New Museum Wing Weaves Together History and Art

March 16, 2011 Leave a comment

By: Scott Flaherty

March 1, 2011

A lone fisherman, miles off the coast of New England, is rowing a small boat toward a larger ship.  Night is falling, and the stern of the rowboat is full with hundreds of pounds of freshly caught fish.  The boat’s bow points toward the sky as the fisherman propels himself over head-high swells.  The wind carries the sound of a distant horn.  He turns his bearded face and looks over his left shoulder.  He sees something that could prevent him from ever reaching the mother ship—a thick fog rolling in.

This is the scene depicted in Winslow Homer’s 1885 painting, “The Fog Warning,” now on display at the recently opened “Art of the Americas” wing at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

Last Monday, tour guide Christine Wasson passed on the story of Homer’s work to a group of 10 people in an afternoon walk-through of the new wing.  She said that in one image, Homer’s painting captures a much larger story of America’s maritime history and the lives of people who created that past.

In much the same way, the museum’s new wing is designed to weave a historical narrative around works of art from different periods in history.  In a welcome video on the museum’s website, the museum director, Malcolm Rogers, said, “One of the magical things about the museum is that you can come here and meet some of the great figures of American history.”

The museum has a history of its own.  It opened in 1876 in a building in Boston’s Copley Square, and moved to its current spot on Huntington Avenue in 1909.  According to its website, the museum is now one of the largest in the world, with nearly 450,000 works of art and more than a million visitors every year.

The Art of the Americas Wing opened in November of last year, after about 10 years of planning and with the help of $504 million raised.  A glassed-in courtyard, with 63-foot-high ceilings, connects the four floors of galleries in the new wing to galleries in the older parts of the museum.  The courtyard also contains the museum’s “New American Café,” which offers visitors sit-down meals.

The wing is set up so that each floor of galleries spans a specific time period.  On the tour, Wasson first took the group to the Mesoamerica gallery on the wing’s ground floor, which is dedicated to art created before the 17th century.  The first piece she showed was a gray mask made by the Olmecs, of present-day Mexico, carved in jadeite stone and dated somewhere between 1150 and 550 B.C.

From there, the tour moved to the Native American gallery, also on the ground floor.  Unlike most of the galleries in the new wing, this room broke from the chronological arrangement and had works of art, mostly textiles and pottery, spanning several thousand years.

Before the new wing came in, Wasson said, the museum’s Native American collection was relegated to one case, maybe ten feet wide.

“There was one little case in a back hall near an elevator,” she said, after the tour ended.

Now, she said, “The museum is making a very concerted effort to expand this gallery.”

For Wasson, this ties in with one of the most exciting parts of having the new wing—there’s much more space.  Before, she explained, all of the American art was contained in one gallery, although it was one of the larger ones in the museum.  By way of comparison, the new wing has 53 galleries, meaning that much of the art that used to be stuck in off-site storage can now be hung on the walls and appreciated by visitors.

And visitors are taking advantage of it, in droves.  Wasson said that she and the other guides give up to four tours each day of the new wing and, on the weekends, she’s had groups with as many as 30 people.  Then, there are also people who browse the galleries on their own.

“It’s been wild,” Wasson said.  “Thousands of people come through.”

Marcia Patten, who works at an art museum in Worcester, Mass., came through Monday afternoon.  The tour with Wasson was her first visit to the new wing and Patten said she was impressed with the sheer amount of artwork on display.

She explained that the Worcester museum has been sending the students in its docent program to Boston to view the new wing.  But, almost all of them are going to have to come back, she said.

“There’s just so much to see.”

The tour group saw only a fraction of the more than 5,000 works in the new wing.  In about an hour, Wasson led the group to about a dozen galleries, usually focusing her explanations on one piece of art in each.

On level one, she showed the visitors a gallery dedicated to the work of John Singleton Copley, who was, according to Wasson, one of the most sought-after portrait painters in Boston.  This gallery has the famed portrait of Paul Revere sitting at his silversmith’s table, holding a teapot in one hand and resting his chin on the other.  The painting was displayed near a glass case with one of Revere’s most famous silver works, the “Sons of Liberty Bowl,” a simple work inscribed with the names of 13 of the Sons of Liberty, commemorating their activities in the run up to the American Revolution.

The tour concluded on level two of the new wing, dedicated to 19th and early-20th century art.  The last stop was Winslow Homer’s “The Fog Warning.”  Before the new wing opened, Wasson said, there were only a few of Homer’s paintings on display.

Now, visitors can walk around the Homer gallery and read about the changes he underwent throughout his career.  They can see his early landscapes and water colors, and the work he did later on, when he lived in Maine.

