Museums Special

Jill Medvedow (ICA) and Malcolm Rogers (MFA): a conversation

One of them leads Boston’s biggest museum, the other runs one of the city’s greatest cultural success stories. We brought Institute of Contemporary Art director Jill Medvedow and Museum of Fine Arts director Malcolm Rogers together

“Taste can be changed, and we do have a moment now when taste really is changing and there is a passion to make contemporary art more central.” - Malcolm Rogers

Globe: We’ve heard so much about Boston being asleep at the wheel as far as collecting 20th-century art. Why is that?

Malcolm Rogers: Traditionally, Boston’s been a fairly conservative city and it’s definitely the case that the collecting institutions, we reflect the tastes of the city. Taste can be changed, and we do have a moment now when taste really is changing and there is a passion to make contemporary art more central.

Jill Medvedow: I can’t speak to collecting in the 20th century because the ICA consciously made the decision not to collect. When its founders, kind of a brave bunch of men in the late ’30s, created the institution, they believed the ICA would be a kind of breeding ground for new artists, a place of discovery, a Kunsthalle of changing exhibitions and that the MFA would play that role in the 20th century. That didn’t turn out to be the case for the MFA with the kind of depth Malcolm is bringing to it today.

David L Ryan / Globe Staff
Pamela Hatchfield cleans ‘‘Wing,’’ an aluminum sculpture by Lynda Benglis in the Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art at the Museum of Fine Arts.

MR: The ICA was founded 75 years ago. And I think the people who founded it were very, very passionate. But they were also in a minority. They were determined to change things. But the process of change has been a long one, hasn’t it?

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JM: It’s been a very long one. One of the things that I think about is the ecology of a city. What are the components that make a city a healthy place for contemporary art? Museums are one component that is vitally important. So the addition of robust, contemporary art at the Museum of Fine Arts is long awaited. It’s fantastic.

Globe: Why has that change come?

MR: The media are critical. Take The Art Newspaper. You might almost call it “The Contemporary Art Newspaper.’’ There’s a moment of excitement and urgency that’s been gathering over the last decade.

JM: The creation of wealth has been one of the primary things. It’s very hard to collect backwards. There aren’t that many old masters to acquire.


Globe: I look at public art as a big hole in Boston. Jill, you really made your mark with Vita Brevis, a public art program, before coming to the ICA, though I know that’s fallen a bit by the wayside.

JM: No, Vita Brevis as a name fell by the wayside as the new ICA opened and we wanted it all under one banner. But the work that we did with Shepard Fairey, the work we just did with Jenny Holzer - it’s a similar spirit of temporary works of art by significant artists outside of our building, so out in the public domain.

Globe: But do we have enough public art?

David L Ryan / Globe Staff
A performance of Trisha Brown’s ‘‘Floor of the Forest,’’ part of the exhibition ‘‘Dance/Draw’’ at the Institute of Contemporary Art.

MR: We have more than enough of the wrong sort. (Laughs) What we need is some good public art. I think this is a huge opportunity for all the institutions. I look at what the deCordova has been doing in terms of bringing sculpture into the city. I think we could all do more in partnership with the city. It’s a great opportunity.

JM: I think public art, like most things, they need a spirit, they need a leader. They are best not done by committee. And that era, I don’t know if that era is on us or not. One of the reasons I’ve always been more interested in temporary public art - and I’ve looked so much to Artangel in London as one of the great models of what can be done or Creative Time in New York - when you’re commissioning works of temporary art, you can ask forgiveness instead of permission.


Globe: Malcolm, you’ve had five years to go to the ICA. What do you think of the building?

‘One of the things that I think about is the ecology of a city. What are the components that make a city a healthy place for contemporary art?’

Jill Medvedow , Hudson High’s football coach (above)

MR: First of all, I think it’s an incredibly brave enterprise, the first foot in that area. I think the Diller Scofidio building is beautiful.

Globe: Any particular shows or pieces you would mention?

MR: My passion is the MFA. I’ve been an occasional visitor of the ICA, particularly around the opening. The question is really “does my chair of the Linde Family Wing, do my curators, go to the ICA every month?’’ The answer is, they do. My passion is MFA and 17th-century art. Am I an habitual visitor? No. I’m an habitual admirer.

Globe: Jill, the new MFA wing has been open for a few weeks. What do you think?

JM: I’m so grateful that I don’t have to program that space as well as work on programming the ICA space. I know that they’re in good hands. It’s thrilling for me to walk in and see pieces that make my heart sing or touch me both heart and mind. I really particularly loved the Doris Salcedo piece. I think it’s so fantastic to see that piece at the MFA and stands in such counterpoint to some of the other works that are in the collection. We have four Salcedos on view at the ICA so I think that Bostonians have this amazing moment to be able to see one of the great artists of the 20th and 21st century. To be introduced and then actually have the opportunity to maybe see a little bit more in depth.

Globe: There are some artists - Josiah McElheny, Roni Horn - you both collect. With so much art out there, do you ever direct your curators to make sure the MFA and ICA don’t have all the same artists?

MR: We’re all looking for the best. And it can certainly be the case that the ICA can direct us to an area that we might otherwise have overlooked.

JM: This is such a peculiar moment, right, we have 80 objects. You have what, 350,000?

MR: But only 800 contemporary ones.

Globe: Is the new MFA wing good or bad for the ICA? Isn’t there some fear of losing visitors?

JM: I’m more of the belief that if you have a restaurant on one corner and you put a restaurant on the opposite corner, all of a sudden you have a restaurant neighborhood. And I see that in my neighborhood, and I’m very happy about it. I think that more in this case, more is more. And competition is healthy. Competition should put all of us at our best game.

MR: I couldn’t put it better, you know. If you want to open a bookshop, you open it in a town where there are already several.

JM: And where there are readers.

MR: I think the notion of the best game is really what’s so important. The kind of cross-pollination, cross-stimulation, that we have, benefits everyone. We know, if you look at collectors or supporters, I mean, some of your best supporters have been historically supporters of the MFA and they love the fact that they’re linking the two institutions. . . . Do you think having, for instance, a gallery devoted to video at the MFA makes it more or less likely that someone will go and see video art at the ICA? I know the answer: It makes it more likely.

Globe: Over the last 10 years, we’ve had quite a museum boom here. I haven’t heard either of you say you’re looking to, you know, retire anytime soon, so you’re going to be here a while. What happens in the next five to 10 years? What do we see in Boston: Do we see the ICA expand, even?

MR: I hope you see the institutions flourish. Some of the ways in which we flourish in the future we cannot predict now because opportunity plays a big part. As part of the planning for our America wing, I didn’t know at the beginning that it would give us a great opportunity to showcase contemporary art in a way we’d never done before. We have plenty of work to do at the MFA. Looking at some of our historic galleries: The ancient world, the art of Europe, Asia. We have master plans for all those areas, and as resources become available, we’ll be working on them. So, lots of opportunity, we don’t know where, you know, the next major initiative will come.

JM: I think I should spend the next five years crawling the galleries at the MFA, this sounds so exciting (chuckles). Well, I think we have collection-building in front of us. But our DNA is in exhibition making, and that is our heartbeat.

Geoff Edgers can be reached at