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At the Venice Biennale — the art world’s version of the Olympics — Boston’s ICA is set to shine

With artist Simone Leigh, ICA director Jill Medvedow and the museum she’s transformed take the global stage.

ICA director Jill Medvedow on the eve of her departure for the Venice Biennale this month, where her institution is responsible for the US's official entry to the bi-annual "art world Olympics."Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

On a late-March, pea-soup fog day on Boston Harbor, Jill Medvedow was in her waterfront office at the Institute of Contemporary Art considering her latest heavy lift. On April 23, she and her team will open the US Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, the contemporary art world version of the Olympics, as the country’s official emissaries — chosen from a competition by the State Department, no less. There, they’ll present “Sovereignty,” an expansive project by Simone Leigh, who is the first Black woman chosen to represent the United States at the biennale in its history.

Founded in 1895, the Biennale is a grand affair, to say the least, with dozens of national pavilions scattered through the city’s historic Giardini Pubblici, brimming with the best artists and work each has to offer. That the ICA would court Leigh, whose project centers around making visible the labor and strife of Black women in colonial history, makes perfect sense for a museum whose dedication to supporting artists of color, and women especially, is “in our DNA,” Medvedow said.

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What’s less obvious is why the ICA, proudly scrappy and civic-minded, would seek so exalted a global stage. Until Medvedow makes it clear: She made sure that when the Biennale wraps up at the end of the year, the works in “Sovereignty” will come directly to the ICA as part of Leigh’s first-ever museum survey.

Two works included in Simone Leigh's exhibition "Sovereignty" at the Venice Biennale. Left: "Last Garment" (detail), 2022, bronze. Right: "Martinique," 2022, glazed stoneware. Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery. © Simone LeighTIMOTHY SCHENCK

“And I will tell you, if they weren’t coming here, we wouldn’t be going there,” she said. “I have this dream every night, and great optimism, that we can have every ninth-grader in this city come to the ICA to see this show, and then every class will go home with a classroom kit to bring back to their school. Because it’s that important.”

Medvedow, 67, has always put Boston first. You can see it in the ICA’s expansive teen education programs, in the open-door policy at its in-house theatre that makes space for local dance troupes and experimental theater and music, in its convivial, come-one, come-all openings that brim with the youth, vitality and diversity that the city often struggles to achieve. “First and foremost, Jill is a great civic leader — period, end of sentence,” said Steve Corkin, president of the ICA’s board. “We’ve all learned that from her.”

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And you can see it in the building — her biggest lift, an enduring monument to her vision — the glorious glass cube that perches out on the harbor, which simply could not have existed without her. For those relatively new to the city, the ICA can feel like a fixture, a solid counterweight to the deep historic collections at the Museum of Fine Arts, or Harvard Art Museums, or the Gardner. Those with a longer view see it for the unicorn that it is: A permanent, world-class home for contemporary art in Boston.

When Medvedow took over at the ICA in 1998, her most recent museum job had been at the Gardner, where she’d been deputy director, launching, under some internal protest, its first-ever contemporary art program. Boston was famously, historically hostile to contemporary art. It had largely taken a pass even on Abstract Expressionism, America’s first home-grown international art phenomenon in the 1950s, in permanent thrall of the deep historical holdings all over town (“I joked that we should just put the word ‘Impressionism’ in the title of everything we do,” she said. “But no one has ever indulged me.”)

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The ICA's old home on Boylston Street, before its move to the Seaport in 2006. Steve Rosenthal

The ICA, then 62 years old, embodied the issue. Attendance was depressingly low, having dropped under 20,000 a year, and the building, a rented police station on Boylston street, could barely manage four annual shows. “This city has always had extraordinary collections,” Medvedow said. “But it did not have a culture of contemporary art. It didn’t have an audience. It didn’t have patrons.” What she doesn’t say is the obvious: It didn’t really have a museum, either. The remedy was just as obvious, but not easy. Build a profile for the institution. And build a building.

Medvedow came to Boston by chance. She grew up in New Haven, where her father, Leon, was a well-known Democratic politician and her mother, Phyllis, was a deeply involved volunteer for civic charitable organizations. She was just as involved in the arts, keeping Jill in art classes through childhood and regularly shepherding her through the local Art Gallery of Yale University, a trove of important works where, Medvedow says, “the world truly opened up.”

Trained as an art historian — she earned her bachelor’s degree in studio art and art history at Colgate, and her master’s at NYU — Medvedow worked in conservation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, shifting to an artist-run space in Tribeca, and then founding a contemporary art nonprofit in Seattle.