But, they’ll still never know if the fisherman made it through the fog.

Categories: Features

Changing Boston’s Schools from Within

March 16, 2011 Leave a comment

By: Scott Flaherty

February 22, 2011

In his freshman year of college, Scott Given learned a lesson he still carries with him.

He was in an education class at Dartmouth College when he first realized that his experiences in public schools, the opportunities he had growing up, were not the norm.

“It was eye-opening and mind-boggling at the same time to see the inequities.”

He was learning that schools in the poorest parts of America’s cities were much different from those in his hometown of Reading, Mass., a middle-class suburb of Boston.  Without a say, and without doing anything wrong, many of the kids in those city schools ended up on paths that never led them anywhere near the college classroom where Given was sitting.

During that class, Given said, a passion began stirring in him: “I wanted to use my good fortune to equal the playing field.”

That’s what Given, now 30, is trying to do as CEO of Unlocking Potential, a non-profit he started early last year.  The organization, according to its website, aims to turn struggling city schools into “extraordinary, high-performing, sustainable schools.”

Last Friday, at a coffee shop near Unlocking Potential’s office in Boston, Given said the organization’s first task is to create a charter school that will replace South Boston’s Gavin Middle School.  Gavin is one of nine schools that Boston’s superintendent, Carol R. Johnson, has slated to close after this year as part of the school system’s “Redesign and Reinvest” plan.

Under the plan, Given’s organization will renovate the Gavin building, hire a new team of teachers and administrators, and reopen in the fall as a charter school called UP Academy.  (“UP” stands for Unlocking Potential.)  All the students at Gavin will be guaranteed a spot in the charter school.

The model—an outside organization taking over an existing district school—has never been tried in Massachusetts and presents a host of challenges, according to Given.  Some of these are purely logistical.  Since the superintendent’s plan wasn’t officially approved until early December of last year, Given and the rest of his team have a short time to hire the 60 teachers and administrators to run UP Academy.

Given started Unlocking Potential after he finished a graduate degree at Harvard Business School.  Before that, though, he worked in charter schools in Boston, first as a teacher and then as a principal.

In 2003, Given took a job as a high school history teacher at Boston Collegiate Charter School in Dorchester.  Teaching was hard at first, he said, because his instinct was to create friendships with students instead of a more distanced, student-teacher relationship.

He planned to stay as a teacher at Boston Collegiate for several years but, in the spring of 2005, the executive director at Excel Academy in East Boston asked if he’d take over as principal there.  Excel was in tough shape—students were doing poorly in class and causing havoc in the hallways, and the former principal had left in the middle of the school year.  If teaching was “hard,” Given said, his first year as principal was “overwhelming.”

He explained that, as principal, he had to manage three groups: students, parents and teachers.  The first two presented their own challenges, but managing teachers, especially because he was only 24 when he started, was “really hard.”  After his first year there, 80 percent of the teachers left, but by his third year, the teachers had come around and the school’s students went from being among the lowest to among the highest achieving in the state.

Debra Cave, who lives in East Boston, sits on Excel Academy’s board of trustees.  She said she was skeptical when she first heard Given was taking over as principal.  “I said, ‘Well, how old is he?’”

But then, the two met in South Boston and went for a walk around Castle Island.  “By the time we were done walking, I was convinced,” she said.  “He was meant to be in that position.”

Given is just over six feet tall with short, dark hair and “contagious in terms of his enthusiasm,” according to Cave.  He has the rare ability to command respect from kids while still relating to them and built a “wonderful rapport with parents” in his time at Excel, she said.

When Given left Excel for business school, Cave said, she wasn’t sure he’d continue working in education.

But it was always Given’s plan to come back to education, though when he came back, he’d work for changes on a larger scale.  “I wanted to expand my ability to impact student achievement beyond the walls of one charter school,” he said, which is how Unlocking Potential got its start.

Last Friday, Given wore a black collared shirt with a white and red “Unlocking Potential” logo on the chest and didn’t seem comfortable talking about anything other than the plans for UP Academy.  He admitted that he roots for Boston’s sports teams, and tries to eat at a good restaurant once in awhile.  He sees his family when he can and, since he grew up nearby, in Reading, Mass., he has a group of friends who still live in the area.  He also has another “close-knit” group of friends who work in education.  He said they don’t always talk about school reform.

These days, though, it’s been hard for him to do much outside of work, or to think about anything else.  Given’s days start at 7:30 a.m. and don’t end until 10:30 p.m. or so.  Things, he said, are “intense.”

