The Museum of Contemporary Art took the next step in rebuilding its staff and programming, appointing Helen Molesworth of the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston as its new chief curator.
A scholar, art writer and curator, Molesworth has been at ICA/Boston since 2010. Before that she headed the department of modern and contemporary art at the Harvard Art Museum and served as the museum’s Houghton Curator of Contemporary Art.
She will start Sept. 1.
“Helen brings to the position a deep love of MOCA — she knows MOCA’s history, she knows MOCA’s collection, she understands it,” says museum director Philippe Vergne.
“I love the way she talks about art, thinks about art, writes about art,” he said. “She has an incredible connection with artists and audiences and patrons. She brings an incredible integrity and high level of scholarship and a passion for living artists. And she has a great sense of humor.”
Molesworth said that early in her career she was inspired by MOCA’s collection of post-World War II art and by former MOCA curators, who helped her shape her own curatorial voice.
She cited three MOCA exhibitions as particularly influential: Paul Schimmel’s 1998 “Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949-1979,” on the postwar merger of performance art with traditional painting and sculpture; “A Minimal Future? Art as Object 1958-1968,” the first full-scale museum survey of Minimalist art, curated by Ann Goldstein in 2004 and “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution,” curated in 2007 by Connie Butler, now chief curator at the Hammer Museum.
Molesworth said her vision for MOCA will involve looking both backward and forward — and then staying as open-minded as possible until she arrives in Los Angeles at the end of August.
“MOCA has one of the most ambitious programming histories in the United States. That’s complemented by a truly stellar collection of post World War II art. And that’s further augmented by the extraordinary change that’s happened in L.A. over the past two decades in terms of it being one of the world’s leading contemporary art cities,” Molesworth said. “We’ll build to all of those strengths.
“L.A. is one of those places that people have a lot of fantasies about from afar,” she said. “I’d like to immerse myself in the community of artists and art lovers and see what makes sense for MOCA now.”
Vergne said the search to fill the chief curator position “started March 10 at 9 a.m.,” his first hour on the job. He says he considered about 20 people for the position and narrowed it down to four finalists.
He said Molesworth will bring the Kerry James Marshall retrospective she’s guest-curating for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago — which opens there in the spring of 2015 — to MOCA in 2017.
“It’s not tomorrow, but it’s the day after tomorrow in museum life and scheduling,” Vergne said.
Molesworth guest-curated the exhibition “This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s,” at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago in 2012. Los Angeles Times Art Critic Christopher Knight called it "… a tight, well-selected exhibition [that] sets a high standard, rooting art in the era’s social landscape.”
She was also the guest curator of the 2010 Luc Tuymans retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Originally from New York, she also has served as chief curator of exhibitions at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio.
Catherine Opie, one of the MOCA artist trustees who resigned in 2012 in response to the direction the museum was taking under former director Jeffrey Deitch, returned to the board after Vergne’s appointment this year. She worked with Molesworth on “Catherine Opie: Empty and Full,” a 2011 exhibition at ICA/Boston of new and recent political photographs.
“I have a history with Helen,” said Opie. “She’s an amazing and brilliant choice. One of the things I like about her is she’s scholarly — you’ll see really interesting and challenging shows ... she made me think about my work in ways I hadn’t been stretched before. It bodes very well for MOCA.
“What’s not to like, for me?” asked John Baldessari, another reconciled MOCA artist-trustee. “She wrote her thesis on Duchamp! Obviously she’ll do great in my mind. I’m very happy.”