Alumni Profiles

Cheryl Brutvan

Beal Curator at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts happily explores her ‘golden field’

Brutvan close-up
UB degree BA ’77; A favorite acquisition Joseph Beuys’s Untitled (Blackboard), 1973; Now showing Antonio López García; Job perk “I can go upstairs and look at Manet’s Execution of Maximilian”; Personal interest 19th-century botanical illustrations

Fate has a way of gently nudging us down a path we may never have chosen. Or simply shoving us onto the ground.

As a freshman at SUNY Fredonia, Cheryl Brutvan wasn’t sure whether to study geology or art. She’d recently broken her arm while playing soccer, and getting through her studio art courses was difficult with the cast on her arm. So she filled up her schedule with art history: Her future was made.

Now Beal Curator of Contemporary Art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Brutvan says that once she’d discovered the “golden field” of art history, she knew UB was the place to be. She transferred, studying with Dorothy Glass (now professor emerita) and soaking up the local art scene. “There was a great community of artists in Buffalo,” she recalls, “from Hallwalls [Contemporary Arts Center] to the Albright.”

A UB course Brutvan took at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery proved fortuitous: It sparked her interest in museum work and introduced her to curators who, as it turned out, would soon become her colleagues.

After completing a master’s at Williams College and a stint at Houston’s Contemporary Arts Museum, Brutvan found herself at the Albright again. “I never ever considered going back to Buffalo,” she says frankly; “I thought it was time to think of some other part of the country. But the tremendous opportunity to do research on the collection was very appealing.” She stayed for 15 years, organizing exhibitions and authoring the first catalog of the gallery’s Masterworks on Paper.

Brutvan faced a formidable challenge when she moved on to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in 1998. “MFA Boston has a very uneven history with contemporary art—Winslow Homer and Monet were contemporary artists!” she says. She has worked hard to turn things around. And as she looks back on her decade-long relationship with the MFA, she is relieved to say the commitment problems are over: By the end of 2010, when the museum completes an expansion, the contemporary art collection will finally have its own space. “Our five Andy Warhols can all be out at once,” Brutvan says with delight.

Planning for the new space and for exhibitions, fund-raising and traveling leave little free time—though a good run helps her think about “the big picture.” But then again, “Life is art and art is life,” she says with a laugh. “Right?”

Story by Clare O’Shea, MA ’87 & BA ’84, with photo by Shawn G. Henry