Helen Molesworth ICA's New Chief Curator

Leaves Harvard to Join the ICA in February

By: - Jan 13, 2010

The Boston museum world appears to have been playing touch football or musical chairs in recent months. Both of the top curators at the Institute of Contemporary Art departed.

This week the ICA announced that it has plucked Helen Molesworth from the Harvard University Art Museums to fill its top spot.
In September Nicholas Baume, the chief curator, departed to become the director of the Public Art Fund in New York. Through his vision the ICA mounted successful solo shows for Anish Kapoor, Tara Donovan, which he co curated, and the controversial Shepherd Fairey project.

Recently, Jen Mergel, who worked under Baume, was passed over in  consideration for the top spot. The Boston Globe reported ICA director, Jill Medvedow, as stating that "Jen's experience didn't line up with the ICA's needs for a chief curator."

Professionals we talked with were underwhelmed by Mergel's projects, mostly small Matrix like shows. But she was recruited by the Museum of Fine Arts to replace the ousted Cheryl Brutvan. She will be charged with installing and programming the new contemporary wing which opens in the fall.

Of the major American museums, during the 20th century, the MFA placed just about dead last for its collections and support for modern and contemporary art. It hired its first modern/ contemporary curator, Kenworth Moffett, in 1971. He focused on formalist abstraction and Color Field painting then viewed as popular and mainstream. Interest in this niche of contemporary art has declined in subsequent decades.

Since Moffett departed, or was edged out in response to a barrage of negative media, there have been several curators. There was hope and promise when former MFA director, Alan Shestack, lured Kathy Halbreich from MIT shortly after she had built the List Visual Arts Center. After a brief stay  at the MFA she moved on the Walker Art Center and is now a senior administrator for the Museum of Modern Art.

Halbreich was replaced by her assistant Trevor Fairbrother. He was game but lacked clout. On his watch the MFA mounted a major retrospective for Robert Wilson who mostly works in aspects of avant-garde theatre. Following Fairbrother there was a failed experiment with curator Amy Lighthill. When she was ousted with acrimony it appeared that Malcolm Rogers was unable to lure a major curator to fill the position. He has his own populist views of contemporary art from photographer Herb Ritts, to Ralph Lauren's cars, or a survey of guitars. Brutvan appeared to do his bidding.

With the appointment of Mergel it seems that yet again Rogers has dipped below the radar screen opting for a young and relatively untested curator. It is significant that she was not included in the field of 50 initial candidates for the top spot at the ICA. In filling the notorious gaps in the collection can the MFA really afford a learning curve for the curator charged with making those decisions?

The acquisitions under Brutvan were at best generic and cautious. Can we expect more from Mergel? Just why does a world class museum continue to lack an internationally recognized contemporary curator? 

Prior to the appointment of Molesworth there was speculation about the talent drain at the ICA. The Institute's director, Jill Medvedow, responded in the media that the loss of top tier talent was a form of flattery. It also reflected the great success of the ICA's exhibition programming since relocating to the Boston waterfront.

After reporting on an "extensive search," just like the MFA, it appears that the ICA  looked to its neighbors. After replacing Linda Norden as contemporary curator at Harvard's Fogg Art Museum, three years ago, Molesworth is now moving on to the top spot at the ICA.

Although Linda Norden was widely respected by her peers and the media she struggled to create a niche for cutting edge contemporary art in the conservative Fogg Art Museum. She got little or no support when,  on her own time and dime, she co curated the American pavilion of the Venice Biennale featuring the artist Ed Ruscha.

When Harvard hired Molesworth she came with the understanding that she would be involved with creating a new modern and contemporary museum on an expanded campus in Allston.

The Fogg is currently closed and undergoing renovation. Given the current financial climate Harvard has shelved indefinitely plans to open a new museum. Under that circumstance it is understandable that Molesworth, whom Medevedow describes as "bristles with ideas," was eager to accept the top slot at the ICA.

This appears to be a strong appointment for the ICA. Of course that now raises speculation about the contemporary programming at Harvard. Stay tuned for further developments.

The ICA's press release appears below.

After an extensive search, the Institute of Contemporary Art has appointed a new chief curator, Helen Molesworth, effective February 22.
A distinguished scholar, writer, and curator, Molesworth comes to the ICA from the Harvard Art Museum where she served as head of the department of modern and contemporary art and the museum's Houghton Curator of Contemporary Art.
"When Harvard announced the appointment of Helen Molesworth, I was struck by the brilliance of the hire," says Jill Medvedow, director of the Institute of Contemporary Art.   "Helen is a curatorial force and will elevate the ICA to a new level of leadership; she combines keen intelligence, insight, scholarship and a distinctive vision for the history of and future for contemporary art. Helen has the respect and admiration of artists, curators, directors, and collectors; even more she has their affection. Visitors to the ICA will be inspired and delighted by Helen's ability to connect audiences with art, ideas, history and the consistent joy of discovery that contemporary art offers."
 "Our visionary director, Jill Medvedow, has built a world class museum and has now attracted a world class chief curator," notes Barbara Lee, vice-chair of the Board of Trustees of the Institute of Contemporary Art. "Helen Molesworth is an extraordinary curator for her ability to present leading-edge art in ways that are personal and accessible.  Helen's curatorial leadership will take the ICA to a new level of prominence and influence in Boston and in the international art world."

Molesworth joins the ICA at a pivotal time in the institution's history. In 2006, the ICA became the first art new museum to be built in Boston in almost 100 years; its iconic building on the waterfront has drawn more than 800,000 visitors to date. Now approaching its 75th year (2011), the ICA is recognized locally and nationally for its prescient exhibitions and programs, architecture and civic leadership.

"It is with genuine pleasure and enthusiasm that I join the team at the ICA," says Molesworth. "The ICA has a unique history-being simultaneously one of the oldest museums of contemporary art in the country, and, in its current building, one of the newest. This commitment to the then and the now perfectly defines a museum dedicated to the art of our time," says Molesworth.
While at the Harvard Art Museum, Molesworth organized a number of noteworthy exhibitions including Long Life Cool White: Photographs by Moyra Davey and ACT UP New York: Activism, Art, and the AIDS Crisis, 1987-1993. As guest curator at Harvard University's Carpenter Center for the Arts, she organized Corbu Pops, an installation by William Pope.L; Paul Chan: Three Easy Pieces; and Felix Gonzales-Torres: "Untitled" (Placebo - Landscape - for Roni), among other exhibitions.
Prior to joining Harvard, Molesworth was chief curator of exhibitions at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, overseeing the center's exhibitions, programs, and publications. There she co-curated the first United States retrospective of Luc Tuymans as well as the critically acclaimed Part Object, Part Sculpture. She also served as curator of contemporary art at the Baltimore Museum of Art from 2000 to 2002, where she organized the show, Work Ethic. From 1997 to 1999, she was director and curator of the Amelie A. Wallace Gallery at State University of New York (SUNY), Old Westbury. Molesworth also served as senior critic at the Yale School of Art and has held teaching positions at the Bard Center for Curatorial Studies; SUNY, Old Westbury; and the Cooper Union School of Art. She was a co-founding editor of Documents, a magazine of contemporary visual culture, and is the author of numerous articles appearing in publications such as Art Journal, Artforum, Documents, and October. She received a Ph.D. in the history of art from Cornell University in 1997.