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Sourcing Local for Boston Art

Greg Cook is proud to be a yokel. As an art critic for The Boston Phoenix weekly, an independent blogger and artist, Greg is a staunch fan and supporter of the Boston contemporary art community. What bugs him about this city’s art scene is that he might have a better opinion of the scene than it does of itself. In a series of blog posts on his New England Journal for Aesthetic Research, Greg has outlined a Yokelist manifesto for a Boston art community with enough confidence to drive itself to greater heights, art world capital or not.

“One of the salient characteristics of Boston’s second-city syndrome is that everyone here is convinced that everyone else here sucks,” Greg writes in the manifesto, “Because if they didn’t suck, they’d be in New York. We need to change that thinking. We need to be proudly provincial.” Greg adds in an interview, “We need to have an attitude that we’re going to kick ass and not be stopped. It’s about challenging ourselves to up our game.”

So what does Boston lack in inspiring artists’ ambition?

Boston’s major local art institutions, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Institute of Contemporary Art, “present shows that bring in international artists and artists from across the country,” Greg says. “There’s a sense in the region that this is a meritocracy, and what gets shown is the best, and the reason that local art doesn’t get better placement locally is that it doesn’t merit it. I don’t agree with that.”

“It’s not hard to see who are the best artists in the country who live in Boston, they’re already nationally recognized,” Greg explains, “But for some reason they get overlooked here.”

Established photographer Nicholas Nixon and multi media artist Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons both teach in Boston. Emerging artists like new media pioneer Brian Knep live and work in the city. Through mounting retrospectives of such local artists and building records of artists’ careers through catalogues and essays, Boston institutions could better contribute to the foundation of the art community here at home, argues Greg.

Brian Knep, "Drift Wall" (2007)

As Greg sees it, keeping curators local might help sustain Boston institutions’ support of local art and artists. However, Boston is rarely a curator’s last stop.

The success of Institute of Contemporary Art Boston’s ex-chief curator Nicholas Baume earned him a move from ICA Boston to the directorship of New York’s Public Art Fund in September 2009. The contemporary art department of the Boston Museum of Fine Art has undergone a complete turnover in the past two years with both curator Cheryl Brutvan and assistant curator William Stover leaving the institution.

On the plus side, several new hires are sourcing locally. Former ICA Boston assistant curator Jen Mergel was recently appointed senior curator at the MFA, a position meant to bolster the museum’s commitment to contemporary art in its new wing. Helen Molesworth, Harvard’s previous curator of contemporary art, is taking the position of chief curator at the ICA Boston.

“Hiring locally is great, but the people you hire locally also have to be engaged with the local community,” Greg says. “The ICA’s people have not been known to be out on the scene, but Jen Mergel was someone, out of that low level, who had more engagement.”

Molesworth mounted several exhibitions in her short time at Harvard, including a Felix Gonzalez-Torres candy field installation, a Paul Chan show, and ACT UP New York, a look at visual media and AIDS activism.

ICA Boston associate curator Randi Hopkins notes that the curators at her institution attend shows in Boston “on an on-going basis,” serve as jurors for local

Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, "Susurro Whispering" (1997) (via SMFA.org)

exhibitions and review work in local art schools. The ICA Boston’s biennial Foster prize, granted to Boston-area artists in the form of an ICA exhibition and cash award for the best showing, provides an opportunity for area artists to be seen as well as for curators, writers and educators to explore local work.

Hopkins points to a different weakness in the art community. While the Boston contemporary art scene gains strength from its diversity of university galleries and museums, Hopkins writes in an email, “In the area of private support for local artists, such as enthusiasm for collecting contemporary art locally, the Boston area still has a ways to go.”

In this case, it might be best to take the locavore credo to heart in a contemporary art context. Buy local, consume local, and support local producers, and Boston’s seedbed for contemporary art might have a chance to bloom.

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