The boiler is 100 years old and, like the museum’s roof, needs to be replaced. It is a frequent topic of conversation at the Danforth, which is 20 miles west of Boston. But French [Danforth museum director] has a way of making light of the issue and moving the conversation briskly along.

It’s obvious she prefers to talk about art, about the community her museum serves, and about her hopes for the future.

Those hopes will have something solid on which to pin themselves by the end of this month. That’s when a feasibility study examining two possible courses of action – renovate the current building, or move to a new one? – will be discussed by the Danforth Museum’s board.

Inaction, says French, is not an option. “We don’t have a choice. The boiler is about to go.” And it’s not just the boiler and the roof: The display spaces are rather cramped, circulation is eccentric, and the museum and school share the building with four other smaller organizations.

With only weeks remaining before the release of the study, you’d think French would be preoccupied by the question. But over a lunch in Somerville and discussions during two recent visits to the museum, French displayed remarkable equanimity about the museum’s future as a physical entity. It was only when the subject turned to art and artists that I sensed a certain agitation.

Museum directors tend to voice only hedged opinions about art. Their positions put them at risk of offending too many people. French, by contrast, is unusually forthright. She has opinions, she has passions, and she is excited to share them.

“I wouldn’t be doing what I do if I didn’t care about the art,” she says.

French, who is 55 and married with two daughters, 20 and 22, came to the Danforth from the Montserrat College of Art, where she was the gallery director, in January 2005. She is from a working-class family in Vermont, where she grew up with an understanding of art as a hands-on activity. “It was not something for an elite group,” she says.

She studied art and creative writing at the University of New Hampshire before moving to New York, where she made her own art (painting and printmaking, with a feminist approach, she says) while holding down a job as librarian at the Frick Art Reference Library.

Later, at Boston University, she worked as a program coordinator, slide librarian, and, finally, director of the university’s 808 and Sherman galleries. So she had plenty of contact with faculty members who were also artists. “I know how to deal with artists,” she says with a smile.

The local museums that have inspired French to dream big things for the Danforth are the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park in Lincoln, and Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art. She particularly admires the gumption and ambition of ICA director Jill Medvedow, the driving force behind the museum’s new waterfront building.

And yet, says French: “I’m not interested in doing what the ICA is doing.”

It’s a point she repeats more than once – not to criticize the ICA but rather to emphasize her own sense of the Danforth’s special mission.

The museum was founded in 1975 by a group of local educators, community activists, and art lovers committed to art with social and political content. French is continuing that tradition, but she also sees the Danforth as a place to show and collect American art – both historical and contemporary – that, for whatever reason, sits outside the “mainstream.”

From her days at Boston University, where she got to know many of the second generation of Boston Expressionists – artists who had studied under people like Hyman Bloom and Jack Levine – French developed a sharpened sense of what she calls “an alternative art history.”

Just as the Boston Expressionists tended to be written out of art history as styles of abstraction gained the ascendancy in postwar American art, French believes many artists operating outside the main centers of art today tend to be overlooked by museums with national and international aspirations such as the ICA.

She wants the Danforth to be a place where people can connect with this alternative art history.

The museum has a strong – and growing – collection of work by Boston Expressionists. French has also organized a steady run of shows by individual artists associated with the group. (Currently on view is a powerful survey of paintings by Jason Berger called “Directed Vision.”)

But French is also dedicated to showing work by younger artists with local connections, work that would not necessarily get a run in institutions like the ICA or the Museum of Fine Arts.

The current show, “A Love Supreme” by Huckaby, is a case in point. Huckaby is an African-American painter working in a realist vein. He studied at Yale University and Boston University and was recently awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship.

The works French has chosen to show are not, however, Huckaby’s relatively conventional portraits of family life, but a series of four enormous paintings of quilts, each one based on one of the seasons.

Previously, Huckaby has hung quilts made by his grandmother as backdrops to his painted portraits. In these works, he pushes them front and center, reproducing their mongrel patterns and arbitrary folds with a fidelity approaching trompe l’oeil.

