By Geoff Edgers
Eleven years ago, the Museum of Fine Arts gave Herb Ritts his first museum show, drawing crowds and controversy by displaying more than 230 works featuring the celebrity photographer's favorite subjects: semiclad models and movie stars. Today, the late photographer's foundation created a more permanent bond with the MFA.
The Herb Ritts Foundation announced it will give the museum $2.5 million, and in return the MFA will create a gallery named for the photographer. The foundation will also give the MFA 189 of the artist's photographs, making the museum the largest holder of Ritts's work.
The Herb Ritts Gallery for Photography, the first in MFA history to be exclusively dedicated to photography, is to be part of the museum’s new wing, set to open late in 2010.
"When we did the exhibition, it was a critical point in Herb Ritts's career, and it was an important moment for the museum as well," said MFA director Malcolm Rogers today. "The museum was making a major statement about accessibility, about what we thought was art, and what we thought were the preoccupations of a younger generation in America, and Ritts was just a wonderful vehicle to make that statement."
The Ritts show drew just over 250,000 visitors; it remains one of the 10 best attended shows in MFA history. The exhibition also marked the first of several high-profile shows — including those displaying clothing designer Ralph Lauren's automobiles and collector William Koch's "America’s Cup" sailboats — that have made Rogers a controversial figure in the art world. Critics have said he’s too willing to cater to celebrity culture, while supporters point to Rogers's ability to attract new audiences and new donors. With the Ritts Foundation gift, the MFA has now raised $363 million of its $500 million campaign goal for its expansion project.
Boston gallery owner Bernard Toale, who criticized the Ritts exhibition in 1996, praised the foundation for its donation.
"I don’t know another museum that has named a gallery after an artist," said Toale. "It seems unusual to me. Is it bad? Bottom line, they’ve got a great new endowed gallery. That's excellent for the town."
The MFA has about 5,000 works in its photography collection, which was started in 1924 with a gift of 27 photographs from Alfred Stieglitz. The photos donated by the Ritts Foundation were all featured in the MFA show.
The Ritts Foundation, established in 2003 just after the photographer’s death at the age of 50, has typically donated to
AIDS-related causes. For example, a print featuring five 1980s supermodels, "Stephanie, Cindy, Christy, Tatjana, Naomi, Hollywood 1989," was auctioned off in February at Elton John's Oscar party for $190,000, with the proceeds going to an AIDS charity. The MFA has a print of this image, given to the museum by Ritts along with 44 other works in 2000.
The new MFA gift is the largest ever by the foundation, according to foundation executive director Mark McKenna.
He said he was pleased with the MFA’s commitment to photography and praised Rogers for working hard to maintain his relationship with the Ritts family. Rogers has remained friendly with Ritts's mother, Shirley, taking her to dinner on occasion when he's in Los Angeles, Rogers and McKenna said. Shirley Ritts gave her blessing to the gift, McKenna said.
"I see the building blocks of what they're going to be doing with photography and where they want to take it. That's great," said McKenna. "But Malcolm, in his relationship that he created with Herb, with his mother, that was a big part of this."
Geoff Edgers can be reached at email@example.com. For more on the arts go
to boston.com/ae/ theater_arts/ exhibitionist.
04. Stephanie, Cindy, Christy, Tatjana, Naomi, Hollywood, 1989
Herb Ritts (American, 1952–2002)
Photograph, gelatin silver print
*Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of Herb Ritts
*© Herb Ritts Foundation
*Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston