Jan Fontein in 1987. Photo: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Jan Fontein (1927–2017)

Jan Fontein, a former director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and a renowned scholar in Asian art, has died, writes William Grimes of the New York Times. He was born in Narden in 1927, about fifteen miles east of Amsterdam, to Leonardus Hendrikus Fontein, a Montessori teacher and the director of a rehabilitation center for prisoners, and Aaltje Brands. He earned his undergraduate degree from Leiden University, where he studied Chinese and Japanese literature. He became an assistant curator at the Museum of Asiatic Art (which later merged with the Rijksmuseum), and in 1962, was asked to catalogue the Avery Brundage Collection of Asian art and consult on the building of a new wing at San Francisco’s M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, which was going to house the collection.

Before becoming director of the Museum of Fine Arts, he worked for nearly ten years at the museum as a curator of Asian art. He was named acting director of the MFA in 1975, and in 1976, became director. Fontein started his directorship during a bleak period: The museum’s board had just dismissed its former director, Merrill C. Rueppel, who had a tumultuous relationship with the staff, and finances were unstable. Fontein brought the museum success and stability: He organized blockbuster exhibitions on Camille Pissarro, Pierre-Auguste Renoir (which brought in more than 500,000 visitors, a record for the time), and Pompeii. He also managed to raise $60 million for the museum, which went to the construction of a new wing designed by I.M. Pei, the renovation of twenty-six galleries devoted to Asian art, and the refurbishment of the museum’s storage facilities. He also pushed to make the museum a very welcoming place. “Museums can be monumental structures. That can be intimidating,” he said to the Boston Globe in 1985. “Today people should be relaxed in a museum so that they are open to new impressions, new ideas. I believe guards who stand at museum doors should be nice.”

Fontein retired from his position in 1987. He was then appointed the museum’s Matsutaro Shoriki curator of Asiatic art, a position he held for the next five years. During this time he spent two years in Indonesia, where he organized “The Sculpture of Indonesia,” which came to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1991. He also consulted for the Rietberg Museum in Zurich and the Royal Ontario Museum. He also worked for the Nieuwe Kerk Foundation in Amsterdam, where he curated the traveling exhibition “The Dancing Demons of Mongolia.” He authored a number of books as well, such as The Law of Cause and Effect in Ancient Java (1989) and Entering the Dharmadhatu: A Study of the Gandavyuha Reliefs of Borobudur (2012).