For Malcolm Rogers, the Ann and Graham Gund Director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), visiting Japan in mid-April had a special resonance. The MFA this year celebrates its 15th anniversary of ties with what is not only its very first sister museum, but also its sole sister museum in Asia: the Nagoya/Boston Museum of Fine Arts (N/BMFA).
Through the partnership, which is planned to run until 2019, the MFA has loaned to the N/BMFA some of the world’s finest cultural artifacts from its vast and renowned collection. Such works span genres and ages — from ancient Egyptian art to the N/BMFA’s current exhibition of 19th-century European paintings.
“We managed to bring it (the collection) to audiences who found something new to appreciate and understand,” Rogers said. “It changes people’s perceptions of art in one way or another.”
As the MFA’s longest-serving director, Rogers is known to have played a pivotal role in revitalizing the Boston museum, opening new sections, such as the American art and contemporary art wings, and bringing the world to audiences through the museum’s encyclopedic collection, which he proudly describes as “showing the whole of world culture.”
When The Foundation for the Arts, Nagoya established the N/BMFA as the MFA’s first sister museum in 1999, Rogers said that the Japanese press was skeptical that such a collaboration would work. Yet the venture had “tremendous success,” drawing millions of visitors in the past 15 years. This success, Rogers explains, is likely to have been influenced by Boston’s history with Japan.
“We have a very special relationship with Japan,” he pointed out. “The partnership is really a part of the history of the MFA, almost from its earliest days when great Bostonians were coming here and collecting Japanese art.”
In 1890, the MFA became the first museum in America to establish a Japanese collection and appoint a curator specializing in Japanese art — Okakura Tenshin (1862-1913).
“When you think of a great curator like Okakura going to the U.S. (to work at the Boston Museum) and then founding Japan’s leading art school Nihon Bijutsu-in (Japan Art Institute), (after witnessing a) revival of interest in traditional Japanese culture — we’ve played a real role,” Roger said. “It’s been a privilege and pleasure for me to recognize that more-than-a-century-old relationship. It’s historic.”
The MFA’s Japanese collection of 19th- and 20th-century works now comprises 20,000 postcards, 650 Meiji Era (1868-1912) woodblock prints and more than 1,000 photographs of Japanese life that were mostly donated by collectors Leonard A. Lauder, and Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf. Last year, its Art of Japan gallery launched a new display of works, featuring more than 130 objects — a range of Japanese paintings, textiles and decorative arts — dating from the fifth century onward.
Meanwhile, since its opening, Japan’s N/BMFA has presented about 40 major exhibitions organized by the MFA, showing close to 4,000 works from the Boston museum’s collection.
“The partnership has grown, deepened and become richer,” Rogers said, adding that it has resulted in a number of benefits, such as “allowing treasures from the Boston museum’s collection to be seen outside of America and creating the opportunity to conserve many objects in both of the museum’s collections that otherwise wouldn’t have been seen.”
Numerous Japanese artworks have been brought back to Japan via MFA exhibitions such as its “Allure of Edo: Ukiyo-e Painting from the MFA” in 2006, which traveled to museums in Nagoya, Tokyo, and Kobe, and “Japanese Masterpieces from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston,” which showed in 2012.
But Rogers said that he’s also proud of the significant role the MFA has had in bringing American art to Japan, with the museum boasting a collection that has been able to provide exhibitions of American Modernist works, as well as themed shows.
“I am extremely proud of the legacy of this unique cultural exchange, and of the ability to share treasures from our global collection with the people of Japan,” he said.
To celebrate the 15th anniversary of partnership, the MFA’s current exhibition at the N/BMFA comprises 64 works from the museum’s impressive mid-19th-century collection of paintings. Titled “Millet, Barbizon and Fontainebleau,” the exhibition features the work of Jean-Francois Millet, Camille Corot, Narcisse Virgile and Theodore Rouseau, with highlights including Millet’s masterpiece “The Sower” (1850) as well as his “Young Shepherdess” (c. 1870-1873).
A series of special events and programs have also been scheduled, of which one held last month involved a “directors’ dialog” between Dr. Shunkichi Baba, director of the N/BMFA, and Rogers. For more information on upcoming events, visit the N/BMFA website.
“Millet, Barbizon and Fontainebleau” at the N/BMFA runs till Aug. 31; open 10 a.m.-7 p.m. (Sat., Sun till 5 p.m.). ¥1,300. Closed Mon. www.nagoya-boston.or.jp/english/exhibition/schedule/millet-201404.html After Nagoya, the exhibition will travel to the Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum in Tokyo from Oct. 17 to Jan. 12, 2015.