine Art and Community

It was the staples, that got to me. Stickpins too.

My friend Jackie emailed, in total excitement. A drawing she had made of her grandson, William, had been selected for an MFA Boston exhibit, “Portraits of Leadership.” “I’m not really sure what William has to do with leadership, though I suppose he represents future leaders. Still, I’m thrilled that one of my drawings will be on display at the Museum of Fine Art.” Jackie is an accomplished artist in pen, pencil and watercolor. Submitting a piece to the MFA was an aspiration too fantastic to ever dream: come true.

New logo for MFA Boston on

Staples right through the paper.

Museum of Fine Art Boston is rebranded. It has a new logo and a new font, blocky and easy to read. Their website has a banner ad that floats, “Art is better together.” A prominent page features a quartet of portraits under the heading “Here All Belong: Creating community where all belong.” The second paragraph of MFA Boston’s Mission statement begins, “The Museum aims for the highest standards of quality in all its endeavors.” The rebranding leaves no doubt: MFA Boston is all about inclusion.

Banner on

Staples that made permanent holes in each drawing, every painting.

Jackie and I made plans to go to the MFA on a weekday afternoon to see her drawing. “I don’t quite know how they’re going to display it,” Jackie said. “I sent a digital copy, and they never requested the original.” Surely, I thought, the MFA must have some high-quality process they use to print electronic submissions. When we met outside the museum, Jackie was quiet, almost despondent. She had seen the display on opening day; this was her second visit. “Don’t get too excited.”

Community art work,

Staples and stickpins that defaced every work of art.

“Portraits of Leadership” is a collection of drawings and paintings by local artists—and many school children—that accompanies the MFA’s temporary display of the National Gallery’s portraits of former President Obama and his wife Michelle. In one large, spacious gallery, hang two life-size portraits of the Obamas. In the corridor beyond, and on plywood walls built around columns in the visitor information area, are the community contributions to the exhibit: 5×7 sheets of paper, portrait orientation, stapled or stick pinned directly to the plywood. In the corner near the atrium café is a single digital display, where more than a hundred digital entries scroll through; ten seconds per image. Jackie and I waited patiently for “William and his World” to emerge so I could snap her photo alongside her artwork.

Jackie with “William in the World”

Formalities extinguished, our anger rose. Why was this such a shabby display? How could the MFA stickpin and staple artwork directly to the walls? The message is all wrong: fine art displayed in gilt frames, while community art is permanently defaced.

After our visit, Jackie emailed her (our) concerns to Sophia Walter of the MFA staff. I appreciate that Ms. Walter responded; unfortunately all of her justifications only exacerbated the duality between fine art and community art. She said they made the exhibit as nice as possible given they had teen curators and 2600 items to display. Why did the MFA not use real curators? Why not select specific items to display, as they do in all of their other collections?

The message the museum will put forth is: we want wide community representation. The cynical reasoning I calculate is: 2600 items multiplied by two, maybe even four family members per ‘artist’ adds up to a lot of tickets sold. In fact, Jackie lamented, “I have other friends and family members who want to see my work on display. But I am so disappointed. How do I tell them it’s not worth the visit?”

I am not a museum curator or a display designer. However, it’s not challenging to figure out how to display hundreds of identically sized pieces of paper without permanently defacing them. Correctly spaced rows of narrow channels will do the trick, as many a retail display can confirm.

Obama Portraits at MFA Boston,

By definition, the MFA is an elitist institution. It decides what art to purchase, what art to display, and in that process it establishes the parameters by which our culture defines art. The MFA can rebrand itself, highlight inclusive words on its website, and proclaim a mission of highest quality endeavors. But all of that is simply eyewash unless it treats ‘community’ art comparably to ‘fine’ art, with appropriate standards of curation and display. “Portraits of Leadership” does not do that. Worse, it illustrates that MFA Boston is tone deaf, even in its effort to get ‘woke.’

The Obama portraits will be transported to the National Gallery, where they will be hung as treasures for years to come. The paper portraits stapled to plywood walls? They will surely rip when the display is dismantled. Damaged beyond repair.


About paulefallon

Greetings reader. I am a writer, architect, cyclist and father from Cambridge, MA. My primary blog, is an archive of all my published writing. The title refers to a sequence of three yoga positions that increase focus and build strength by shifting the body’s center of gravity. The objective is balance without stability. My writing addresses opposing tension in our world, and my attempt to find balance through understanding that opposition. During 2015-2106 I am cycling through all 48 mainland United States and asking the question "How will we live tomorrow?" That journey is chronicled in a dedicated blog,, that includes personal writing related to my adventure as well as others' responses to my question. Thank you for visiting.
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