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A changing of the guard at art museums

Attention focused on new faces more than new places

The building boom that has dominated the world of art museums for at least a decade took second place to major personnel changes this year, at least in the Boston area.

Among the most significant: James Cuno, the much-admired director of the Harvard University Art Museums, left that post to head the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. He has been replaced by Thomas Lentz, who comes to Cambridge from the Smithsonian Institution but is no stranger to Harvard, where he earned his doctorate degree.

Jessica Morgan, the former curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art who left last year to become a curator at Tate Modern in London, was replaced this year by Nicholas Baume, who had been at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford.

Adam Weinberg left the directorship of the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy in Andover to head the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. The Whitney is generally regarded as the weakest of New York's major art museums, but Weinberg, who spent a good chunk of his career there, knows what he's getting into. The Addison hasn't found a replacement yet, but it's an alluring position, both because of the setting (a picture-postcard prep school campus) and the astonishingly rich collections.

There were important institutional milestones this year. The Egyptian department at the Museum of Fine Arts, the Busch-Reisinger at Harvard, and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum all celebrated centennials that reminded us of the area's rich cultural heritage.

That heritage was recycled in the intriguing old/new collaboration between the Society for the Protection of New England Antiquities and the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art that resulted in "Yankee Remix," in which important international artists created work based on the SPNEA's immense holdings. The area's historic importance as a leader in fine furniture is the subject of two current shows, "The Maker's Hand: American Studio Furniture 1940-1990" at the MFA and "Luxury and Innovation: Furniture Masterworks by John and Thomas Seymour" at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. Bravo to both institutions for tackling these shows. They're not the easiest type of exhibition to mount.

An innovative, multidisciplinary approach is redefining art exhibitions. Harvard's "Medardo Rosso: Second Impressions" is a case in point. A collaboration between curators, led by Harry Cooper and a conservation team headed by Henry Lie, it used connoisseurship and science to resurrect the reputation of the Italian sculptor of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Some artists are themselves expanding the definition of their field by exploring its connection with healing. This is what Richard Yarde did in his haunting "Ringshout" at the Worcester Art Museum. The huge watercolors on the walls and the gauzy "room" at the gallery's center made "Ringshout" as much a meditation space as a contemporary art installation.

With its $125 million building project completed this year, the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem is poised to go big-time. Given its holdings -- Chinese ceramics, ships' figureheads, Native American baskets, and painting and sculpture as well -- it's also set to create a model of a museum that has no artistic hierarchy, a place where a great painting doesn't automatically outrank a great piece of porcelain.

Brockton's Fuller Museum went in the other direction, narrowing its mission to craft. The Fuller needed a niche, and its geographical position between Providence and Boston, both major centers of artisanry, made this a logical move. The shift was overseen by Fuller director Jennifer Atkinson, who died this year at 42. For the art community as well as for her family and friends, her premature death was intensely saddening. The Fuller is in good hands, though: Gretchen Keyworth, a figure of national stature in the craft world, succeeded her.

The list of this year's serious Old Master shows is headed by "Rembrandt's Journey: Painter-Draftsman-Etcher" at the MFA, an exhibition that reflects curator Clifford Ackley's decades-long commitment to the field. The 17th-century Dutch artist also starred in "Bruegel to Rembrandt: Dutch and Flemish Drawings from the Maida and George Abrams Collection," at Harvard's Fogg Art Museum. Boston collections are particularly strong in Dutch art, as these two fine shows attest.

Now for the building progress report. The Peabody Essex is done. Both the landscape-sensitive design for remaking the Clark Art Institute in bucolic Williamstown and the plan to reorganize the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park in Lincoln look likely to happen: The two museums are among the region's most prosperous.

The ICA plans to break ground for its new waterfront facility by early next summer (and says last week's announcement that the Fan Pier parcel will be sold will not change those plans). The MFA is still in the "quiet phase" of its $425 million campaign for Phase One of its massive renovation and expansion.

As for Harvard, one factor in Cuno's leaving was the University's decision to call off a proposed new museum designed by Renzo Piano, a plan Cuno had spent five years working on. Eventually, Harvard may build a museum as part of the development of a new campus in Allston.

Meanwhile, there's a rumor in museum circles that Cuno is being tapped to replace James Wood, who is retiring next year after a quarter century of directing the Art Institute of Chicago. It seems unlikely, given that Cuno has barely settled into his London job. But if it happened, Cuno would get a Renzo Piano: The architect has designed a new wing for the Chicago museum.

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