In the future, he said, Unlocking Potential would like to work in other schools and other cities.  But, in the intensity of finding private donors, continuing to improve the organization at Unlocking Potential, and “navigating the political climate” in Boston’s education world, Given hasn’t had time to figure out exactly what his organization will look like after next year.

For now, Given and his team are focusing on doing things right with UP Academy and, he said, all the long hours will be worth it once the school opens in the fall.

The way Given sees it, “The bigger the challenge, the bigger the impact.”

Categories: Features

Experts and Students Debate Corporate Spending in Political Campaigns

November 16, 2010 Leave a comment

By: Scott Flaherty

November 11, 2010

Boston, Mass. – Two teams of experts and students squared off in a debate last night at Boston University, with one side arguing that corporate spending increases engagement in the political process, while the other warned that it could lead politicians to govern under corporate influence.

The 28th Great Debate, held at Boston University’s Tsai Performance Center, was sponsored by the university’s College of Communication and focused on the question: “Does the infusion of corporate money into political campaigns threaten the integrity of the American Political System?”

Thomas E. Mann, a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, argued against allowing corporate spending in political campaigns, saying that corporations already had enough say in politics through indirect means, such as contributions made by individual executives, donations to political action committees, or the funding of issue ads.

Mann’s concern, he said, is “politicians, fearful of a corporate, independent campaign against them, becoming even less independent and more solicitous of corporate interests.”

Allison R. Hayward, the lead speaker for the opposing side, said the real threat to America’s political system is a lack of engagement and said allowing more spending can increase voter participation.

“The real threat to the integrity in our elections comes from aiming of the rules by incumbents in Congress,” said Hayward, adding that campaign finance laws may be driven by political motivations rather than actual need for regulation.  Hayward serves as vice president of policy at the Center for Competitive Politics.

The debate has been moderated by Bob Zelnick, a professor of journalism at Boston University, since 1999.  In his welcome to the crowd, Zelnick noted the timeliness of the topic, with the midterm elections taking place last week, and January’s Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, striking down the rules prohibiting corporate political spending.

Graham Wilson, a professor of political science at Boston University, argued alongside Mann, saying that corporations don’t qualify as regular citizens because they can’t volunteer for the armed forces or go to prison.

Wilson said he thought it was nearly impossible for politicians to ask for money from corporations during a campaign and not expect to be under corporate influence when it comes time to govern.

He also said he’d rather see corporations pay for informed television debates instead of negative attack ads, which he said dampen voter turnout, drawing shouts of, “Hear, hear” from a few crowd members.

John Samples, who directs the Center for Responsive Government at the Cato Institute, said corporations are still restricted from contributing directly to candidates, campaigns and political parties.

After the debate, Samples disputed Wilson’s take on negative ads, saying that negative ads have actually been shown to increase voter turnout and inform the least-informed voters.  He went on to say, “You can’t go around making laws saying you can’t say negative things.”

James Robinson, a master’s journalism student, siding with Hayward and Samples, pointed to recent elections across the country in which candidates with more money lost, saying that funding is less important in political campaigns than effective mobilization of voters.

Austin Bay, a junior studying political science and international affairs, echoed many of the arguments made by his teammates, Mann and Wilson, but warned that since many corporations are international, allowing corporate spending could really lead to foreign influence on American elections.

The six debaters took turns at a center-stage podium, addressing a half-capacity crowd of about 250, mostly composed of students spread out on the first floor and balcony.

After each member of the team presented initial arguments, Zelnick, dressed in academic robes for the occasion, asked for audience contributions.  Six students addressed the crowd from microphones in the aisles, but only one student spoke against restrictions on corporate spending.

Jordan Smith, a third-year law student at Boston University, said he saw “some degree of value in all speech,” but later said the First Amendment “is not categorical” because there have always been limits on speech in certain instances.

Zelnick asked the audience to vote at the end—the majority sided with the debaters supporting limits on corporate spending.

Afterward, Zelnick said, the participants would be treated to “a noble feast at a good local restaurant.”

Job Growth on the Front of Voters’ Minds Heading into Election

November 2, 2010 Leave a comment

By: Scott Flaherty

October 28, 2010

Cambridge, Mass. — For Stephanie Turner, next week’s election for governor in Massachusetts comes down to one thing: “It’s all about employment.”

Turner, a 55-year-old from Medford, Mass. who works in law enforcement, said the state’s current governor, Deval Patrick, hasn’t done enough in his first term.  So, she said, “I’m looking into Charlie Baker.”

The top candidates for this year’s gubernatorial election have stressed economic growth as one of the most pressing challenges facing the state.  Patrick, a Democrat, has made the claim in campaign speeches that the state is leading the nation out of the recession due to the policies put in place during his first term.  Meanwhile, his main rival, Republican Charles Baker, has outlined a plan of his own to stimulate job growth by reducing costs to businesses operating in the state.

Either candidate will have his work cut out for him if elected—the most recent unemployment rate, for September, was 8.4 percent in Massachusetts, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In a dozen interviews conducted Tuesday outside a shopping center on Memorial Drive in Cambridge, nearly all voters named the economy or job growth as something they hoped the next governor would work on.

Isabel Perkins, a 65-year-old antiques dealer, said she chose to support Patrick over Baker because she doesn’t “see how you can roll back taxes” with the state economy still deep in recession.

Perkins said if Patrick is reelected, “I hope he’ll tackle the job problem.  I think it’s not going to get solved, but he’ll just have to keep on it.”

Perkins, like Stephanie Turner, expressed another sentiment common to many of the voters interviewed—she’s not entirely happy with the job Patrick has done in his first term.  She described him as having “medium” success so far.

Lou Coveino, 55, who works as a contractor, agreed, saying, “There’s always room for improvement.”  Still, Coveino said he would vote for Patrick on Nov. 2.

Dave Connell, a 49-year-old stage hand from Worcester, said he also plans to vote for Patrick but said, “I’m not as happy as I had hoped to be.”

Connell went on to say that along with job programs, he would like the next governor to focus more on alternative energy, explaining, “I want windmills everywhere.”

Linda Smith, a 33-year-old speech therapist, said she’s supporting Patrick “because I’m in education” and said she thought the governor would do a better job improving schools than any of the other candidates.

In addition to job growth, energy and education, some voters identified a few other issues that would factor into their voting decision, including the candidates’ plans to help the poor and their stances on the recently passed CORI reform, which changed the state rules employers must follow when completing criminal background checks on potential employees.

None of the voters said they would support either of the gubernatorial candidates from outside the two major parties, Jill Stein from the Green-Rainbow Party and the state’s current treasurer, Tim Cahill, who’s running as an Independent.

The race continues to be tight between the leading candidates with the latest Rasmussen poll, which surveyed 750 likely voters on Oct. 27, showing Patrick with an advantage of 46 percent to 44 percent over Baker.  Cahill received only six percent support, while three percent supported other candidates and one percent was undecided.

The margin of error for the poll was four percent, indicating that Patrick and Baker are neck-and-neck.

Categories: News Stories

Obama Stumps for Patrick at Boston’s Hynes Convention Center

October 21, 2010 Leave a comment

By: Scott Flaherty

October 16, 2010

Boston, Mass. — President Barack Obama addressed thousands gathered Saturday for a campaign rally supporting Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, stressing the importance of voter participation and saying the stakes could not be higher for November’s election, as a Republican return to power would lead only to a renewal of ineffective policies.

Speaking at Boston’s Hynes Convention Center Saturday Obama acknowledged that it was difficult to keep faith in government in the face of the hardships brought on by the economic recession, but noted that the upcoming election is “not just about the work we’ve done, it’s about the work we’ve got left to do.”

Obama accused the Republican Party of sitting on legislation to foster frustration among citizens so they could capitalize on people’s anger and ride it “right to the ballot box.”

Warning of the downsides to a return to power for the opposing party, the president said they would revert back to the same policies which led to economic recession.

He said that when Republicans were steering the country, they “drove into the ditch.”  He went on to say, “They can’t have the keys back, they don’t know how to drive.”

Addressing a support rally for Patrick, Obama applauded the governor on his first term achievements, saying Patrick has led the state to the top of the nation in student achievement, health care coverage, job growth, and developing clean energy.

“Because Deval Patrick chose to lead in the toughest of times, this state will lead into the future.”

Obama added that Patrick, who remained on stage while the president spoke, inspires him as a leader because he “represents the politics of conscience and conviction.”

Standing behind a podium, Obama implored the crowd of about 15,000, which filled the floor and balcony of the Hynes auditorium, to help the governor finish what he started by getting out the vote.

The governor spoke immediately before the president and discussed the difficulties facing the state and the country when he took office in 2006, saying, “Hope, as you will remember, was in short supply.”

Patrick characterized the recession as a “test of character” and said, “People began to wonder whether the American dream itself was up for grabs.”

The governor said that growing up, he learned that “hope and hard work is the only way to climb out a hole” and committed to retain optimism as he continued to work for the future of Massachusetts.

The governor then explained some of his administration’s accomplishments and differentiated his campaign from that of his rival, Charlie Baker, by explaining that the Republican’s campaign relies on “sound bites and slogans,” while his policies were “rooted in a better future.”

He stressed that the election was not about the politicians, but about the residents of the state.

Lt. Gov. Tim Murray also gave a brief address, urging voters to support the campaign during the 17 days until Election Day.

The president spoke on a stage next to one of the auditorium’s walls, which was draped in an approximately 30-foot tall American flag.  A set of risers on stage behind Obama was filled with a group of about 70 supporters, who remained standing for the entirety of the president’s speech.

The president’s speech was disrupted on a couple occasions by a protest group claiming that Obama did not live up to his promise to increase funding for AIDS research.  On the second disruption, the president broke from his prepared remarks and addressed the protest group directly, inviting them to explore the Republican plan and said, “We increased AIDS funding.”

Leading up to the speeches by Patrick and Obama, several notable members of the Massachusetts Democratic Party addressed the crowd, including Vicki Kennedy, the wife of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, Rep. Edward Markey, Sen. John Kerry, and Boston Mayor, Thomas Menino.

The other speakers picked up on many of the themes discussed by Patrick and Obama, explaining the high stakes, praising the governor’s record, and asking supporters to do what they could to assist in his reelection.

Before Menino took the stage, the Boston Children’s Choir sang the national anthem and James Taylor performed America the Beautiful.  The folk singer also performed a couple of his hit songs, dedicating “You’ve Got a Friend” to the governor.

One of the supporters, Andy Hochberg, of Richmond, Mass., said the rally worked to bridge the “enthusiasm gap,” a critique which has been leveled against Democrats throughout the election season.

Hochberg echoed Obama’s words and said that the Democrats are the party that “cares about the other.”  He said that Patrick’s successes in stimulating economic recovery and promoting education were “not just by chance.”

Obama walked on stage with U2’s song, “City of Blinding Lights” playing, and after thanking the other speakers and performers, admitted that he sometimes chooses to attend to other business while waiting to speak at campaign stops for other Democrats.  But, he said, “When Deval speaks, I listen.”

Categories: News Stories

Bioethicist Explains Physician Involvement in Holocaust Torture

October 21, 2010 Leave a comment

By: Scott Flaherty

September 30, 2010

Boston, Mass. — The director of the Project on Medicine and the Holocaust at Boston University described yesterday the role played by physicians in torturing Holocaust victims, and said physicians might be predisposed to torturing because they are trained to compartmentalize, rely on euphemism, and tend to display narcissism.

Wearing a loosened maroon tie and a blue dress shirt, Dr. Michael A. Grodin said that a “fantasy of power” is inherent to the profession, which partly explains why physicians are more susceptible to becoming perpetrators of torture.

Grodin went on to say that the typical training undergone by physicians aligns very well with factors that can lead someone to become a torturer, including a high degree of compartmentalization, a tendency toward sadism and voyeurism, a reliance on euphemism, and narcissism.

He said half of the Nazi party was composed of physicians who were intimately involved with much of the killing during the Holocaust and illustrated this fact with an organization chart which included Adolf Hitler and several other high-ranking Nazi officials, a majority of which were physicians.

Grodin spoke in a conference room at Harvard University’s Countway Library of Medicine.  Early in the presentation, he divided the audience of about 20 people, which included students and physicians, into groups of three or four to discuss possible explanations for what would lead to perpetrating acts of torture and why physicians might be more susceptible to involvement in torture.

During the group discussion, Dr. Leo Buchanan, an ear, nose and throat specialist at Harvard University Health Services, recalled an essay by philosopher Hannah Arendt, which discussed the “banality of evil” and was written in response to the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a high-ranking member of the Nazi Party.

Drawing on the essay, Buchanan said some Nazis did things for “silly reasons,” such as obtaining promotions to higher military rankings.

Buchanan and others in the group also discussed the power dynamic that exists between doctors and patients and how that dynamic might intensify in extreme circumstances involving torture.

In addition to the group breakout session, Grodin engaged the audience by asking and accepting questions throughout the presentation, saying “this is participatory.”

Grodin spoke quickly and spent the last half of his presentation showing a video including interviews with several torture victims, footage of Nazi death camps and the Nuremburg trial, and interviews with American soldiers responsible for torturing prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

Grodin is a professor at the Boston University School of Medicine and School of Public Health, and is the founder and director of the Project on Medicine and the Holocaust, an “international center involved in the research, teaching, service and advocacy of contemporary and historical issues arising from the role of medicine in the Holocaust,” according to its website.

Grodin’s presentation was part of an ongoing series focused on the history of psychiatry and medicine, co-sponsored by the McLean Hospital Department of Postgraduate and Continuing Education and the Center for the History of Medicine at the Countway Library of Medicine, according to the Countway Library website.

Categories: News Stories