A heritage to share

MFA's Davis brings a passion for American art to the museum's new wing

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By Laura Collins-Hughes
Globe Staff / November 7, 2010

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To amble through the Museum of Fine Arts’ soon-to-open Art of the Americas Wing with Elliot Bostwick Davis is to glimpse the meticulously cataloged contents of her mind.

Stop to gaze at a Tiffany window in which green and yellow birds cluster around a fishbowl, and she may mention, as background, the extinction of the Carolina parakeet. Before a lavish display of Colonial-era goods, she might make the connection between love of imported luxury items and the Colonists’ ire over taxation without representation.

Davis, the chair of the MFA’s Art of the Americas department, can tell you which donor of which pieces first encountered the museum decades ago as a student at which local college, which objects from west Mexico came from an anonymous collector who knew the MFA needed help in that area, and which segment of the department’s holdings — Spanish Colonial — is proving a challenge to build due to provenance issues.

But evident amid all of Davis’s intellectual and institutional familiarity with the collection is an undimmed passion for art itself, the sort of enthusiasm that’s often quashed by prolonged academic study. The reason hers endures is simple, she explained recently.

“Well,’’ she said, pausing in a lower-level gallery, “I did have a lucky break.’’

By which Davis, 48 and impeccably gracious, meant that she was born into art. Growing up in New York, the daughter and granddaughter of artists, it was her milieu — not least the works by Degas, Rembrandt, Monet, Cassatt, Goya, and other masters that were among the thousands of pieces acquired by her great-great-grandmother Louisine Waldron Havemeyer, and given after her death in 1929 to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They form the Met’s H.O. Havemeyer Collection, named for Louisine’s husband, a sugar magnate.

During childhood summers in Vermont, Davis was steeped in American folk art at the Shelburne Museum, which her great-grandmother Electra Havemeyer Webb founded in 1947 to house her own collection. Webb’s husband, as it happened, was a Vanderbilt heir, so Davis is part Vanderbilt as well.

“Museums are in the blood of her family,’’ said Malcolm Rogers, the MFA’s director. “She has a real vision and also, I would say, a sense almost of moral responsibility to tell the tale of American art.’’

In January 2001, Rogers brought Davis to Boston from the Met, where she was an assistant curator in the department of American paintings and sculpture, to head the Art of the Americas department. His lure was the new wing he planned to construct, which would include work from North, Central, and South America.

The initial mention of the wing, which opens to the public Nov. 20, left Davis “sort of dumbstruck,’’ she said. As a doctoral student at Columbia University, where she earned her degree in 1992, she had detected disappointment among some of her professors when she switched her dissertation topic from European art, which had been the focus of her studies, to American art. American art, she said, was seen as lower in the hierarchy and “not as rigorous.’’

So the MFA’s determination to devote such resources not just to American art but, even more unusual, the art of the Americas was enticement enough for Davis to relocate here with her husband, John Paolella, and their two boys, now 13 and 16.

The couple, who met as undergraduates at Princeton University, already knew the area. They had lived in Cambridge from 1987-90, when Paolella was studying at Harvard Law School. Davis became a teaching assistant at Harvard then, leading classes in the Fogg Museum. Some of her students, who came from all different majors, had never been in an art museum before.

“It’s so exciting to be able to take someone for the first time and be able to be looking at a Rembrandt,’’ said Davis, who is lean and compact, a grown-up version of the Princeton squash player she once was. “Those classes taught me so much.’’

The lessons she learned there and at the Met, where she used to spend Friday nights leading groups through the museum — and where, she noted, she was hired by someone who knew nothing of her family — inform her quest even now: How to bring art to the uninitiated and make it meaningful?

At the MFA, Davis’s job has two main strands, one of which is encouraging philanthropy among collectors who are inclined to think about the public good — a crucial aspect of building the collection, given the museum’s limited purchase funds. Since she arrived, the department has acquired more than 3,000 objects (1,500, she said, are coins).

The other part of her job, Davis said, is “to help people see, in a very basic way.’’ In the new Art of the Americas Wing, the displays will aim to engage visitors with widely varying levels of understanding. “Before you can start talking about labels or who these artists are, you actually have to get people engaged in the looking,’’ she said.

David Freedberg, an art history professor at Columbia who was one of Davis’s dissertation advisers, said she has long been concerned with “this notion that art matters to the wider public.’’

“She’s always been interested not only in the education of the artist but in the role that art plays in society,’’ said Freedberg, who called Davis “immensely capable’’ and “a very wide-ranging thinker.’’

George Goldner, chairman of the Met’s department of drawings and prints, where Davis was an assistant curator for seven years, said she probably had “a certain comfort in dealing with art’’ as a result of having been brought up with it, ensuring that she would avoid what he called the “needless intimidation’’ art elicits in many people.

Indeed, she first participated in an auction as a preschooler in the mid-1960s, when her artist mother took her to a fine-art auction house on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The object of her desire? A dollhouse. And was hers the winning bid? “Yes! We got it,’’ she said, lighting up with triumph more than four decades later.

“I think I was a formidable person to bid against at age 4,’’ she added. “I think nobody wanted to disappoint a little girl.’’

Davis’s mother died of a stroke not long afterward, and the little girl became close to her maternal grandparents. Her grandmother was an artist who had been close to her own grandmother, Louisine Havemeyer. That dynamic “condensed those generations a little bit’’ for Davis, making her feel connected to ancestors she had never known.

Art took hold. The summer she was 15, she talked her surgeon father into letting her and her 13-year-old sister take life drawing classes at New York’s famed Art Students League, where her mother had been a printmaker. In Davis’s senior year at the Groton School, she designed and made a mahogany lowboy, complete with dovetails and hand-carving, which she still has at home in Dedham.

Even so, it was in her father’s professional footsteps that she thought she would follow. She was a pre-med art history major at Princeton when, during her sophomore year, her grandmother died of a stroke. Badly rattled, Davis realized that her heart was more in art than in science, and she changed paths.

That path now winds through the art of the Western Hemisphere, whose breadth she has spent nearly a decade trying to express in the MFA’s collection. “I’ve been more or less singularly focused on this project since I arrived,’’ she said, and she hopes visitors will feel the excitement she feels about the works arrayed in the new wing.

In all of that, the link between what her art-collector forebears did and what she does at the MFA is clear to Davis.

When Louisine Havemeyer died, she left some notes for her son and daughters. “Children,’’ she wrote, “Remember how blessed you are, and, if opportunity ever offers, equalize the sum of human happiness, and spread the sunshine you have inherited.’’

So when Davis heard Rogers describe the wing he would build, she said, she decided this was her chance to take that advice.

Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at