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Curatorial rivalry between MFA and ICA heats up with new appointment


Jen Mergel

Museum hot seats

Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts announced today that it has lured away the most senior curator at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art. It could signal a major curatorial rivalry brewing between the two institutions — which would only be good for Boston’s art audience.

Jen Mergel, associate curator at the ICA, has been named the Beal Family Senior Curator of Contemporary at the MFA. The Boston native and Harvard grad is expected to begin work at the MFA in February.

Mergel’s departure from the ICA, where she’s worked since 2005, follows the departure of ICA chief curator Nicholas Baume in September to become director of New York’s Public Art Fund. This leaves the ICA with just one curator — assistant curator and former Phoenix contributor Randi Hopkins, who joined the ICA last fall, as well as curatorial associate Bridget Hanson. The ICA’s curatorial staff has completely turned over since it moved into its new building in December 2006.

Mergel would seem to have been next in line for Baume’s job. Perhaps that job wasn’t available to her, but her move to the MFA suggests that she sees a lot of potential at the venerable old museum, which has a reputation for giving contemporary art short shrift.

The MFA has rarely given its curators the space or backing to present shows as ambitious as the ICA’s 2008 Tara Donovan retrospective, which Mergel co-curated with Baume. But the MFA plans to devote its 23,000-square-foot West Wing (also known as the Linde Family Wing) to modern and contemporary art as part of its current renovation and expansion, the main phase of which is scheduled to open next November. Not all of the West Wing will be galleries, but this is expected to give the MFA at least as much space for art of the past century as the some 18,000 square feet devoted to galleries at the ICA.

The release says, “Mergel will work with [Department of Contemporary Art and MFA Programs Chairman Edward] Saywell on the development, planning, and organization of the Museum’s new galleries in the Linde Family Wing, scheduled to open as the MFA’s center for contemporary art in June 2011.”

The new gallery space, the appointment of Mergel, and Saywell himself all could be signs that the MFA aims to give the ICA a run for its money. The MFA promoted Edward Saywell to the newly created position — also known as director of the West Wing — in September 2007.

But Mergel fills the shoes of Cheryl Brutvan, who arrived with similar hopes for new exciting things at the MFA. They didn’t really pan out, as Brutvan ended up mainly focusing on smallish exhibitions in the West Wing’s Foster Gallery. She announced in July 2008 that she would be leaving the MFA, apparently without another job lined up. In January, she become curator of contemporary art at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida.

Will this time be different?

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