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by Francine Koslow Miller
|Since Jill Medvedow became director of the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in January 1998, her mission has been "to give Boston a high place in the art firmament." With a package that includes high-profile exhibitions, public art programs and a plan to build a new museum on Boston's hottest piece of real estate, Medvedow is definitely making her mark as a significant figure in the museum world.
"For the first time, the ICA will stand alone in an architecturally significant home," says Medvedow. "And, it will triple the size of its facility." Founded in 1936, Boston's ICA is the oldest noncollecting art institution in the United States. From the outset, the ICA has taken an international stance. It was the first American museum to exhibit Picasso's Guernica and provided early showcases for Warhol, Wesselman and Lichtenstein. "For almost 65 years," boasts Medvedow, "the ICA has been in the forefront of discovery: supporting and presenting artists from around the world to the Boston audience, often for the first time in a museum setting with in-depth solo shows."
Currently the ICA is housed in Boston's Back Bay in a refurbished 19th-century brick Victorian building that once was a police department facility and is still neighbor to a busy firehouse. With Medvedow's help, last November the ICA won a hard-fought competition for a new site at Fan Pier on the Boston waterfront.
The Chicago-based Pritzker family, sponsors of the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize and future developers of the nine-block waterfront site, donated three-quarter-acre parcel for a new civic and cultural center. The new ICA will be the first major cultural institution to be built in Boston in 100 years.
Although the ICA's victory in the competition came as a surprise to many in the Boston art community, Medvedow claims that she was always confident. When asked why she thought that the ICA was able to beat out proposals for an entertainment center and the Boston Ballet, she answered, "because we had the best project and plan for the site. There is nothing more glorious than seeing an underdog win. We were able to show the success of contemporary art museums around the world at instilling civic pride and coalescing local communities. We had done our homework about why art matters."
The ICA envisions a 60,000-square-foot facility that incorporates a 400-seat performing arts hall, an education center, a restaurant, a museum bookstore and a rooftop sculpture garden. With plans to open in 2004, the ICA has formed a committee to search for an architect, led by Nicholas Pritzker.
Being part of a large development is not a bed of roses, of course. The Pritzker's $1.2-billion project, intended as the new downtown center of Boston, includes plans for seven towers of condominiums, offices and hotels, as well as a waterside park and a cove with a boardwalk and fishing pier. Neighborhood activists claim that the buildings are too tall and the 1,000-acre site doesn't include enough open space and sufficient access to the waterfront.
Furthermore, opponents charge that the new development caters to the rich and lacks cultural diversity. Additionally, members of the nearby Fort Point Arts Community charge that the project will displace local artists.
Medvedow insists that the plan is a good one. "The Pritzker Project is being built on land that has been used as a huge parking lot. The Pritzkers are not displacing any artists. Having said that, part of what makes the South Boston area so attractive is its proximity to the Fort Point artists, galleries and designers in South Station." But local commentators have pointed out that though the ICA hopes to become part of the vital artists' community, in fact the local artists may all be gone by the time the building is finished.
What's more, raising funds for the project could prove difficult. The ICA needs to come up with $50 million in a state that was recently ranked 44 out of 50 in philanthropy. "The ICA hasn't had a history of capital campaigns," explains Medvedow. "One of my primary jobs is to raise financial and community support for the new ICA."
Last March, the ICA received an unprecedented $5-million gift towards the project from the Barbara Lee Family Foundation. In making her donation, ICA trustee and collector Barbara Lee stated, "I hope that my gift will inspire others to support this new museum and help create a city that enthusiastically embraces contemporary art." Lee, now honorary chair of the ICA fund-raising campaign, also asserted, "Jill Medvedow is the woman to lead this effort in the 21st century."
The 40-something Medvedow, a native of New Haven, Conn., and graduate of New York's Institute of Fine Arts, has a well-earned reputation for breathing new life into needy art institutions. During 1991-1997, Medvedow was the first curator of contemporary art and deputy director of programs at Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. She has also worked as program director at WGBH, served as deputy director of the New England Foundation for the Arts and was founding director of 911 Contemporary Arts in Seattle.
Medvedow's specific passion is for public art, and she left the Gardner, she explained, "to pursue my interest in producing temporary public art projects in nontraditional sites." The result was "Vita Brevis," which included commissions for artist Krzysztof Wodiczko's 1998 projections on the Bunker Hill Monument and Shimon Attie's design of a laser projection for the facade of the ICA last May. For "Art in the Emerald Necklace" last summer, "Vita Brevis" commissioned ten artists (including Ann Carlson, Ellen Driscoll and Nari Ward) to create new temporary works at specific sites along Frederick Law Olmsted's famed series of linked parks around the city.
Medvedow is having an impact on the ICA exhibition program as well. This season's shows include "Customized: Art Inspired by Hot Rods, Low Riders and American Car Culture (Oct. 25-Dec. 31, 2000); installations by the Danish-born environmental sculptor Olafur Eliasson (Jan. 24-Apr. 1, 2001); "One Hundred Models and Endless Rejects," an exhibition of work by the celebrated South-African artist Marline Dumas (Apr. 18-July 1, 2001); and the first U.S. museum presentation of the work of Dutch artist Rineke Dijkstra (Apr. 18- July 1, 2001).
Medvedow, who feels "privileged to lead the ICA at this time," is trying to create what she describes as "a healthy balance of enlightened self interest and civic service." She sees the future of the ICA as a "glorious challenge." "I'd like Boston to be a lot more like the city that I want to live in."
Remarks by Jill Medvedow are taken from interviews with the author held on Sept. 26, 2000 and Oct. 2, 2000.
FRANCINE KOSLOW MILLER is the Boston reviewer for Artforum magazine. She writes regularly for Art New England and teaches art history at the Massachusetts College of Art.