The McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College, which has offered nationally and internationally recognized exhibitions for more than two decades, debuts a world-class space at 2101 Commonwealth Avenue in September, joining the ranks of the country’s finest university museum facilities. Longtime director and professor of art history Nancy Netzer discusses the Museum’s trajectory, its new, state-of-the-art venue and its unprecedented inaugural exhibition Beyond Words.

Nancy Netzer
McMullen Museum Director Nancy Netzer (Gary Wayne Gilbert)

Q: The McMullen Museum has been an important cultural resource for more than two decades. How would you describe its contributions?

Netzer: Since 1993, the McMullen has presented more than 60 large-scale loan exhibitions and produced scholarly catalogues to accompany most of them. We have welcomed nearly a million visitors from around the world and are pleased to have provided exhibitions and public programs rivaling those in much larger museums, free of charge to the public. Moreover, our exhibitions have engaged in new research, often breaking boundaries among disciplines, in a manner that has altered the course for future scholarship in various fields.      
Q: How will this new venue enhance the McMullen's educational mission?

Netzer: The new facility provides more space for exhibitions with state-of-the-art security, climate control, and flexible LED lighting. A loading dock, freight-size elevator, and storage facilities enhance the ability and ease of moving large, fragile, and heavy works of art around the building. The first floor of the building also offers space to display Old Master Paintings from the Museum’s permanent collection in an especially sympathetic neo-Renaissance setting. All of these improvements—along with increased space for student participation, including a seminar room and other teaching spaces for small groups—will allow Boston College to enhance its educational offerings in the field of museum studies and to play a larger role in training the next generation of museum professionals. Indeed, the McMullen will be welcoming its inaugural class of twenty-six Museum Ambassadors, each of whom will work at the McMullen this year at least six hours a week.  

Q: The new venue is a spectacular blending of classic and modern architecture. How was the design determined?

Netzer: I like to say that we believe we got the best solution to the problem posed by an important existing building. We wanted to pay homage to the Roman Renaissance aesthetic and the superb craftsmanship that went into the building designed by Maginnis and Walsh and at the same time we aimed to build a state-of-the-art exhibition space that would serve the needs of our students, faculty and would be welcoming to the community. Our goal was to preserve the building’s exterior and to maintain its balance and elegance with the addition added to house essential non-exhibition functions for the Museum. On the interior we sought to make the transition between the old and the new as sympathetic as possible.  

Q: Would you say the design of the Museum plays a role in complementing the McMullen's exhibition program?

With this new building, the McMullen joins the ranks of this country’s finest university museum facilities. The planning process was complicated and the architects’ drawings went through much iteration. It involved a delicate balancing act between the limitations imposed by an existing historical building and the needs of a university museum whose lifeblood is organizing large temporary exhibitions. We opted for large galleries with maximum flexibility enabling display of a vast range of objects.

We gutted the second floor except for the bearing walls and raised the ceiling to twelve feet where we could. The walls and windows were sealed with a vapor barrier to maintain climate control. The galleries are fitted with a track system for moveable walls. The third floor, gutted as well, has a smaller gallery with moveable walls and a sculpture gallery with natural light.

A new addition on the west end of the building provides a dedicated, light-filled entrance for the Museum. Excavated beneath the new addition is a covered loading dock that will accommodate even large tractor-trailers and ease the movement of artworks in and out of the building. The top floor of the addition has a roof terrace so our visitors can enjoy the views of downtown Boston visible about five miles to the east.

The first floor of the building retains its original plan of grand reception rooms with marble floors and high windows and will be used as a University conference and reception facility, adding to the variety of visitors to the building and, we hope, aiding in the expansion of audiences for our exhibitions.  Its walls are hung with American and Italian Renaissance and Baroque paintings from our permanent collection and it includes a room dedicated to [American stained glass artist,1835–1910] John La Farge.  

Q: Talk a bit about the scope of Beyond Words, the inaugural exhibition in the new venue.

Netzer: The McMullen is pleased to present Beyond Words: Illuminated Manuscripts in Boston Collections in its Daley Family and Monan galleries. The Boston area is home to one of the most important ensembles of medieval and Renaissance illuminated manuscripts in North America. In large measure, however, these treasures, hidden on shelves, have been unknown to the public as well as to scholars. Beyond Words is the first exhibition to showcase highlights from nineteen local libraries and museums.

The exhibition is spread over three venues—in Cambridge, at Harvard University’s Houghton Library, and in Boston, at the McMullen and at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. At the McMullen, Part II of the exhibition—Manuscripts for Pleasure & Piety, made first and foremost for a lay audience—is the largest of the three, featuring more than 180 items including many richly illuminated books of hours. Among the numerous masterpieces on display at the McMullen are books painted by artists including Lippo Vanni, Jean Poyer, Jean Bourdichon, and Simon Bening; identifiable patrons and owners of the volumes include well-known  figures such as King Charles V of France and Medici Pope Clement VII.

In addition, Global Convergences, a temporary exhibition of eight recent paintings by Boston College Professor [of the Practice] of Art Andrew Tavarelli, is installed in the McMullen’s new atrium.

Q: How have longtime benefactor and namesake Jacqueline McMullen, and her late husband, John McMullen, shared in the vision for the Museum?

Netzer: John, who died in 2005, and Jacqueline McMullen have been the ideal benefactors for a university museum. Their interests lay in supporting new research spearheaded by our faculty and exploring new ways of sharing that research with students and the public through innovative exhibitions. They both were key champions of building an expanded, state-of-the-art facility for the museum at Boston College. Jacqueline worked closely with us on designing the new facility.  

Q: The McMullen has consistently won praise from visitors, as well as from national and international art critics, for its presentation of innovative—and often exclusive—exhibitions. What lies ahead?

Netzer: It's hard to say precisely because we want to remain nimble and open to new possibilities, but I can promise that the McMullen exhibition program will evolve to reflect new developments in the museum world and scholarship on art and material culture. We intend to take advantage of technological advances to strengthen our teaching mission and to bring our resources to as wide a global audience as possible. In the short run, in 2017, visitors can expect a groundbreaking retrospective on the work of Cuban-born artist Raphael Soriano curated by [BC faculty member] Elizabeth Goizueta and a dazzling exploration of Belgian Symbolist landscape painting, possibly the largest ever mounted, curated by [BC Professor of Art History] Jeffery Howe.

For more information about exhibitions and programming, visit the McMullen Museum of Art website.

—Rosanne Pellegrini | News & Public Affairs