Feature: Jen Mergel

Jen Mergel has had quite a year. The juror for New American Paintings Edition #80, Mergel announced in December 2009 that she would be leaving her post as Associate Curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston (ICA) to become the Senior Curator of Contemporary Art for the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), a 134-year-old institution with a reputation for exhibiting (and collecting) mostly art historical works. With plans to open a newly constructed modern and contemporary wing in June 2011, however, the mandate is in place for the museum to up the ante—and Mergel is hard at work to do just that.

Her move to the MFA earned her a spot in Carol Vogel’s New York Times shortlist of young, cutting edge curators attracting new audiences to long-established museums, and Mergel’s new change of scenery is quickly presenting new opportunities, including the chance to address historical art through new work.

Before joining the ICA, Mergel was a curatorial fellow at the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Massachusetts, an academic museum with works in its collection which date back to the eighteenth century. In her new position at the MFA, a museum with collections dating back centuries further, Mergel explains that the opportunity to contextualize contemporary work through historical pieces is exciting.

"[The MFA] is an encyclopedic museum," she says, "so when I think about collecting here, it’s very different from the process at the ICA, which [was] really just focused on the ICA’s exhibition history... There is this capacity to think of exhibitions [and collecting] in relation to the historical works here in the MFA’s collections that I didn’t necessarily have the opportunity to do at the ICA...  That feels like a very natural and true extension of how artists create work in response to what has come before. It’s exciting to think about exhibitions in that direction."

The MFA already has a new contemporary program on the books, the Community Arts Initiative Artist Project, which has been given a new central location in the Linde Family Wing of Contemporary Art. Currently featured is Caleb Neelon of Cambridge, whose Signs and Symbols, on view at the MFA through September 6, is a large mural that resulted from a collaboration with area children from after-school programs. Upcoming will be Raul Gonzalez, whose project theme will focus on family.

The museum will also begin a new program that will grant shows to select School of the Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA) graduates from the last 10 years who have yet to receive solo museum exhibitions.

"I see [emerging artists] as hugely important in terms of keeping the conversation going and the discourse alive in terms of understanding the relevance of work made 10 years ago, 30 years ago, 100 years ago, and based on how [that work] is shaping how somebody today, right now on the ground, is grappling with issues in their studio and thinking about things they’re sharing with us in this decade."    —EJG

Photographs © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

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