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ICA hires Harvard museum’s Molesworth

Helen Molesworth will serve as chief curator at the the ICA starting Feb. 22. Helen Molesworth will serve as chief curator at the the ICA starting Feb. 22.
By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff / January 13, 2010

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Three years ago, Helen Molesworth arrived in Boston eager to build an ambitious contemporary-art program at a new museum. Now she’ll finally be able to get started.

Molesworth will move from the Harvard Art Museum, which has indefinitely postponed plans to build a new museum for contemporary and modern art, to the Institute of Contemporary Art. She will serve as the ICA’s chief curator starting Feb. 22.

Molesworth, 43, replaces Nicholas Baume, who left the ICA in September to serve as director of the Public Art Fund in New York. In a phone interview, Molesworth said she decided to apply for the ICA position only after it had become clear that Harvard would probably not move forward with its plans to build a museum in Allston for years.

“I was literally driving in my car and had this realization that I had been hired to help Harvard build a new museum across the river,’’ said Molesworth. “But the ICA is that building. I should probably call.’’

At Harvard, Molesworth served as the head of the department of modern and contemporary art. She organized exhibitions featuring works by William Pope.L, Paul Chan, and Felix Gonzales-Torres as well as the recent show “ACT UP New York: Activism, Art, and the AIDS Crisis, 1987-1993.’’

Before coming to Harvard, she served as chief curator of exhibitions at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, and curator of contemporary art at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

ICA director Jill Medvedow said that hiring Molesworth will help the ICA, which moved into its new waterfront building in 2006, develop more ambitious programming.

“Nicholas [Baume] really helped put the ICA on the map, but most of his work here focused on solo exhibitions - Anish Kapoor, Tara Donovan - which he co-curated,’’ said Medvedow. “Helen is going to have a different kind of opportunity. She’s known for ambitious shows where she tries to put her arm around art that’s new but to also better help us understand where that art came from. Those shows are harder to do, they’re a bigger risk, and they cost more. But when they work, they are exhibitions that become part of the history of art. The catalogs are collected and they become reference points.’’

The ICA began its search for a new chief curator in August and interviewed eight finalists from a group of 50 candidates. Among those not considered was ICA associate curator Jen Mergel, who was hired last month by the Museum of Fine Arts to serve as its senior curator of contemporary art.

“Jen’s experience didn’t line up with the ICA’s needs for a chief curator,’’ Medvedow said.

Medvedow also downplayed the idea that Boston-area museums are playing a kind of musical chairs by hiring curators from other local museums.

“We’re thrilled to see ICA curators cut their teeth here and go out into the community,’’ she said. “But it would be a mistake to [call Molesworth’s appointment] a local hire. Helen Molesworth has a level of experience, expertise, publications, gravitas, and perspective that is astounding and helps us be a leader in our field.’’

Tom Lentz, director of the Harvard Art Museum, said he was disappointed when Molesworth told him she would be leaving. But he said the university’s decision to postpone the new museum while focusing on renovating the Harvard Art Museum’s Quincy Street complex in Cambridge made her decision more understandable.

“Helen is extremely talented. She bristles with ideas, she has strong opinions, and Helen actually backs it up with action,’’ said Lentz. “So if Helen had to go anywhere, I’m glad she’s staying in the neighborhood.’’

Molesworth said she’s been particularly impressed by the ICA’s solo shows for mid-career artists and its commitment to emerging artists. She hopes to make her mark with her group shows.

“Those are thought experiments,’’ she said. “They tell different kinds of stories. They’ve done some shows like that. I think I have an impulse to do those kinds of shows and can bring an impulse and a track record toward doing more.’’

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com.