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Contemporary art blooming across region

Call it the ICA effect. At the Museum of Fine Arts, and across the region, contemporary art is in bloom

A floor-to-ceiling curtain of beads serves as an entryway to a gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts. A floor-to-ceiling curtain of beads serves as an entryway to a gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts. (David L. Ryan/Globe Staff)
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / September 18, 2011

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Stuffy? Conservative? Reactionary? Whichever word you choose to describe Boston, it’s fair to say the city has not been known for friendliness to living artists over the past 100 years.

But when, in 2007, amid much fanfare, the Institute of Contemporary Art opened its sleek new building on Boston’s waterfront, many people hoped it might act as a catalyst, increasing enthusiasm for contemporary art across the city and region.

The evidence that it has done just that has been mounting, and is by now undeniable.

Today, the Museum of Fine Arts opens a wing dedicated to contemporary art. The space, a conversion of the 1981 west wing addition by architect I.M. Pei, isn’t as expensive or ambitious as the Art of the Americas Wing, which opened on the other side of the MFA less than a year ago.

But as a sign of changing of shifting attitudes, it is tremendously significant.

The debut of the contemporary wing caps a period of extraordinary activity in New England’s art world, which is quietly transforming itself into one of the most dynamic contemporary art scenes in this country.

Local art lovers have been slow to register the shift, preferring to dwell on lingering weaknesses (for example, Boston’s anemic commercial gallery scene) and perceived inadequacies (as usual, everything is judged against New York, and so everything falls short).

But the new climate is palpable. You can hardly find a local museum, whether it is a college museum or an independently funded one, that doesn’t now have a strong contemporary art program.

Much of this activity, to be sure, predates the new ICA. And all of it transcends - and even potentially threatens - the ICA’s success. But what’s undeniable is that the ICA’s reemergence helped contemporary art achieve a critical mass here, setting off a remarkable chain reaction that has led, albeit circuitously, to the MFA’s new Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art.

Even when people are critical of the ICA - as many are - they talk about it. They know it is there. They are curious to go see for themselves.

Since opening at its current location, the ICA has averaged approximately 200,000 visitors per year - a 10-tenfold increase over attendances at its previous home on Boylston Street. Inevitably, other museums see the ICA as competition - for audiences, for donors, for media attention. Over the past three years, in countless conversations with museum directors and curators, I have heard the ICA mentioned repeatedly. A lot of the time, the mentions are quietly critical. Nearly always, however, they reveal shades of rivalry and sneaking admiration.

Few of these museum people admit to making reactive decisions, and they are all keen to set themselves apart. But they freely acknowledge that the ICA’s presence has changed the landscape for good.

“I think it’s been an incredibly important catalyst,’’ said Edward Saywell, chairman of contemporary art and programs at the MFA. “Tremendous kudos to [ICA director] Jill Medvedow and her team for having the vision.’’

Observe the effects:

When the MFA decided to appoint a curator to beef up its contemporary art program and prepare for the opening of the Linde Family Wing, whom did it appoint? Jen Mergel, a curator at the ICA.

What’s more, the MFA has chosen to install a surprising number of artists whose work has recently been seen at the ICA, including Mark Bradford, Mona Hatoum, Josiah McElheny, Roni Horn, and Charles LeDray.

A number of artists who have recently shown in other local museums - among them Lynda Benglis, Carlson/Strom, Matthew Day Jackson, and El Anatsui - will also be featured in the new wing. Most of these are new acquisitions, a sign that the new wing is generously funded.

Meanwhile, the nearby Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, long associated with its founder’s wish to freeze her collection in time, has decided that it, too, must move with the times. A new building, designed by Renzo Piano and costing nearly $120 million, will open early next year, with living quarters for resident artists and an ultra-modern gallery dedicated to contemporary art.

The Gardner already has a distinguished history of showing contemporary art, albeit in a cramped corner of the original building. Indeed, ICA director Medvedow earned her stripes as curator of contemporary art there. But the addition signals a concerted new commitment.

Meanwhile, over at Harvard Art Museums, director Tom Lentz and his staff are overseeing their own Renzo Piano construction, in this case a dramatic, $350 million to $400 million renovation of the old Fogg Art Museum. When the museum reopens in 2013, it will be 40 percent bigger, and the space given over to contemporary and modern art will rival that of both the MFA and the ICA.

Other museums not previously interested in showing work by living artists have been falling over themselves to get in on the action. Slowly but surely over the past three years, the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute - an august museum in Williamstown more famous for its Renoirs than anything more up-to-date - has been dipping its toes into the art of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Shortly after the Davis Museum at Wellesley College mounted a traveling retrospective of Nigerian artist El Anatsui this year, the Clark borrowed a handful of massive Anatsui wall sculptures from the collection of Los Angeles billionaires Edyth and Eli Broad, and put them on display in its Tadao Ando-designed Stone Hill Center. Around the same time, the MFA announced that it had bought its own Anatsui piece, a sumptuous-looking wall hanging made of discarded foils from alcohol bottles.

