- For Members
Fine Arts and Exhibitions
The art curators at the Boston Athenæum have the primary function and responsibility of overseeing an historic collection of art that includes paintings, sculpture, and decorative arts. Secondarily, the Director of Exhibitions, with the assistance of all the Athenaeum's curators and its Fine Arts and Exhibition Committee, plans and executes exhibitions of both historical and contemporary art in the Athenæum’s Norma Jean Calderwood Gallery.
During its early years, the Boston Athenæum became a center for the fine arts in Boston and, in fact, functioned as the city’s first museum of fine arts. As one historian has written of that period, "For almost fifty years following [the Athenæum’s] first art gallery exhibition in 1827, the trustees purchased paintings and sculpture, European and American, and fostered the production of works of art by exhibitions." By the time of the Civil War, the Athenæum had purchased or otherwise acquired a number of major paintings and sculptures by contemporary American artists. In addition, it had built an important collection of casts of antique sculptures and fine copies of Old Master paintings (as well as a few originals), making it a destination for artists and art lovers alike. At the same time, it was amassing a collection of American prints and photographs that spans the entire history of these mediums and is now one of the finest such collections in the country.
The Athenæum was instrumental in the founding of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts in 1870. The new museum actually held its earliest exhibitions in the Athenæum’s galleries before moving into its own building on Copley Square in 1876.
Today, many remarkable works of art can be seen in the Athenæum’s Beacon Street building. These include busts of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and the Marquis de Lafayette by the French master Jean-Antoine Houdon; portraits of John Adams by Mather Brown and Gilbert Stuart; John Singer Sargent's portraits of Annie Adams Fields and George McCulloch; exquisite pastels by John Singleton Copley; Thomas Sully’s grand-manner portrait of Thomas Handasyd Perkins, one of the Athenæum’s early benefactors; and similar portraits of Daniel Webster and John Marshall by Chester Harding.
The Athenæum continues to actively acquire works of art relevant to its history and existing collections by both gift and purchase. Thanks to the generosity of artists and their descendants, the Athenæum owns the largest collection of the work of nineteenth-century American painter Cephas Thompson and the largest public collection of paintings and watercolors by twentieth-century Boston artist Allan Rohan Crite. In the late twentieth century, the Athenæum purchased works by Asher B. Durand and Chester Harding and, more recently, acquired a portrait of painter Elizabeth Okie by her soon-to-be husband William M. Paxton, a landscape by twentieth-century painter Gifford Beal, and a group of plasters by the early American modernist sculptor Leo Friedlander. Today, the collection, which is overseen by two professional curators, contains nearly 500 paintings and sculptures, dozens of artifacts, a small group of decorative arts, and hundreds of pieces of historic ephemera.
Installations of the Athenæum’s permanent collection change annually and many masterworks from the ’s collection are available for public viewing in the Athenæum’s first floor rooms and galleries; members can enjoy other works from the collection throughout the building. A Recent Acquisitions Gallery, located on the first floor, features rotating installations of objects—paintings, sculptures, works-on-paper, books, maps, and manuscripts—that are new to the Athenaeum’s collections.
Access to the Athenæum’s collection and loans from it to other institutions follow standard museum guidelines as outlined in the policies of the Association of American Museums. Climate throughout the Athenæum’s facilities, including its exhibition galleries, is carefully regulated and monitored for the long-term preservation of its holdings; state-of-the-art security systems operate in all areas of the building.
Meet the Art Department Staff
Further reading about the Fine Art Collections
The Boston Athenæum’s art curators will answer basic questions about objects in the institution’s art collection and inquiries concerning the institution's past exhibitions. The staff does not perform basic biographical research on artists or conduct research on objects that are not in the Athenæum’s collection.
If you have a specific question about an object in the Athenæum’s art collection, please send an email to the appropriate address:
Why We Ask You Not to Touch
Since we experience the world through our senses, touching is as natural as looking. But it has unfortunate consequences for works of art.
No matter how clean your hands may be, human skin carries natural oils and acids that are harmful to works of art. Even a single touch can initiate permanent and irreversible chemical reactions that will darken paint, stain wood, plaster, and marble, damage fabric and leather, and corrode metal.
The works of art in the Boston Athenæum’s collection are unique, fragile, and irreplaceable. Please help us preserve these treasures for future generations. Do not touch the paintings or sculptures or lean on the walls, exhibition cases, or pedestals at the Athenæum.
We appreciate your cooperation and hope you enjoy your next visit to the Boston Athenæum.
- Only exhibition proposals from professional curators or museum staff are considered by the Boston Athenæum.
- Any other unsolicited exhibition proposals are not considered.
- The Boston Athenæum does not generally organize or host solo exhibitions of the work of living artists.