W hen the Institute of Contemporary Art hired chief curator Helen Molesworth in 2010, the museum had put together a string of impressive exhibitions showcasing single artists (Anish Kapoor, Tara Donovan, Shepard Fairey, Charles LeDray), but it didn't seem to have anyone who could put together a powerful Big Idea show.
Molesworth has begun to fulfill the ICA's aim — described by director Jill Medvedow — to balance monographic shows with exhibitions of historical sweep that "put more historical context around contemporary art." She started with last fall's "Dance/Draw," which traced the origins of today's performance art in the intersection between dancing and drawing since the '60s. Now Molesworth has upped the ante and signaled the ICA's aspirations with "This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s," opening November 15, which re-examines the whole greed-is-good, pastel-preppy conservative decade through the lenses of feminism, AIDS, rapacious business, and queer culture.
The scope and daring of the exhibit, attempting not just to pursue a Big Idea but also to redefine a whole decade, shows Molesworth — and the ICA — stepping up to a new level. It makes her one of the handful of curators in the country redefining the canon of art of the past half century. What we're witnessing is someone becoming one of the most influential curators in the nation, and thereby, someone who can reshape the way we think about art and art history.
"It's a very ambitious show," says Los Angeles Times critic Christopher Knight, who reviewed it when it opened in Chicago. "It's the kind of show that very few art museums even attempt. . . . I hadn't seen this type of show at another American museum, aside from MoCA [the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art], in a very, very long time. It was an attempt not just to take on a pretty big chunk of history, but it seemed to me pretty clearly driven from an interest in where we are right now. Looking at the decade of the 1980s seemed to me to have come from a recognition that the complicated situation that the United States has found itself in in the last couple years was born out of major shifts that began to happen 30 years ago."
Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago director Madeleine Grynsztejn, who commissioned the show from Molesworth after they co-curated the major touring 2010 Luc Tuymans retrospective, says, "Helen is among the very, very best curators in the country — in fact anywhere — and by extension the ICA Boston is one of the most important places where you look at and think about contemporary culture."
Molesworth began her museum career in the education department at New York's Whitney Museum in the 1990s. She earned her PhD in art history (dissertation on Marcel Duchamp) from Cornell in 1997 and became gallery curator at the State University of New York at Old Westbury in 1997. While contemporary art curator at the Baltimore Museum of Art from 2000 to '02 (where she met Susan Dackerman, now a curator at the Harvard Art Museums, whom she married in 2006), she organized "Work Ethic," a 2003 study of the "deskilling" of post–World War II art that paralleled America's shift from a manufacturing economy to a service economy to an information economy. She says she aims "to try and situate as fully as one can the art of our time within the larger political and economic framework of our time." As chief curator at Ohio State University's Wexner Center for the Arts from '02 to '07, she organized 2005's "Part Object Part Sculpture," which examined the legacy of Duchamp's "Readymades" in contemporary art.