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Keynote address with Helen Molesworth and James S. Snyder

Posted By Sarah Schultz, Curatorial Assistant for Contemporary Art & Special Projects, MFA, Houston, , Tuesday, June 26, 2012

James S. Snyder, the Anne and Jerome Fisher Director at the Israel Museum and Helen Molesworth, the chief curator of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (ICA) joined together for the keynote address at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston on May 14, 2012.  What’s the result of aligning two institutions that seem to sit at opposite ends of the spectrum?  The Israel Museum is an encyclopedic museum located on 20-acre mountaintop campus in Jerusalem.  The Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, (also known as the ICA) was once a Kunsthalle that rotates a newly established permanent collection on view as well as traveling or visiting exhibitions of contemporary art.  First, Snyder explained his institution’s recent major expansion.  He noted that, "renewal” better describes the transformation the museum experienced.   The renewal allowed many new exhibition possibilities.  Snyder gave the audience of curators a visual tour, beginning with the three new wings equipped to exhibit sculpture, painting and antiquities.  They are named the Fine Arts Wing, the Jewish Art and Life Wing and the Archaeology wing that leads to a temporary exhibition space as well.  Architectural plans and breathtaking photographs showed the increase in natural light in the gallery spaces.  Snyder says, the natural light was one way to preserve the spiritual dimension of the space.   He noted that contemporary art installations were a challenge at first though, he and his team of curators found new ways to exhibit antiquities with a connection to contemporary art practices as well.

Helen Molesworth also offered insightful ways of conceiving the modern-day museum.  Helen Molesworth came to the ICA from the Harvard Art Museum where she served as head of the department of modern and contemporary art and the museum’s Houghton Curator of Contemporary Art.  She posed a similar question to that of James Snyder’s, "How does a museum successfully exhibit and/or house ancient and contemporary art under the same roof?” Molesworth belongs to the ICA, an institution that was originally named the Boston Museum of Modern Art in 1936.  The ICA started as a Kunsthalle.  Molesworth explained that, the ICA models itself after similar institutions that focus attentions toward exhibit contemporary art.  The New Museum is a chief example of an institution that aims to both exhibit art and act as an alternative space.  Marcia Tucker, formerly the curator of painting at the Whitney Museum, found the New Museum in 1977 and deemed that it would only exhibit contemporary art.   The break from the Whitney Museum allowed Tucker to show work by lesser known living artists on the brink of discovery.  The break was a telltale sign that contemporary art had begun to outgrow the traditional museum format.  Alternative spaces like these could be more in tune to the societal and global shifts that occur, shifts that are almost imperceptible to those participating in the society, but that artists can isolate and reinterpret through their art practice. 

Where do the two converge?

Helen Molesworth probably summed up it best when she said, "Art historians are like astronomers, both are concerned with seeing things in the present which were made long ago."  Both Snyder and Molesworth explore the best ways to understand and communicate the cultural treasures of our world. 

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