Clifford S. Ackley
2011 Ellis F. Lawrence Medal honors
Clifford S. Ackley
Ruth and Carl J. Shapiro Curator of Prints and Drawings
Chair, Department of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Cliff graduated from the University of Oregon with a bachelor’s degree in art history in 1959. Shortly after graduating he was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to study for a year in Holland. His advisor at Oregon, Marion Dean Ross, had already insured that he would be admitted to Harvard for graduate study in art history. At Harvard, he concentrated on 17th century Dutch art and became independently interested in the history of printmaking. His fascination with printmaking had begun at the University of Oregon when he took a studio course in lithography. After four years of graduate school he resided again in the Netherlands for two years, studying 17th century Dutch printmaking at the Rijksmuseum and the British Museum. This experience eventually enabled him to put together, in 1980-81, the ambitious exhibition and catalogue Printmaking in the Age of Rembrandt, still the only comprehensive study of Dutch printmaking from the late 16th century to 1700. The catalogue was awarded at that time the College Art Associations’ Alfred Barr Award for outstanding museum exhibition catalogues. More recently, in 2003, Cliff focused exclusively on Rembrandt in the “blockbuster” exhibition and catalogue Rembrandt’s Journey: Painter Draftsman, Etcher. But Cliff’s interests are almost as wide-ranging as the collection he works with. Other major shows to which he has contributed have been devoted to Dürer, Goya, Degas, Nolde, early 20th century British modernist prints (Rhythms of Modern Life) and a whole series of contemporary print exhibitions (1969 to present).
He was hired to work with Old Master prints and drawings, but brought with him an interest in modern and contemporary works on paper and photography. The museum’s photography collection was founded in 1924 with a gift from Alfred Stieglitz but no purchases were made until 1967 when Cliff began to recommend them. From 1967 to 2000 he served as unofficial photography curator, laying the groundwork for the collection. As a result of this activity, in the 1970s “Photography” was added to the department’s name.
Works on paper cannot be exposed to light for long periods. Therefore, much of Cliff’s career at the MFA has been devoted to creating revolving exhibitions made up of original selections from the collection supplemented with loans from private collections. Currently New Works: Prints, Drawings, Collages (recent acquisitions of art since 1960) is on view, as is Mirror of Holland, a selection of 17th century Dutch drawings on loan to the Museum from a major collection. Europe at Mid-Century: Dubuffet, Giacometti, Picasso is in process, as is a major Dine print show Jim Dine: Theme and Variation shortly to open at the MFA’s branch museum in Nagoya, Japan.
When works on paper are not on view they are available by appointment in the department’s Morse Study Room. The current study room was designed by Cliff with an architect 15 years ago and one of his greatest pleasures is to see art school classes responding to selections from the collection in this space.
Much of Cliff’s time is spent pursuing acquisitions to fill in gaps in the department’s encyclopedic collection, particularly in the 20th and 21st centuries. He works with dealers and collectors and encourages the latter to give works of art or to support proposed acquisitions. Cliff prides himself not only on seeking what is new and lasting but also on discovering the new in the old.
Cliff is a voracious reader: everything from biographies and memoirs to Scandinavian murder mysteries. He is an off and on film buff and convinced that we live in a great age of animation (Pixar forever!). While he piously swore as an undergraduate that he would never be possessed by possessions, his office testifies otherwise: a hat from South Africa, a shield from Borneo, a paddle from the Austral Islands, art pottery from America and Scandinavia, the many objects that have collected him.