Meet a Curator: Akili Tommasino

Museum Council

Akili Tommasino, associate curator, Modern and Contemporary Art, shares what he is most excited about at the MFA and how he envisions the collection’s future.

What have you been most excited about since joining the MFA?

I have been most excited about working at an eminent encyclopedic museum. Much of my career has been in modern and contemporary art institutions, so my return to the MFA a decade after my internship in the Art of Europe department marks my transition to a very different kind of museum, with distinct opportunities and challenges, ideals, priorities, and stakeholders.

I find it absolutely thrilling that I have daily access to ancient Egyptian statuary, Italian Renaissance paintings, and Impressionist masterpieces, as well as to colleagues that are experts in fields of art history vastly different from my own. I am inspired and exhilarated by the opportunity to present modern and contemporary art in the context of millennia of human creativity. Working within an intellectual community like the MFA provides me with expanded opportunities for sustained learning—and I’m happiest and most productive when I’m learning.

As someone who has always been involved in his community, how do you plan on bringing the MFA to wider audiences in Boston?

Sharing the power of art with diverse audiences and underserved communities is a crucial part of my vocation as a curator. I am especially committed to empowering young people to claim their stake in high culture. The summer of 2018 marked the second iteration of the Prep for Prep/Sotheby’s Summer Art Academy, a program I founded with the support of Sotheby’s to give New York City high school students of color an early window into the art world and to promote diversity in the field. I plan to continue to pursue opportunities for leadership in education and service here in Boston. This summer, I am looking forward to engaging with teens at the MFA by serving as a STEAM Team Mentor.

What does the future look like for modern and contemporary art at the MFA?

I am privileged to be part of a new team in the Contemporary Art department that is actively shaping its next chapter. We have a renewed focus on the collection, and aim to expand and refine it through strategic acquisitions. Future collection displays will reflect a more global and inclusive canon. We are also developing dynamic exhibitions that will have a long-term impact on the Museum and the community at large. I see a future that is more collaborative; we plan to make more explicit connections between contemporary art and the collecting areas represented by the MFA’s other curatorial departments. I am especially interested in the links between the protagonists of 20th-century artistic developments and the innovative artists of today.

What is your favorite object in the collection and why?

I have so many beloved works of art at the MFA, from ancient to modern and contemporary, that it would be impossible for me to settle on one favorite. However, every day since my arrival, I have been fascinated by an untitled 1930 gouache by American artist Aaron Douglas (1899–1979). During the height of the Harlem Renaissance, Douglas was a major proponent of philosopher Alain LeRoy Locke’s call for black artists to look to Africa for inspiration to develop a uniquely African American aesthetic. Douglas’s Untitled is an exquisitely compact modernist history painting. It depicts the passage of time from left to right: the Sphinx and pyramids of Giza symbolizing African heritage; ascending shackled silhouettes, one gazing back at the motherland, representing bondage in the Americas; and a trumpeter with broken shackles at the hopeful horizon of emancipation. Framed by flora on either side, the figures and architectural elements in this elegant composition are bathed in overlapping violet-grey concentric circles of light. This small but powerful painting is a stellar example of an important, though under-recognized, artist looking to the past while envisioning the future, which I think is an apt metaphor for my task as a curator of modern and contemporary art.