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Then, on a writing retreat in the Adirondacks in the 1980s — Medvedow was working on a book on the French artist Louise Bourgeois, a personal hero — she met Richard Kazis, a Bostonian with deep roots in labor and education nonprofits. She moved to Boston in 1986, and they married a year later; their two children grew up in Brookline, where she and Kazis still live.

After working for a variety of arts organizations, she landed at the Gardner in 1991. She had coveted the top ICA post from the start, even working there before the Gardner under then-director David Ross; but she needed to build some chops.

Five years later, though, Medvedow appeared to be breaking from museums for good: Leaving the Gardner in 1996, she told the Globe museums were “class-bound institutions with their own way of doing things.” She started building an ephemeral public art project called Vita Brevis, focused on issues including urban violence and the legacy of slavery. When the ICA came calling, Vita Brevis became her first project as director, an immediate visibility boost for the museum. A set of temporary installations around Boston landmarks such as the Old North Church and the Bunker Hill monument, Vita Brevis was Medvedow’s Trojan horse. “I thought that maybe the way to get contemporary art through to Bostonians,” she said, “was through things they already loved.”

Then in 1999, not a year into Medvedow’s tenure, the ICA got word of a competition for Parcel J, a three-quarter acre sliver of land on Fan Pier in the Seaport that was earmarked for a cultural site. Parcel J was the city planning department’s tithe from the Pritzker family for the 21 acres of hotels, condos, and office towers it had planned for the area.

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The new ICA under construction in the Seaport in September 2006. When it opened later that year, it was alone in a sea of parking lots. David L Ryan/Globe staff

The ICA was a late entry. Medvedow met with the committee who would choose the winner on a Thursday; enthused with her vision for a waterfront contemporary art museum, it invited her to present a fully fleshed-out formal proposal days later, on Tuesday. Somehow, Medvedow pulled it off. The rest is the stuff of Boston urban-development legend: The thrown-together proposal won, Medvedow raised $62 million, and despite a contractor bankruptcy and the Pritzkers abandoning the Seaport entirely, the new ICA opened in 2006all alone in a sea of parking lots.

Much has changed since then, as anyone walking down Seaport Boulevard can see. The ICA catalyzed a building boom that, for good or ill, repurposed an abandoned island of asphalt into a mirrored-glass realm of pricey apartments, condos, and offices. It’s not the perfect fit for a devoutly democratic cultural institution. But imagine what the neighborhood would be without it.

Venice might seem a relative breeze. Not so, according to Paul Ha, the director of the MIT List Visual Arts Center. “The good news is, you get Venice,” he said, “and the bad news is, you get Venice.” Ha was the commissioner for the 2015 US Pavilion with the artist Joan Jonas, and Medvedow sought out Ha’s advice even before the ICA had submitted Leigh’s project. “It was the only time I had ever seen Jill act sort of sheepish,” he said. “Listen, it’s daunting. It’s an unusual amount of pressure. You’re representing the whole country — it’s like diplomacy through art. That’s a burden.”

While Medvedow feels its weight — “We are careening towards April,” she said in her office, that March day — she’s confident, too. “Every day is full crazy,” she said. “But we have it in hand.” Venice comes with the comfort that the ICA has compromised nothing to achieve it. Adam Weinberg, the director of the Whitney Museum of American Art and an old friend, put it this way: “I see Venice as the culmination on the international stage of what Jill has been doing for decades.”

Simone Leigh at work in her studio in 2021. Shaniqwa Jarvis/Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery.

Medvedow described Leigh’s project in detail: It begins outside the pavilion with a towering scrim of raffia, a palm fibre native to Africa used for centuries for everything from clothing to shelter and one of Leigh’s signature materials. It’s a reference to the Cameroonian pavilion at the 1931 Paris Colonial Exhibition, where thousands of Africans from France’s colonies were brought to live on the exhibition grounds in huts, as though a human zoo. A 24-foot bronze sculpture called “Satellite,” based on a ceremonial D’mba mask of the Baga people, looms in front, a signal that Leigh intends to project outward this conveniently forgotten narrative of exploitation. Inside, an array of figures, some in bronze, some in ceramic, honor women’s labor, long ignored in the colonial churn.

It’s a major statement on a very large stage, one Medvedow and ICA chief curator Eva Respini believed was crucial to enable. “Jill is a different kind of museum leader,” said Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, one of the Venice commission’s key funders. “She understood diversity before it was a buzzword. Everyone deserves beauty. Everyone deserves to find dignity through art. That’s been her mission from the start.”

