MFA Boston Receives $2.5 Million Grant from Lilly Endowment to Establish Curatorial Position for Islamic Art

BOSTON (December 15, 2020)—The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), has received a grant of $2.5 million from Lilly Endowment Inc. through its Religion and Cultural Institutions Initiative, which will support an endowment for a new curatorial position dedicated to Islamic art. Working in collaboration with Islamic communities in the Greater Boston area and beyond, the inaugural Assistant Curator of Islamic Art will draw on the Museum’s collection—among the most important holdings of Islamic art in the country and the world—to create exhibitions, publications and public programs. The MFA is one of 18 organizations from across the U.S. receiving grants through the initiative.

“We are deeply grateful to Lilly Endowment for their generosity. It is especially meaningful in this moment, as a museum with a global collection, to be able to demonstrate our commitment to the diversity of our collection and the religions and cultures it represents. The establishment of a permanent position focused on Islamic art does precisely that,” said Matthew Teitelbaum, Ann and Graham Gund Director.

Critical to the new curatorial role is a commitment to exploring and representing not only the historical, cultural and aesthetic dimensions of Islamic art, but also the religious—promoting the public’s engagement with and understanding of Islam and its relationship to art, culture and society. The Assistant Curator of Islamic Art will cultivate relationships with a range of community partners that regularly collaborate with the MFA, including the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, the Islamic Center of Boston in Wayland and the Center for Arabic Culture in Somerville. The establishment of the new position will further the Museum’s ongoing efforts to create programs that reflect the experiences and values of visitors, especially of historically underrepresented communities.

Through the Religion and Cultural Institutions Initiative, Lilly Endowment has awarded grants totaling more than $43 million. These grants will enable the organizations to develop exhibitions and education programs that fairly and accurately portray the role of religion in the U.S. and around the world. The initiative is designed to foster public understanding about religion and lift up the contributions that people of all faiths and diverse religious communities make to our greater civic well-being.

“Museums and cultural institutions are trusted organizations and play an important role in teaching the American public about the world around them,” said Christopher Coble, Lilly Endowment’s vice president for religion. “These organizations will use the grants to help visitors understand and appreciate the significant impact religion has had and continues to have on society in the U.S. and around the globe. Our hope is that these efforts will promote greater knowledge about and respect for people of diverse religious traditions.”

Lilly Endowment launched the Religion and Cultural Institutions Initiative in 2019 and awarded planning grants to organizations to help them explore how programming in religion could further their institutional missions. These grants will assist organizations in implementing projects that draw on their extensive collections and enhance and complement their current activities.

Islamic Art at the MFA

The Islamic collection began at the MFA the year the Museum opened its doors in 1876. The first masterpiece entered the collection in 1877 with the gift of a magnificent ivory-inlaid door made in Cairo. The collection grew considerably in 1914 with the purchase of the Goloubew collection—at the time the most comprehensive collection of Islamic paintings in the West—and continued to grow over the course of the 20th century. Today, it is among the best in the U.S., consisting of about 5,500 paintings, textiles, ceramics, metalwork and glass from Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Egypt and many other countries. In 2019, the MFA unveiled a reinstalled and reinterpreted Arts of Islamic Cultures Gallery, designed to expand how visitors see and understand the diverse arts of Islamic communities.

About Lilly Endowment Inc.

Lilly Endowment Inc. is an Indianapolis-based private philanthropic foundation created in 1937 by J.K. Lilly, Sr. and his sons Eli and J.K. Jr. through gifts of stock in their pharmaceutical business, Eli Lilly and Company. Although the gifts of stock remain a financial bedrock of the Endowment, it is a separate entity from the company, with a distinct governing board, staff and location. In keeping with the founders’ wishes, the Endowment supports the causes of community development, education and religion and maintains a special commitment to its founders’ hometown, Indianapolis, and home state, Indiana. The Endowment also funds significant programs throughout the United States, especially in the field of religion. While the primary aim of its grantmaking in religion focuses on strengthening the leadership and vitality of Christian congregations in the United States, the Endowment also seeks to foster public understanding about religion and lift up in fair, accurate and balanced ways the contributions that people of all faiths and diverse religious communities make to our greater civic well-being.

About the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Founded on February 4, 1870, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), stands on the historic homelands of the Massachusett people, a site which has long served as a place of meeting and exchange among different nations. The Museum opened its doors to the public on July 4, 1876—the nation’s centennial—at its original location in Copley Square. In 1909, the MFA moved to its current home on Huntington Avenue and today, the Museum houses a global collection encompassing nearly 500,000 works of art, from ancient to contemporary.


Karen Frascona