The effect – one painting per wall – is enveloping, with an obvious antecedent in Monet’s late water-lily paintings. Not everything about them works: The panel devoted to spring, for instance, seems not “patchy” (which in this context would surely be a compliment) but sketchy; it suggests irresolution rather than the desired sense of “becoming.” But the bright and juicy summer panel is a knockout. And together, they attest to a level of ambition, skill, and personal involvement that feels rare in contemporary painting.

It is characteristic of French’s thoughtful programming at the Danforth that Huckaby’s show is complemented by a series of displays loosely linked across time. For example, a nearby gallery holds a display called “Story Quilts,” by the popular African-American artist Faith Ringgold (she will make a public appearance at the museum on Feb. 17).

Quilts and fabric have played a major role in Ringgold’s family history just as they have in Huckaby’s. Her great-great-grandmother was a slave who made quilts for her slave owners; her mother was a fashion designer who has collaborated on Ringgold’s work.

Ringgold herself started making “story quilts” – so-called because she inscribes text on the unstretched canvas and quilted fabric she uses – in the 1970s. On view here is a rarely seen story quilt called “Le Café des Artistes.” Ringgold depicts herself here in the company of artists and writers who hold personal significance for her, such as Romare Bearden, Paul Gauguin, Jacob Lawrence, and Meta Warrick Fuller.

Happily, Fuller, a member of the Harlem Renaissance, is the subjects of a solo exhibition in a neighboring room.

Fuller, who died in 1968, was a committed and talented sculptor who studied with Auguste Rodin at the turn of the century. She moved to Framingham after marrying Dr. Solomon Fuller, the first psychiatrist of African descent to practice in the United States.

The exhibition here, called “Work From the Studio,” is taken from the Danforth’s impressive holdings of Fuller’s work, donated by Fuller’s family in 2004. Along with an array of finished pieces, including several wonderfully sensitive head portraits, it displays several small maquettes, a fragile portrait head still in the original clay, and a selection of the artist’s tools.

Until last week, the museum also separately displayed the work of Lawrence, another a member of Harlem’s Renaissance. His series of prints “The Legend of John Brown” told the story of the radical abolitionist as a sequence of dramatic episodes. Another series, “Toussaint L’Ouverture,” chronicled the liberation of Haiti in 1804 under Toussaint L’Ouverture, the general who was born a slave.

The African-American focus in this recent roster of shows is not a permanent feature of the Danforth’s programming. But it dovetails with the social activist outlook that has been part of the museum’s mission since its founding.

The displays of Lawrence and Ringgold also reflect French’s interest in storytelling through art. Through most of the 20th century, “illustration” was a dirty word in the critical lexicon.

For French, who fervently believes in the link between images and storytelling, this is yet another example of certain kinds of art getting “written out” of mainstream histories because of fashionable biases.

Children look at books with pictures before books with words, she says. “But by the time kids read, art is no longer considered serious [as a focus of children’s education]. In our society, literacy is virtually compulsory, but visual literacy is ignored.”

Thus, an important feature of the Danforth Museum is a children’s gallery, established in 2005. (In another clever link, it is now showing original illustrations from Faith Ringgold’s “Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky.”)

The activities in this gallery are in turn linked to an ambitious education program run by the museum’s director of education, Pat Walker. (Walker has twice been named Museum Educator of the Year by the Massachusetts Art Education Association.) The Danforth Museum School offers more than 490 art classes to around 3,000 children and adults per year. Meanwhile, according to French, membership in the museum has more than doubled in the past two years to around 2,000.

And yet the museum has no endowment, and French has to raise her entire operating costs each year. Is this the right time, then, to be considering a major overhaul, or even a new building?

“You have to think big,” she says. “If you think it’s going to be impossible before you even start, you might as well not try.”

Sebastian Smee
Boston Globe

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