Mergel brings contemporary vision to MFA from ICA

Expansion plans attracted curator

By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff / December 22, 2009

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After searching around the world for more than a year, the Museum of Fine Arts found a new curator of contemporary art about 2 miles away.

Jen Mergel, 33, now associate curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art, will arrive at the MFA in February, at a critical moment for Boston’s biggest museum. In November, the MFA will open a huge new wing. And in 2011, as part of a long-planned $500 million expansion, the MFA will devote its existing West Wing to contemporary art, a major step for an institution that has been criticized for not devoting enough attention to contemporary work. The museum’s contemporary gallery space will nearly quadruple, jumping from 4,500 square feet to about 17,000.

“They’re planning on devoting a quarter of their campus to contemporary culture, which makes this hugely attractive,’’ Mergel said yesterday. “They’re really trying to rethink the relevance of contemporary art.’’

The MFA’s bigger commitment to contemporary art comes three years after the ICA left its cramped building on Boylston Street in the Back Bay for a new and dramatic 65,000 square foot space on the waterfront. During that time, the ICA established its sensibility through exhibits of Shepard Fairey, Tara Donovan, and Anish Kapoor. It’s not clear what shape the MFA’s contemporary programming will take in its new space, but Mergel’s work across town should offer a clue.

At the ICA, Mergel was hired as a curatorial assistant in 2005. She cocurated a blockbuster survey of work by the sculptor Donovan and organized the provocative exhibit “Acting Out: Social Experiments in Video.’’ Mergel also curated several of the ICA’s Momentum exhibits, which highlight up-and-coming artists. She became assistant curator in 2007 and was promoted to associate curator last year.

The MFA’s previous curator of contemporary art, Cheryl Brutvan, left that position in the summer of 2008 after a decade. Mergel did not apply for the post; the museum called her last summer after identifying her as a suitable candidate, one of 70 considered by its search committee. Eight finalists were interviewed.

The appointment caught the ICA unawares. “I was surprised,’’ ICA director Jill Medvedow said, recalling her reaction after Mergel told her she had been offered and decided to take the MFA job. “I had understood that they had done a broad search, and it caught me off guard.’’

But Medvedow conceded that “young curators move and are building their careers,’’ and said the MFA’s decision was “a compliment, both to Jen and the ICA.’’

MFA director Malcolm Rogers said that he enjoyed the Donovan exhibit, which drew critical praise and attracted 69,590 visitors to the ICA. He was also impressed by Mergel’s personality. “The thing that comes across when you first meet her is her enthusiasm, intelligence, and she’s highly articulate,’’ said Rogers. “Critical for the museum is to have someone who is a great curator with a vision, but also someone who is a great people person, who can win support for the museum.’’

The MFA’s ambitious Art of the Americas Wing will open next November. The West Wing is scheduled to become the museum’s center for contemporary art in June 2011. Rogers said in a statement that Mergel’s appointment as senior curator of contemporary art will help the MFA “expand the presence of contemporary art at the museum with new galleries, exhibitions, installations, and educational programs.’’

Before starting at the ICA, Mergel was a curatorial fellow at the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy. She graduated from Harvard University with a degree in visual and environmental studies and earned her graduate degree at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College.

The ICA will leave Mergel’s post open for now, as it is more focused on replacing chief curator Nicholas Baume, who left in September to serve as director of the Public Art Fund in New York City. The ICA is expected to name its chief curator early next year, Medvedow said.

Mergel emphasized that she has been happy at the ICA and was not looking to leave. But she found the MFA’s commitment to contemporary work compelling, and by looking more closely at the MFA’s collection, she said she’d made exciting discoveries within its contemporary holdings, the majority of which remain in storage because of space constraints in the building.

“Jen really shared our excitement, not just directed at the expansion of the contemporary arts presence at the museum, but to quite literally reexamine what contemporary art could be at an encyclopedic museum,’’ said Edward Saywell, the MFA’s chair of the department of contemporary art and programs, a position that includes oversight of the museum’s film and music programming.

“In some respects, it’s ironic that we ended up in our own backyard, so to speak. But the bottom line is that a search committee found the very best candidate we possibly could. In the end, she was in our backyard.’’

Geoff Edgers can be reached at