That's about to change. The MFA is scheduled to complete the main phase of a major renovation and expansion in November. It plans to devote its 23,000-square-foot Linde Family Wing (more familiarly known as the West Wing) to modern and contemporary art and some 8600 square feet of its new American Wing to 20th-century art. Not all of the West Wing will be galleries, but the MFA expects to have as much room for the art of the past century as the 18,000 or so square feet devoted to galleries at the ICA.
Which is a lot of space to give someone as relatively young as Mergel. She took art classes at the MFA while growing up in Dorchester. After receiving her bachelor's degree from Harvard, in 1998, she spent three years as a curatorial fellow at Phillips Academy's Addison Gallery in Andover, then earned a master's degree at Bard College, graduating in 2005. She found work at the ICA that same year, mainly organizing modest-sized projects. She curated 2009's "Acting Out: Social Experiments in Video," which showcased five videos, and one-room single-artist showcases in the ICA's "Momentum" series. Lately she's been developing what's billed as a "major survey" of sculptor Charles LeDray that's scheduled to open at the ICA in July.
Did the MFA have any concerns about her experience — or the lack of it? "None whatsoever," according to Edward Saywell, the museum's new chairman of Contemporary Art and MFA Programs (he's also known as director of the West Wing). He says the MFA was looking for a curator who is visionary, a strong steward of the collection, someone who can galvanize the community, intellectually rigorous, curious, and with immense potential. "The entire search committee felt Jen had all those critical competencies in enormous quantities."
"Bottom line," he concludes, "is her openness to reimagining the very paradigm of what contemporary art could be in an encyclopedic institution. We all felt that the potential that Jen has is immense, and that is something we simply could not ignore."
He assures me that the search was not extended to save money during a time in which the MFA was making budget cuts. The length of the search was just about finding the right person. "We were not prepared to settle until we found the right candidate."
What's more, the MFA has signaled its intent to make its contemporary programming more international and ecumenical by linking it more with the museum's departments of textiles, musical instruments, and the art of Asia, Oceania, Africa, the Americas, and Europe. This sounds much like the format adopted by Salem's Peabody Essex Museum as it reinvented itself over the past 15 years.
"We're talking about contemporary art in one of the world's great encyclopedic museums," says Rogers. "We fundamentally represent all world cultures. And there's never been a better time to look at contemporary art in China or in Korea or in India or all around the world. One thing that we can do that a purely contemporary museum can't do is, we can set contemporary art in a context that goes back thousands of years."
Mergel says she was attracted by this opportunity "to ask questions that weren't necessarily guided so specifically by a particular decade or art-historical movement or geographic location or certain school. . . . It's a palpable new commitment to rethink contemporary."