I’m inspecting a photo of the Fog x FLO project featured at the Newton Free Library. It’s of a performer half enshrouded in a mysterious mist, beckoning inward. A few rays of sunlight shimmer through the mist behind her, adding to the dreamy quality of the picture. Within the exhibition, a few other viewers look at photographs of performers in this artificial fog. I take in the one I stand before and consider how the picture makes me feel, what it reminds me of. But then, something makes a tentative step forward into my bubble of focus. I hear its voice before I can turn slightly to see who’s there.
“Hi,” says the intruder, “Are you… are you Jack?” It’s Jen Mergel, one of Boston’s leading curators of contemporary art. She conducts herself amicably, yet in the earnest, slightly rushed way of a busy woman with many connections. Her importance is cemented as soon as she introduces herself to the artist of the collection we stand in.
Led by her purposeful stride, I follow her through the library, into another local art display, which she takes hardly a moment to analyze. She turns to me, and delivers her thoughts promptly. We step into a large, silent hall of the library, find a table, and take a plunge into the world of art work, exhibitions, and connoisseurships.
“I would say, I certainly have an interest in making,” said Mergel, who initially thought she wanted to study cognitive neurobiology in college. She was interested in exploring how we make connections and associations between things. Despite how far such a science feels from art, the link is clear. After all, what is the work of a curator if not to use the presentation of the art to spark the intended connections, to provoke thoughts and questions?
After getting into a studio art course, Mergel discovered a newfound love for art. “You know, I could stay up till three or four in the morning and not even notice time passing, because it’s very satisfying, trying to solve these problems,” said said. From there, she attended Harvard University and studied visual and environmental studies. She followed an educational path in art, teaching at universities and museums, until becoming a curator.
For many, the occupation of curator isn’t well defined or understood. Many know it as a career with a vague relationship to art and showcases, but what exactly do curators do? Officially, they select, organize and present artwork. They interpret works, and then use the space, lighting, proximities to the other pieces and the viewer, atmosphere and other important design elements to provoke the right questions and to convey the intended — and unintended — ideas. The curatorial process is quite variable. One of the major factors is the specialty, and what kind of art you may be curating. For contemporary art, the future is the main focus.
“Regardless of discipline, any curator needs to ask some fundamental questions, and they need to be able to anticipate what’s amazing to experience with your senses. What’s going to build curiosity in terms of how does this happen? Why is it this way? Who knew that the thing that I assumed is actually counterintuitive? So an exhibition may raise questions and not necessarily provide answers,” she explains.
Mergel’s personal style involves searching for a piece which is humble and of service to its community. It opens up new perspectives and windows of thought in the viewer, as opposed to being egocentric. She says many art pieces, especially ones of colonial and imperialist times, were made with clear presumptions of superiority, and created to glorify themselves and their creator. But Mergel is more worried about a piece of artwork which was created for the people and changes its audience in a thoughtful way. “I choose projects that are satisfying, and I feel like I’m learning something along the way. I feel like I’m helping other people learn something or rethink something, as opposed to, for example, doing another Picasso show.”
Unfortunately, many of these egocentric mindsets linger as a part of their artwork’s legacy. She explained her decision to leave the MFA as a curator, observing that many of the famous art institutions were founded in the 18th century from a patriarchal, single-minded perspective in which the museum seeks to tell you what the best is, and art was largely presented by and for white men. Despite the revolutionary social and political changes that have occurred since these institutions’ founding, their art is still of course primarily historical, and so their attitudes, at times, have stagnated in the past.
Given the many ways curators can approach their work and the variability of the work itself, there are a plethora of ways curators measure their success. Some feel accomplished when they have mentored a great number of aspiring curators into their own school of thought, and helped them achieve success themselves. Others take pride in rising from curator to director of an important institution. Some find achievement in having influenced the most institutions and policies in the world of art. Mergel, however, values the impact she leaves on her audience and on the field.
She, like other curators who have drifted away from institutional affiliations, is interested in shaping how audiences connect to art, whether in a public space or elsewhere, even helping viewers understand the role of the curator. While many think of beauty and talent when they think of good art, Mergel begs to differ. Good art carries weight, has meaning, and makes you think, and should be appreciated for such.
“People will often say the sign of intelligence is to hold two conflicting ideas that are paradoxically simultaneous... and art can do that in a way that other media can’t.”