Of course, a 15-minute drive from the Clark is a dynamic museum with more space available for contemporary art than any other in these parts: the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams. In many ways, MassMoCA is the most impressive, innovative, and flexible of all these institutions, and it has a record to match - some of the most startling and ambitious shows of contemporary art anywhere in America.

Other museums within an easy drive of Boston have been provoked by the ICA into lifting their game. The most notable of these is the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln. Director Dennis Kois, who arrived three years ago with a mandate to breathe new life into what had become a stale institution, has pitted himself against the ICA in the competitive search for trustees, donors, and media attention. And he seems to be getting somewhere.

The DeCordova Biennial, a survey of contemporary art by local artists, is looking lean and purposeful again (better, in fact, than the ICA’s forlorn-looking James and Audrey Foster Prize, a similar exhibit and prize for local artists). The museum has mounted a series of sharp solo shows by nationally acclaimed contemporary sculptors, and the ever-popular sculpture park has been ruthlessly culled and enhanced by a handful of expensive new sculptures by Sol LeWitt, Dan Graham, Antony Gormley, and, if all goes to plan, Andy Goldsworthy.

The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, meanwhile, has also upped the ante, mounting a stream of contemporary exhibitions that cover more turf than most other museums would dare to contemplate, from contemporary Chinese and Indian art to Maori tattoos, photography, and recent fashion.

Factor in the generous helpings of contemporary art offered up by the Worcester Art Museum, the Portland Museum of Art (which hosts its own impressive biennial), the Danforth Museum in Framingham, and the Currier Art Museum in Manchester, N.H.; add the superb array of first-class college and school museums which show ambitious contemporary art (the List Visual Arts Center at MIT, the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art, Smith College Museum of Art, the Addison Gallery of American Art, Boston University and Tufts University art galleries, the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College, the recently revived Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, and many others) - and the case makes itself: Contemporary art is thriving in these parts.

Of course, all this activity cannot be credited to the ICA alone. There are much broader currents at work. All over the world, contemporary art has been booming for two or three decades, both in the art market and in the public’s imagination. But in every city where it has thrived, there has been a catalyst.

In London, for instance - never a nerve center for contemporary art before the 1990s - it was the combined effect of advertising mogul Charles Saatchi’s high-profile collecting and the conversion of a power station on the Thames into Tate Modern that thrust contemporary art into the limelight. Along with Berlin, London has since eclipsed New York as the dynamic heart of the international contemporary art world.

In the past, some museums shied away from contemporary art, fearing that it could be alienating to the broader public. But savvy directors have slowly cottoned to the fact that controversy is the lifeblood of contemporary art, not something to be afraid of.

There is not a single contemporary art museum in the world that doesn’t receive an outsized share of criticism. That’s because contemporary art is, by its very nature, divisive. Few people, after all, are going to argue over the merits of Titian or Rembrandt; these artists’ reputations are settled for all eternity. Jeff Koons and Tara Donovan, on the other hand, are in a different category; judging their merits is great sport, and places like the ICA are the arena.

Museums and the media are mistaken, I believe, if they think that the public is somehow frightened of recent art. They are not. They simply dislike bad contemporary art, and they hate it when the bad stuff is presented as brilliant, and swaddled in patronizing art-speak.

There may be a bandwagon mentality at work right now, as local institutions scramble to keep up with their neighbors. It’s great, on the one hand, that so many different types of art institutions are showing contemporary art, because each of them comes at it from a different perspective. The MFA, for instance, has such deep collections that it can put the work of living artists in the context of the whole history of world art and design. Harvard, meanwhile, comes at the field with a more scholarly approach, as befits a teaching museum. And the DeCordova has the space and expertise to focus on one particular area: sculpture.

Yet there’s also a potential danger: Museum directors and their boards need to be wary of funneling resources into contemporary art if it means skimping on their core collections or their core activities (a particular concern, perhaps, at the Gardner).

The reality of the current environment is that museums everywhere are under relentless pressure to keep moving, to keep changing, if they want to keep potential donors interested. (If you had money, would you rather give it to a sexy new wing, or merely to ongoing operating costs?)

This can often mean perverting a museum’s essential character, its purpose, its long-established raison d’etre. It’s easier to get people excited about providing funds for contemporary art than, say, overdue conservation work on a Baroque altarpiece, or new scholarship in an obscure field.

And yet it’s also true that Boston’s traditionally conservative attitude toward contemporary art has cost the city’s museums dearly in lost opportunities. One only has to compare the great 20th-century collections at, say, the Art Institute of Chicago or the Philadelphia Art Museum with those at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts or Harvard Art Museums to get the point: When it came to modern art, Boston, for the longest time, didn’t want to know.

That seems to be changing.

When I asked Malcolm Rogers, MFA director, via Twitter whether he had always believed collecting contemporary art was an important part of the MFA’s brief, and whether his attitudes had changed over time, he replied simply: “It has been a journey for me, but now I am a believer.’’

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the first name of Dennis Kois, who is the director of the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln.