Brilliant Beginnings: The Athenaeum and the Museum in Boston

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On March 10, 1870, the trustees of the newly incorporated Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, met for the first time. Boston’s first art museum had no building, no collection, and very little in the way of financial resources. Where would the museum be? How would it be organized and staffed? Who would pay the bills? What was its 

purpose? Who would it serve?


Organized by Hina Hirayama, the Boston Athenæum’s associate curator of paintings & sculpture, the exhibition “Brilliant Beginnings: The Athenæum and the Museum in Boston” explores what happened next. The exhibition, on view at the Athenæum’s Norma Jean Calderwood Gallery February 13 through August 3, 2013, celebrates the exceptionally close collaboration between the fledgling Museum of Fine Arts and the Boston Athenaeum, which itself had collected and exhibited art since 1827.  


With some 70 objects, including paintings, sculptures, watercolors, drawings, photographs, decorative arts, and documents, the show outlines how the Athenæum was a generous lender and friend, indulgent temporary landlord, mentor, and senior patron during critical years when the MFA’s very survival was sometimes in question. This historic partnership, Hirayama explains, was “exceptional in its intensity, intimacy, and informality.” It was also deeply important to both the success of the MFA and the development of American art museums. Yet its story has never fully been told before.



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