A new vision arrives at the ICA

Molesworth has mission to build up collection

ICA chief curator Helen Molesworth, who is interested in the points where politics and art meet, has on her resume a traveling retrospective of Luc Tuymans and 'ACT UP New York: Activism, Art and the AIDS Crisis, 1987-1993' at Harvard's Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts. ICA chief curator Helen Molesworth, who is interested in the points where politics and art meet, has on her resume a traveling retrospective of Luc Tuymans and "ACT UP New York: Activism, Art and the AIDS Crisis, 1987-1993" at Harvard's Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts. (Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / May 16, 2010

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Two of the most important people in Boston’s contemporary art world had not even sat down to talk until last December. To many, that situation could have been said to characterize the moribund state of contemporary art in this city.

But now, in a shuffle of croupier-like speed that has taken observers by surprise, the two women are working for the same museum, building a relationship that one of them jokes will make them “the Thelma and Louise of contemporary art.’’

In January, Jill Medvedow, director of the Institute of Contemporary Art, lured Helen Molesworth, curator of contemporary art at Harvard Art Museum, to head up the ICA’s programming. The two make an unlikely duo — more Abbott and Costello than Thelma and Louise. Medvedow is short and fast-talking; Molesworth is tall and has a teacher’s knack of speaking more slowly than the speed at which her brain works.

Yet both women are known for their courage, their smarts, and their ability to make unlikely things happen.

Molesworth’s decision to leave Harvard was less surprising to some than her decision to stay in the Boston area. She came to Cambridge from the Wexner Center for the Arts in Ohio after a stint at the Baltimore Museum of Art, and she has a chorus of admirers around the country. Inevitably, out-of-town job offers came her way.

“She is one of the great curators of our time. I will get on a plane to go see a show curated by Helen,’’ says her friend Madeleine Grynsztejn, director of Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art.

“I and many others think she is absolutely one of the smartest and most talented people in the business,’’ chimes in Connie Butler, chief curator of drawings at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Molesworth came to Harvard in January 2007, expecting to play a leading role establishing the university’s new museum of modern and contemporary art in Allston. She spent her first year in the job, she says, “dreaming, planning, and working on the program and design for that building.’’

But Harvard’s Allston plans were put on hold after Drew Faust took office as Harvard president in July 2007, and they were delayed indefinitely when the global financial crisis hit in 2008. With those delays, admits Harvard Art Museum director Tom Lentz, “Helen’s platform shrank.’’

Describing himself as “a big Helen fan,’’ Lentz says he could understand Molesworth’s decision to move on. “She’s a powerful thinker who also has a powerful work ethic, and she’s in the prime of her career. But I needed this like I needed a hole in the head.’’

Molesworth, who for her part says she is “very, very fond’’ of Lentz, remembers driving her car one day, reflecting on the evaporation of the job that had brought her to Harvard, and suddenly, in what she describes as “a ‘doh!’ moment,’’ realizing that “the new building for modern and contemporary art across the river’’ wasn’t Allston — it was the ICA.

“So I thought, I should just call up Jill!’’

When the two finally sat down, both were impressed. Molesworth liked Medvedow’s civic-mindedness and her sense of the role that an art museum can play in public life. She was especially awed by Medvedow’s ability to get the new ICA built in the first place.

“This is crazy!’’ she says, contemplating the feat. “Jill did something no other director has done. No family endowment, no big robber-baron pot of money, nothing to add on to like MoMA, and it wasn’t like the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art where you find this abandoned warehouse that then becomes the museum. This was ground up. I’ve got some time for her!’’

In turn, Medvedow, asked how hard it was to lure Molesworth from Harvard, says: “Not hard at all. She’s a very decisive person. I can’t take any credit for her decisiveness and courage. She has left a place of stature and security for a place that is more scrappy and insecure. She’s cursed with an ability to get what she wished for!’’

Disarming frankness
Molesworth’s predecessor was Nicholas Baume, the Australian curator who guided the programming at the new ICA through its first three years before leaving last September. Where Baume was, according to Medvedow, thoughtful, deeply intellectual, and instinctively diplomatic, Molesworth is direct, warm, and able “to connect real-world experiences to the most cerebral works of art.’’

Treading softly is not Molesworth’s automatic default position; she can shoot from the hip (the first time we met, in 2008, she said “Hey, buster,’’ before briskly berating me for an article I’d written). But her disarming frankness is in the end more charming than any amount of unctuous tact.

“I think it was a terrific appointment by Jill,’’ says Paul Schimmel, chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. “It runs counter to people’s idea of what the ICA currently is. Right now, it runs a dynamic program of very hot and exciting new artists. That’s one aspect of what a new museum of contemporary art can be. Helen can add something else: She can make Boston one of the most relevant and exciting institutions in the country. Her presence means that the ICA won’t get lost in the crowd.’’

Molesworth has long been interested in the points where politics and art meet. Her idea of great art, she says, used to be Jacques-Louis David, the great painter of the French Revolutionary period. She only became interested in contemporary art after hanging out with artists while studying during her college days. And she has since discovered a knack for talking about it, especially in informal gallery talks. “The best moment in galleries is when you’re giving a talk and someone asks you a question and you’re in this other place. That’s my sweet spot.’’

Molesworth is known in art circles as an original interpreter of Marcel Duchamp. She has, in other words, a strong conceptual bent. Yet she also has a reputation as a connoisseur, someone who is equally at home with painting and the physical, sensuous properties of artworks as she is with ideas.

