You know how, when you’ve been away from home for a long time, everything looks different when you return? That’s sort of the experience one has upon seeing the revamp of the Museum of Fine Arts’ original 1965 galleries. Except it’s not your eyes deceiving you; the galleries, which reopened to the general public on Monday, really are different. Closed since the spring because of the pandemic, they’ve been rethought, reorganized, repainted and completely refreshed. Chances are a visitor’s own understanding of the collection — and of art history, for that matter — will be refreshed, too.
The MFA is an encyclopedic museum, meaning its collections cover the full range of art history — 5,000 years of it, from antiquities to the present moment. Now, beginning with a helpful display that explains what’s where, the progression through the centuries in the museum is much clearer. You could choose to proceed chronologically, or jump to your favorite period, or bounce from wonder to wonder — though I suggest you begin with the Roman funerary monument to a “beautiful and beloved wife” in the first of the Ancient Art rooms to your left. As Senior Curator of Early Western Art Michael Bennett, Ph.D. pointed out during a recent media tour, her stony stare is riveting.
You should also make a beeline to the brand new African room, a small but dynamic representation of the vast cultural richness of the continent, introduced to us on the day of the tour by the delightfully animated guest curator Genevieve Hill-Thomas, Ph.D. (The almost giddy enthusiasm of the curatorial staff was infectious; they seemed as thrilled as HGTV hosts at a Big Reveal.) And don’t miss the new “Jade Room,” a collection of jade, serpentine and obsidian works from Mesoamerica, including some extraordinary masks.
The changes might not all be readily apparent — they didn’t hang a helicopter from the ceiling of the Conservatory or anything (although they did add windows from the conservatory into the galleries, a lovely touch). But what’s exciting is that, with the rearrangement, the galleries are alive with new vistas and fresh juxtapositions. For instance, I love the view across centuries in the American galleries, from George Inness’s 19th-c. moonlit landscape to the distant glow of Leon Berkowitz’s 1970 “Big Blue.” New choices in paint colors and wall-coverings, all vetted by the curators, deepen and enhance the art in all of the galleries.
While most of these changes are subtle, there are some big surprises — probably the biggest being what’s hanging in the Great Hall. “Gathering at Church Entrance,” the panoramic snapshot of 19th-c. society by painter Richard Hall that used to greet visitors in this space, has been moved to a gallery farther on. In its place — well, I won’t spoil the surprise, except to say it’s spectacular, a recent purchase that holds the room and then some.
Also, don’t be surprised if you hear music. Thanks to a new program called Resonance, you may hear snippets of Vivaldi in the Baroque galleries, George Gershwin in the American Modernism rooms and perhaps even poetry, prose and the artists’ own thoughts.
If you’ve been spending the pandemic getting fat or binge-watching Schitt’s Creek or both, be humbled by the MFA staff. Led by the vision of Executive Director & CEO Kristen Shepherd, they spent their spring and summer engineering a makeover that is both illuminating and inviting, ensuring that the museum will remain a vibrant, treasured institution for decades to come.
Museum of Fine Arts, 255 Beach Dr. NE, St. Petersburg. Open Sunday, 12-5 p.m.; Tues.-Wed., 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thurs.-Fri., 12-8 p.m.; Sat., 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Closed Mondays. 727-896-2667, mfastpete.org. Timed-entry tickets must be purchased in advance online.
PS: If you go, do not miss the two shows on view through Nov. 29 in the museum’s special exhibition galleries in the Hazel Hough wing: Derrick Adams: Buoyant, a blast of summery cheer with a transformative mission, and the enthralling Copper, Silver, Salt, Ink: The Chemistry of Photography’s Enduring Desires.