Bringing every ninth-grader through Leigh’s eventual show here is a through-line: When the ICA moved to its new building in 2006, Medvedow started expanding the ICA’s programs for Boston teens. Today, they serve thousands of local teens, from after school drop-ins to weeklong workshops. Since 2009, the ICA has hosted yearlong courses for Boston Public Schools students on site using the museum’s exhibitions and resources for diploma credit.

As with almost everything Medvedow does, there’s a larger purpose. “Yes, it’s an arts education program,” Medvedow said. “But it’s also a leadership program. I assume most of them will not become professional artists. But whatever they do, they will be our electorate.”

Medvedow knows of what she speaks. Not long after arriving in Boston she worked with the education nonprofit City Year to study outcomes among students who had access to arts programs, and those that did not. “It was explicitly clear,” she said, “that young people who had been exposed to the arts tended to participate more as they grow up.” Just as clear, she said, was that those opportunities were enjoyed mostly by families who could afford to pay for them. “That’s when we started really investing in teens,” she said. “We may not have the history or the endowments of our beloved colleagues, but I will say this: We’re doing right by our young people.”

In 2017, with their Watershed annex in East Boston a year away from opening, Medvedow was reaching out to community organizations there to see how the ICA could do right by its new neighbors. “It was a pleasant surprise,” said Steven Snyder, a vice president at the East Boston Community Health Center, now one of the ICA’s array of East Boston partners. “They wanted to understand the community, and how they could contribute.”

With their high school programs in full swing, Medvedow wanted to see what the ICA could offer schools in its new neighborhood. The team approached the Donald McKay K-8 public school, and together, they worked on a program called “Wall Talk” for eighth graders.

“They’ve been super intentional about their programming with our kids,” said Susan Huang, the school’s operations manager. On a group tour to see Dominican-American artist Firelei Báez’s show at the Watershed last summer, “the students were so open and vulnerable about what they were seeing,” she said. “They make it clear they can be who they are.”

Medvedow at the Watershed pre-opening in 2018. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

For those around her, Medvedow has always worn her priorities right on her sleeve. “There is a core value of civic life that runs through her,” said Charla Jones, a long-time board member. “It started with her parents. She’s doing something that is natural to her. And we get the benefit.”

That’s reflected in the museum’s content, whether it’s Leigh, the recent exhibition of Deana Lawson’s photographs of Black life, or past shows like “When Home Won’t Let You Stay,” centered on the harrowing injustices of forced migration.

The ICA ethos might never have been more apparent than in March 2020, with pandemic shutdowns looming. At an emergency board meeting, Medvedow set the agenda: One, that the ICA would not lay off any staff, and two, that it would divert resources to its local partners to address critical needs.

In East Boston, an early hotspot for virus transmission, the need for fresh food was urgent. The ICA mobilized to convert the Watershed from exhibition space to a food distribution hub. “When the pandemic hit, they’re calling me and asking, ‘How can we help?’” Snyder said.

By the end of the year, the ICA would deliver 50,000 meals to the community, and distribute thousands of art kits to help alleviate the isolation and boredom the lockdowns had brought on. “It was an additional expense at a time when most museums were cutting costs,” Corkin said. “But when you start with the filter that our commitment is to civic life in Boston, these are easy decisions to make. And that’s Jill.”

Outside Medvedow’s office window, a giant freighter slips through the fog on its way to the inner harbor. All around, sparkly mirrored towers are jammed shoulder to shoulder — apartments and condos, offices and boutiques, restaurants and nightclubs. It’s a long way from the police station, and almost as far from the vacant lots that once surrounded her. Where some see success, Medvedow worries — about extravagant Seaport housing prices, about its elite sheen, about what it might mean for East Boston, just across the water. “I do welcome density to our city,” she shrugs. “But all the great urban places are intergenerational, they have diversity in race and class. They’re places where different molecules can collide.”

It’s now up to the ICA to be the center of gravity that draws those disparate particles into its orbit — to cultivate those collisions, to make a home for difference in a pocket of the city where sky-high real estate has put it out of reach of most.

If anyone is up for the challenge, it’s Medvedow. But now she has to go. She’s almost late for a board meeting for Boston After School and Beyond, which serves up after-school programs for some 15,000 kids. And just around the corner, Venice is waiting — waiting for her to bring it home.


Murray Whyte can be reached at murray.whyte@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.