Late this past summer, Jen Mergel, an associate curator at Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art, was contacted by Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. The MFA was looking for a new head curator of contemporary art, and it wanted Mergel to apply for the position. The 33-year-old Dorchester native and Harvard grad wasn't looking for a new job — "I've been really happy here," she says. But the idea of heading the contemporary-art program at a major museum was tantalizing.
FROM THE ICA TO THE MFA: For Mergel, the opportunity to head the contemporary-art program at a major museum was too tantalizing to resist.
The ICA itself has been looking for a new chief curator since September, when Nicholas Baume left to become director of New York's Public Art Fund. Among internal candidates, Mergel would have been next in line for that position. Still, she says, "I did not apply." She explains that she was more interested in the MFA position, because it focuses more on curating, whereas the ICA job would have entailed "a lot more administrative work. I've always been much more interested in the curatorial end of the practice." On December 22, the MFA announced it had hired Mergel as its new Beal Family Senior Curator of Contemporary Art. She'll begin work in February.
The MFA and the ICA play down any talk of a rivalry, but the move signals that a competition is brewing between the two institutions — which can only be good for Boston's art audience. It also suggests that Mergel sees a new day dawning at the venerable MFA, which has acquired a reputation for giving contemporary art short shrift and breaking curators' hearts. Each time the museum has hired a new contemporary-art curator, we've been told that it's renewing its commitment to the art of today. This time out, MFA director Malcolm Rogers announced, in a prepared statement, that Mergel's "vision will enable the MFA to reach new audiences as we expand the presence of contemporary art at the museum."
Of course, back in 1998, Cheryl Brutvan arrived from Buffalo's Albright-Knox Art Gallery with similar hopes, following the departure of long-time MFA contemporary curator Trevor Fairbrother. "She has the personality to fit into the team here, and to be a leader in the contemporary-art community," said Rogers at the time.
That didn't pan out. Over the past decade, the MFA has rarely given its contemporary-art curators the space or the backing to present shows as ambitious as the ICA's 2008 Tara Donovan retrospective, which Mergel curated with Baume. Brutvan ended up producing mainly smallish exhibits in the West Wing's Foster Gallery. The MFA's big surveys of art from the past century — Ansel Adams in 2005, David Hockney in 2006, Edward Hopper in 2007 — were organized by other departments, or by other museums.
In July 2008, Brutvan announced that she would be leaving the MFA, apparently without having another job lined up. In January 2009, she became curator of contemporary art at the Norton Museum of Art in Florida.
"Over the years I've been here, there's been a gradual development of the contemporary programming," Rogers, who has led the MFA since 1994, tells me. "I think over the past few years, the programming has gotten stronger and stronger. But with just the Foster Gallery, we haven't had the space to do things on a grander scale, or even to exhibit our own collection."