Time for tinkering at MFA’s new wing

Pieces fall into place prior to fall opening

By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff / July 4, 2010

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They stood for 30 seconds gazing at the bowl. Silently, the museum director walked back a few steps to eyeball the object from a different perspective. The curator took three steps to the left. In another place, they could have been a couple of interior decorators trying to figure out where to put a client’s couch.

“The only thing is it might be a little tight behind there,’’ Malcolm Rogers, the director of the Museum of Fine Arts, finally said out loud, referring to the distance between a display case holding the silver “Sons of Liberty Bowl’’ and a prized painting on a wall facing it.

Rogers pointed to a hole the size of a quarter that had been cut into the light oak floor. Could the case be moved 6 inches forward to cover the spot? No problem, he was told.

Such scenes as this one, taking place last week, have been familiar at the MFA, where staff are readying the new $504 million Art of the Americas wing in anticipation of a November opening.

The piece in question is not just any bowl. Paul Revere crafted the silver “Sons of Liberty Bowl’’ in 1768 to honor members of the Massachusetts House of Representatives who stood up to British rule and resisted laws passed to tax the Colonists. The attempts eventually led to the revolt known as the Boston Tea Party.

“It may not be the most beautiful piece of American silver, but in terms of political importance it’s right up there with the Constitution,’’ said Gerald Ward, a senior curator of decorative arts and sculpture.

For weeks, the bowl has been kept in its case and covered by a bronze-colored plastic dust cover. That was removed last week, as museum workers hung a companion piece, a Paul Revere portrait painted by John Singleton Copley. The image, also created in 1768, shows the silversmith in his shirtsleeves, teapot in hand.

Revere’s great-grandsons gave the MFA the painting in 1930. The MFA bought the liberty bowl for $52,000 in 1949. For years, the two works sat in a narrower space in the museum’s Arts of Colonial Americas gallery. The new digs are better. The bowl and painting are in a primary spot that welcomes visitors off a main stairway into level one of the soon-to-open West Wing’s Colonial Boston gallery.

But the Reveres are not all that’s being installed in the wing. In all, 53 galleries cover more than 51,000 square feet of space, and as of last week, nearly 60 percent of the work had been installed. Later this month, some of the museum’s most famous works — John Singer Sargent’s portrait “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit,’’ Winslow Homer’s “Boys in the Pasture,’’ and Mary Cassatt’s “Tea’’ — will be hung.

Is there any concern that the museum won’t be ready to open its new wing by November? None, said Tsugumi Maki Joiner, manager of gallery planning and installation.

“We never miss our deadlines,’’ said Joiner. “And we’ve been planning this for so long.’’

Rogers also said he expects to open on time.

“I have never been worried,’’ he said.

That doesn’t mean the process has always gone smoothly.

The museum staff originally planned on starting the gallery installations in the late fall of 2009. Construction delays forced staffers to wait until February to hang the first work, Thomas Sully’s massive 19th-century masterpiece “The Passage of the Delaware.’’ That job alone took 11 days.

The Colonial Boston gallery, which is next to the Arts of the New Nation, 1815-1830 gallery housing the Sully, was largely put together in a fraction of that time.

“I went away for a day and virtually all of the paintings were up,’’ said Rogers.

Next, came the tinkering. After considering the way the “Sons of Liberty Bowl’’ and Revere portrait would be displayed, curators decided the gallery was too cluttered. They removed an antique period chair and a pair of 7-foot glass cases that were meant to show off the objects.

Even so, curators, designers, and Rogers discussed a proposal to place the bowl outside the gallery as a kind of gateway. That was nixed because museum officials decided it should be near the portrait. Other ideas were attempted. The museum’s head designer, Keith Crippen, wanted to draw more attention to the Revere portrait. He came up with a reddish-colored felt to serve as wallpaper behind it. Then he rejected that idea after determining the portrait stood out on its own. Last week, with most of the gallery hung, Rogers and Elliot Bostwick Davis, chair of the Art of the Americas Department, talked of potentially putting an antique clock in the room.

Outsiders might find it laughable that the director of a museum with a $91 million a year operating budget would be spending his time fussing with how many inches to the left to place an object. Not Rogers.

“I have to have a little bit of fun,’’ he said. “This is the biggest museum project of my museum career. I’ve put together a wonderful team. And it would be denying me a lot of pleasure if I didn’t have time to work with that team.’’

Over the last few years, Crippen has been gathering swatches of fabric and wallpaper to test on floors. He has tried out light bulbs to find the right hue for the galleries. He paints boards and hold them up near paintings. The Newport Gallery was ordered repainted after Crippen decided the color was too green.

“It’s very much like how I might talk with my wife about picking a paint color,’’ said Crippen. “Do you want it to be bright and sunny or more like a study?’’

Every morning at 8 a.m., without fail, Joiner leads a planning meeting with as many as two dozen staffers and crew members. At 2 p.m., a smaller group meets for a progress report. At those moments, the schedule often shifts. If one section of a gallery isn’t ready, Joiner will move the action to another space.

Usually, Rogers walks through in the early morning or late afternoon, which can lead to a tinkering moment the following day.

Last week, such a walk led to Rogers and Davis focusing on a gold eagle — formerly a decoration on a building — placed in the Arts of Colonial Americas Gallery.

Seeing it installed next to the Sully, Rogers first decided it belongs in another place. Museum crew were called in and the eagle moved. Eventually, Rogers and Davis determined it wasn’t the placement of the eagle but the fact the eagle had been mounted too high on the case. They had a metal bar on which it was installed lowered by 18 inches.

“It looks like a small amount but in a space like this, that can be a lot,’’ said Davis.

After the lowering, Rogers gave his approval.

Davis said that although there is a deadline, this is the time for moving.

“I’m always for trying,’’ she said. “Now’s the time, when we’ve got the workers. Try it. We can always redo.’’

Geoff Edgers can be reached at