Jill Medvedow, the longtime director of the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston who drove its ambitious, city-changing growth over the past two decades, is retiring, the ICA announced Wednesday, but will remain in the position through December 2024.
Medvedow’s departure comes in the afterglow of a high-profile success. Last year, the ICA convened the United States’ official entry to the Venice Biennale with the artist Simone Leigh.
“It was such a thrilling, thrilling accomplishment, for the whole museum,” Medvedow said. “There was a period when people would say to me frequently, ‘You are the ICA,’ and I would deflect that. I did understand what they meant, and that is really just not true anymore. I could see the collective strength here — of staff, the board, and in our community. That gave me the confidence to feel that I had helped bring it to this point, and that this was a natural stopping point [for me].”
Leigh was the first Black woman to represent the United States at the Biennale, the once-every-two-years event widely seen as the most prestigious and visible contemporary art exhibition in the world. Partnering with Leigh was a natural fit for the ICA, which Medvedow has built over the years into a platform for artists not yet recognized with the career-making pillar of a survey exhibition. (Leigh’s survey, which grew out of the Venice commission, opened in the spring at the ICA and opens at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., on Nov.3)
The Leigh project is an emblem of the institution Medvedow has crafted over her 25 years into a spiritual home for artists long-underrepresented in museums, specifically women and artists of color.
The transformation on Medvedow’s watch has been profound. When she joined the museum in 1998, the ICA was renting a former police station on Boylston Street, where awkwardly shaped galleries limited its ability to show the large and complex work that had become the norm in the contemporary art world. It was attracting fewer than 20,000 visitors a year.
Medvedow had come from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, where as deputy director she had launched the museum’s contemporary art program. (After leaving the Gardner, she created a public art program called Vita Brevis before joining the ICA.) She arrived at the ICA with a clear and lofty goal: to put it on the American and international map as a significant hub for contemporary art, housed in a new building built specifically for that purpose.
Medvedow would lead a campaign to secure land and raise more than $62 million, opening the ICA’s new 65,000-square-foot building in the Seaport in 2006. Built by the firm Diller, Scofidio + Renfro, it was an architectural triumph, and an icebreaker in the Seaport, a neglected urban frontier. Where the ICA went, others followed: a vibrant and dense neighborhood has grown around it.
For Medvedow, the building is less important than what she and her staff have built both within and around it. When Medvedow started, the ICA had no collection. Today, anchored by the Barbara Lee Collection of Art by Women, a key donation of more than 70 pieces Medvedow personally stewarded in 2015, the ICA’s collection now numbers 387 works. Last year, the ICA’s visitors numbered 300,000.
Equally important to Medvedow has been the ICA’s commitment to the city’s civic life, which it expresses with its permanent space for teen programs, its integration with Boston Public Schools, and its longstanding relationships with community organizations. At the outset of the pandemic in 2020 in East Boston, the ICA transformed the Watershed into a food distribution hub for the area’s struggling residents.
“[Jill] has integrated new art and ideas into the heart of our communities, bridged the connection between contemporary art and civic life, and in doing so, forever changed the landscape for contemporary art and culture in the city of Boston,” Steven D. Corkin and Charlotte Wagner, cochair and president of the ICA’s board, said in a joint statement.
Medvedow, now 69, plans to remain deeply involved with civic projects in life after the ICA, including a two-year fellowship at Harvard’s Divinity School that began earlier this year. “I’ve been thinking about the ways in which community and a sense of purpose and deep meaning come together in the arts,” she said. “I’m really, really excited about the kind of global community of thinkers and leaders I’ll be with there.”
Whatever the case, her commitment to Boston will remain. She cited an obituary of a legendary Detroit community organizer, Grace Lee Boggs. “She was quoted as saying ‘the most radical thing I ever did was stay put.’ That made a huge impression on me. It spoke to me, and it spoke to how long it has taken to make change here in Boston.”
But the title “Jill Medvedow, former ICA director,” will take some getting used to. “I’ve thought very carefully about this for a long time,” she said. “But it’s still surreal. That’s the best word I have for it.”
This story has been updated to correct the city where Grace Lee Boggs was an organizer.