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Boston arts sector innovations at a critical cultural mass

Posted by Chad O'Connor  November 29, 2012 11:00 AM

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The recent New Voices/New Visions panel discussion sponsored by the Boston Art Dealers Association (BADA) brought together a handful of relatively new museum curators who shared their plans for the future and their views on the current state of the arts in Boston. The panel included Trevor Smith, Curator of Contemporary Art at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM); Paul C. Ha, Director of MIT’s List Visual Art Center; Jenelle Porter, Senior Curator at the ICA Boston; and Al Miner, Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA); and was moderated by Joanna Fink, President of BADA, the local business association for the commercial art galleries in the city.

Fink led the discussion with a lively round of questions, asking each panelist what innovative programs they are currently working on. Trevor Smith, the inaugural Contemporary Art Curator at the oldest continuously operating museum in the USA, has created the FreePort program that allows visitors to see the museum through artists' eyes. PEM is unique in its focus on art, trade and cross cultural influences from all civilizations including Native American, Indian and Asian, unlike many other American art museums that showcase European Art History as the epitome of human cultural achievement. This program provides a thought provoking platform for contemporary artists.

Jenelle Porter offered that she was drawn to Boston by the surge of energy that seemed to be happening here. Boston’s bold leap into the contemporary art dialogue started with Brandeis University's Rose Art Museum expansion by Graham Gund in 2001. That was followed by the PEM expansion by Moshe Safdie in 2003, the new ICA building by Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio in 2006, the new Art of the Americas Wing at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston by Foster + Partners in 2010, and the renovation of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum by Renzo Piano in 2012. The ICA became the first new art museum that was built in Boston in almost 100 years. In short, there is institutional support for contemporary art in Boston that simply did not exist before. For example, the ICA was early to identify and examine the contributions of street artists to our visual culture in the first museum survey of Shepard Fairey in 2009. ICA Adjunct Curator Pedro Alonzo has pushed the envelope even further by bringing Os Gemeos to the ICA for their first solo museum show in the U.S and by partnering with the City of Boston and the Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy to commission the artists to create a monumental mural, the likes of which have simply not been seen before in this city.

Photo courtesy: MIT List Visual Arts Center
Cai Guo-Qiang, Ring Stone, 2010
Paul Ha at MIT’s List Visual Art Center has a Percent for Art Program, the only of its kind in the US, that created a fund that sets aside a percent of all construction projects on campus to acquire or commission permanent works of art. This substantial seed money is supplemented by funds from private individuals. One of the first pieces to join the collection during Ha’s tenure was Ring Stone (2010) by internationally renowned artist Cai Guo-Qiang. The monumental white granite sculpture is the artist’s first public work of art created for a university campus.

Assistant Curator Al Miner spoke on behalf of the MFA. Preceding the renovation of the new Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art (2011), was the construction of the Art of the Americas Wing (2010) at the MFA, that reshuffled its permanent collections into new conversations and new arrangements that made one re-think American art, as a continuum of North American, Central American and South American cultural achievement. The MFA continues to make cultural connections to its signature collections, such as its Japanese Print Collection, with the contemporary artists it selects to support with exhibitions and programs.

Boston's art scene is participating in the creation of a global village, as a result of democratizing technologies that allow Boston to be more connected than ever to the main art hubs, i.e. New York City, Art Basel and the Venice Bienale. The fact that Boston has attracted top talent to lead its art institutions is one example of that type of connectivity. Each institution’s focus has played a part in shaping its role as an innovator in the arts sector by creating several Boston brands of contemporary art. What hasn’t yet come into focus is a clear sense of how these larger institutions will influence the smaller ones – commercial galleries, non-profits and open studios. There is an overwhelming sense of trying to wrap one’s head around it all, since most of these curators are coming to Boston from other cities. The BADA did a great service in creating a community forum for discussion and we should look forward to the next chapter of this conversation at the forthcoming BADA panel discussion in the spring of 2013.

Donna Dodson graduated cum laude from Wellesley College in 1990 with a Bachelor of Arts. Since 2000, Dodson has been honored with solo shows nationwide for her wood sculptures. Dodson enjoys public speaking, and has been a guest speaker in conferences, panels and forums at museums and universities in North America.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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