Boston Museum of Fine Arts Director Malcolm Rogers looks back at a unique museum partnership between Japan and the US.

By Sarah Custen

Last weekend, the Nagoya/Boston Museum of Fine Arts celebrated the 15th anniversary of an unprecedented international partnership with the Boston Museum of Fine Arts by premiering Millet, Barbizon, and Fontainebleau, a highlight of mid-19th century French painting. Boston MFA Director Malcolm Rogers helped mark the occasion, in one of his last official visits to Japan. After a 20-year run as director—the longest-serving director in the MFA’s 144-year history—he’s announced his retirement this year, though the N/BMFA project will continue on, for at least another 5 years. In an interview with Tokyo Weekender, he described how this unique, expansive project has had an impact not only on Nagoya, but all of Japan—including Tokyo—and the world.

The N/BMFA is America’s first and only sister museum program in Asia. Since its opening, when a 20-year partnership (1999–2019) was launched, the N/BMFA has welcomed more than 4 million visitors and presented close to 40 major exhibitions featuring about 4,000 different works from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts collection. It is, in Mr. Rogers’s words, a “museum without a collection,” depending solely on works curated and preserved by the Boston MFA. This symbiotic relationship allows Boston, which lends to Nagoya for a fee, to conserve pieces from storage to tour Japan and the world. “Lots of things have been brought to life,” Rogers said. “Without the partnership, we couldn’t have done it.”

“Since the earthquake, Japan does seem to be infused with a new seriousness. It’s made everyone much more conscious of the fragility of society and human life … [Millet is] probably right for this moment.”

It’s also added an international perspective to Japan’s art collections. Exhibitions from the Boston MFA have “brought cultures to Nagoya that perhaps historically Japan has not been very familiar with,” said Rogers, including Greek, Roman, Egyptian and American works of art. “That was always part of the agreement from the very beginning,” emphasized Rogers. “We would bring the richness and diversity of a major encyclopedic museum to Nagoya, not just what everybody was used to seeing. Innovation was a big part of it.”

The Millet show, however, is more of a crowd pleaser, though people are not as familiar with his work as with that of Monet or Renoir, for example. “It’s a completely different approach to painting,” said Rogers, one born of academic training, but combining the Impressionist style of painting from nature.

Malcom Rogers stands next to Millet's "The Sower" © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Malcom Rogers stands next to Millet’s “The Sower” © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The exhibition, which will come to the Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum in Tokyo on October 17, also marks the 200th anniversary of Jean-François Millet’s birth and features a key group of his works, including two icons: The Sower and Young Shepherdess. “They’re both quite monumental canvases,” said Rogers, who described the pieces as somber, serious, and speaking to “the dignity of labor and the integrity of the simple country life.”

“Since the earthquake,” he continued, “Japan does seem to be infused with a new seriousness. It’s made everyone much more conscious of the fragility of society and human life.” Millet, a very serious artist, captures this feeling in a tone that’s totally different from the Impressionists. “So he’s probably right for this moment.”

And looking forward, the N/BMFA will continue to offer exhibitions through 2019, and hopefully beyond, as the project grows and enables Boston to reach out to even more people. “This is our ‘springboard’ in the Far East,” Rogers said—one that has allowed the project to tour works to China, Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and Europe, as well. Once an exhibition is set, it can travel anywhere, including “under-served” areas in America. “So America way beyond Boston is benefitting from this international initiative,” he added.

This is something that’s mattered enormously to Rogers during his time as MFA Director. “A great museum like ours has a much more important global mission to share its treasures with the world,” he said. “So what started out as just one relationship [with Nagoya] has changed my view of the transformative nature of what a museum like ours can do around the world.”

Other projects that will be coming to Tokyo this year courtesy of N/BMFA include:

“Looking East: Western Artists and the Allure of Japan, 1854-1925”
Setagaya Art Museum (June 28 – September 15, 2014)
Looking East highlights a selection of the MFA’s famous ukiyo-e prints and decorative arts, paired with paintings and prints of Mary Cassatt, Edgar Degas, Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet and Edvard Munch. Most notably, Monet’s painting of his wife Camille in Japanese clothing, “A la Japonaise,” a painting that hasn’t been to Japan for decades, has been restored especially for this exhibition.

Ueno Royal Museum (September 13 – November 9, 2014)
The third in a series of exhibitions showcasing the MFA’s newly organized and catalogued Japanese print collectinon, Hokusai features ukiyo-e prints and focuses on the work of Katsushika Hokusai, one of the first Japanese artist to gain a foothold in the West. Opening later this month in Kobe, this exhibition has already received nearly 100,000 visitors in Nagoya.

Main Image: Harvesters Resting (Ruth and Boaz) Jean-François Millet, 1850–53, Oil on canvas. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston