The Colgate Scene
November 2003

Power broker
Building Boston's first art museum in 100 years

[Photo courtesy Jill Medvedow]

Jill Medvedow '76 hopes to transform Boston's cultural and physical landscape.

"I feel like a lot of my job is to shape Boston to be more of the kind of city I wish it was," said Medvedow, who has been the James Sachs Plaut Director of the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) since 1998. "Boston has a rich intellectual life, it's a very livable city, and it's the place where I'm raising my children, so I'm very committed to it." But although the ICA has, for nearly seven decades, introduced to the greater viewing public people who have become some of the world's most important modern artists (such as Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschen-berg, and Cindy Sherman), she said that Boston's contemporary art scene still needs "a shot in the arm."

Her approach to promoting contemporary art in Boston, at the ICA as well as in earlier career experiences, has been "to make sure there are opportunities for Boston audiences and artists to see some of the best work being made around the world, and to open Boston in ways that are clearly true for the city in academic life," said Medvedow. "I want to see in our public arts institutions that same kind of global perspective and exchange of ideas, from the aesthetic and conceptual point of view."

Medvedow has concocted a prescription for that proverbial shot in the arm, and it's taking effect.

In what some in Boston have called a coup, she landed a coveted site to build a bigger, better ICA at the Fan Pier, a planned $1.2 billion upscale office, retail, and residential complex on Boston's waterfront. The ICA is currently in the midst of a $60 million campaign to raise the capital for the museum's new home, the proposal having competed against the likes of the Wang Center opera house. According to Boston magazine, which last spring named Medvedow among the 10 most powerful arts people in the city, "The new ICA will increase the museum's size threefold and its profile -- and hence Medvedow's influence -- exponentially."

The ICA's home since 1936, a foreboding (and cramped) 19th-century brownstone police station on Boylston Street in the Back Bay, indeed seems an unlikely place for a contemporary art museum. But all that will change in 2006, when the new structure is scheduled to open, and therefore building the new ICA is by far the most significant focus of Medvedow's job today.

"This building will give contemporary art a world-class home for the first time in the history of Boston, and it will be the first new art museum built here in nearly 100 years," said Medvedow.

As well as tripling its exhibition space, the ICA will be able to expand its offerings. A new educational center will provide "places to get dirty and make art, or have lectures for school groups, after-school programs, and families," she explained. A performance space will allow "a constant profile of contemporary performance, dance, spoken word, and music that I think will change both the makeup of how we serve and who we serve."

In addition, the ICA will be able to build a permanent 21st century art collection that represents the museum's own exhibition history.

"This building has already gotten phenomenal attention -- from the New York Times to many architecture magazines -- it's been fantastic and wild," said Medvedow. "We think we are on the verge of creating an architectural landmark."

Beyond her focus on the new building, Medvedow's work ranges from developing exhibition schedules to commissioning new works with the chief curator to interacting with exhibiting artists, from governance with volunteer bodies to raising money.

Recent exhibitions at the ICA include European sculptor Carsten Höller's first U.S. solo show, "Half Fiction," and the fifth annual Vita Brevis project, "Remedy," choreographer Ann Carlson's project with medical and healing professionals to create individual movement portraits that were projected in large format in Copley Square and the Longwood Medical Area.

Medvedow's brainchild, Vita Brevis is a pioneering Boston-area public arts program that she created as a separate entity in 1997 and brought with her to the ICA. "We commission quite substantial temporary works of public art that respond to both the landscape and history of Boston," she explained.

[Photo by Philip Jones]
The very first Vita Brevis project was particularly meaningful to Medvedow, and her account of the event reveals her passion for contemporary art.

"`The Bunker Hill Monument Projection' was really one of the greatest works of art I'd ever seen," she explained. "Krzysztof Wodiczko projected a video on the top quarter of one of the iconic obelisks of American Revolutionary War history. The monument sits in Charlestown, which is a fairly insular, xenophobic and working-class and low-income neighborhood. It had suffered deeply from an epidemic of unsolved deaths of young men. Many of them hadn't been solved because of a `code of silence' that had paralyzed the community.

"This piece was interviews with five people -- three mothers who had lost sons, and two young men who had been in and stepped out of that world of violence. For three nights running, these people were the focal points for an entire city while they told their story in their city. When a mother talked about getting a call and hearing that her son had been taken in an ambulance to Rutherford Avenue, she raised her hand on the video and pointed behind her, and in fact Rutherford Avenue was behind her. It was a night that had thousands of people in absolute pin-drop silence outside watching this with chills and goosebumps and tears. When the light from the projectors permeated the stone of the monument, it was almost as if the Sphinx spoke. It had a tremendous formal beauty and a powerful content that was mesmerizing and transformative."

Medvedow, who majored in fine arts at Colgate, noted that another Vita Brevis project had a Colgate connection. In 2000, her classmate Jim Boorstein '76 was one of the featured artists in "Art on the Emerald Necklace," which explored public life, the history of public space, and creativity through artworks in Boston's system of parks and greenways designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in the 19th century.

Before creating Vita Brevis and subsequently joining the ICA, Medvedow was deputy director for programs and curator of contemporary art at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston for six years. There, she managed all public programs, helped create a neighborhood school partnership, established and expanded artist and teacher residency programs, and developed the museum's first audio tour. Previously, she worked for several Boston-area nonprofits, including the WGBH Educational Foundation and New England Foundation for the Arts.

Before settling in Boston, Medvedow, who holds an M.A. from the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, was founding director of Nine One One Contemporary Arts Center in Seattle, Wash., from 1982 to 1986.

Considering what she enjoys about her work today, Medvedow remarked, "We are a relatively small organization, and one of the things I like is how diverse the responsibilities are. I love the aspects of being a CEO that are about strategy and vision, and the financial aspects of what it means to shape, strengthen, and grow an organization.

"And, I am deeply enthralled and overwhelmed and engaged in designing and helping make happen this new building," said Medvedow. "We're certainly taking advantage of the opportunity to lead."

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