“Exhibitions are a form of theater,’’ says Chicago’s Grynsztejn, who worked with Molesworth on a major traveling retrospective of the Belgian painter Luc Tuymans (the show opens at its third venue, the Dallas Museum of Art, on June 6). “Helen understands that. She installs like a dream. Her shows are art-historically infallible, but intimate at the same time. That’s very hard.’’

Whether it’s painting or conceptual art, Molesworth tends to see art through a sociopolitical lens. An essay she wrote on Duchamp, for instance, drew a connection between that artist’s readymades (manufactured objects from the world at large, sometimes modified, and relabeled as art) and the new emphasis on “ready-made’’ goods in New York’s department stores around 1915-20: Duchamp, she says, went out shopping for readymades just when the culture at large “was navigating this huge problem of how to make the move from non-mass-produced goods to mass-produced goods.’’

Similarly, she points out links between the diamond-encrusted skull artist Damien Hirst produced in 2007 and “the malfeasance of the banks’’ and President Bush’s “excess of power’’: “Some historian is going to say these things are related. You don’t make a diamond-encrusted skull on the eve of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression just because you had that idea in the shower. You had that idea in the shower because that’s what’s in the air,’’ Molesworth says. “I try to always think about art in that way.’’

Beyond the attractions of the job as ICA chief curator, Molesworth wanted to stay in Boston for cogent personal and political reasons. She is married to Susan Dackerman, who is curator of prints at Harvard Art Museum. The two were wed at Memorial Church on the Harvard campus in the summer of 2006, while Molesworth was still working in Ohio.

“It was wonderful,’’ says Molesworth. “Never in my whole life did I think I’d be married.’’

Massachusetts is one of only five states in the country that permit same-sex marriage. And that, says Molesworth, “means a great deal to us. It means an enormous deal to us.’’

Building a legacy
Richard Armstrong, director of the Guggenheim Museum, says he was not surprised Molesworth decided to stay in Boston. “More surprising, to be frank, is that she took the ICA job.’’

The ICA, he asserts, is “not a collecting institution, and I think she has a love of collecting. All the best curators do: They know it’s how they build their legacy. That and writing.’’

In truth, under Medvedow, the ICA has begun building a permanent collection. The problem is that it remains embryonic: New acquisitions have been few and far between, in part because of the economy.

But Molesworth says she is feeling “aspirational.’’ She hopes to garner the resources she needs to build a significant collection of 21st-century art. “People rallied to get the building built. Now instead of resting on our laurels, we’re going to rally to build a collection. It might be a bit slow at the start, but I feel kind of excited about it.’’

But her main priority at the ICA will be organizing exhibitions. Her track record in that department is already formidable. Apart from the Tuymans retrospective, she has organized solo shows devoted to artists such as the postmodern photographer Louise Lawler and the Boston-born installation artist Josiah McElheny. But from her time in Baltimore right up to her final year at Harvard, Molesworth was best known for ambitious group shows.

These explored an array of ideas and tendencies in recent art. “Part Object Part Sculpture’’ at the Wexner reinterpreted the legacy of Duchamp. “Work Ethic’’ at Baltimore made connections between the proliferation of art-making processes and the changing conditions of labor in society at large. “Landscape Confection’’ at the Wexner looked at contemporary incarnations of landscape painting in a diverse array of media. And most recently, “ACT UP New York: Activism, Art and the AIDS Crisis, 1987-1993’’ at Harvard’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts documented the activist movement in New York that brought attention to the AIDS crisis.

Right now, Molesworth is working on a survey of art made in the 1980s that will open at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and travel to the ICA. “She’s one of the first curators to take a stab at the ’80s when other curators have been afraid to,’’ says Butler.

Why the 1980s, now? Molesworth believes many aspects of art and society today have roots in that period. She points out that the recent global financial crisis had roots in the policies of Reagan and Thatcher and what she calls the “dismantling of Keynesian economics.’’ She adds that the feminist art of that decade has not yet been addressed in a major survey show. And she notes that the ’80s were the last years in which New York was the unchallenged center of the art world.

“It seems like a good moment to try and make some sense’’ of the period, she says. “I think we’ll be a stronger institution if we tell stories.’’

Some are wondering whether those stories will have a local angle. Ambitious local art institutions, from the ICA to the Museum of Fine Arts and the DeCordova Sculpture Park + Museum, have all struggled with the question of how committed they should be to local artists. Molesworth’s stint at the Wexner, she says, made her realize that “if we counted on artists as part of our local audience, then we needed to give something back: We needed to give them a place to show. But I also think that we serve the artists who live and work in this area by having an international program.’’

Next year, the ICA will turn 75. That’s old. But in its new incarnation on the waterfront, it still seems like a fledgling institution. The real question over the next phase of its life will be whether Medvedow can give her new curator the resources she’ll need to build a significant permanent collection and to mount the kinds of shows she wants to put on.

“I take the building as inspiration,’’ says Molesworth. “If she can build this building on the waterfront, she can pay for a Luc Tuymans show. You know what I mean? The woman clearly has fund-raising chops. So I’m not going to second-guess her on that. If she hired me and she thinks she can do it, we’ll do it. If she can’t, we’ll adjust.’’

Says Schimmel: “Resources follow vision. Helen has vision. Until now, support for her kind of vision hasn’t really been tested in Boston.’’

That’s about to change.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at