BMA hires educator as Richardson replacement

Curator: Helen Molesworth brings a reputation for caring about the audience -- the third leg of the stool along with the artist and the artwork -- to her new job overseeing contemporary art.

November 05, 1999|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF

A director of a New York university gallery known for her ability to communicate with both artists and audiences has been hired by the Baltimore Museum of Art to curate contemporary art exhibitions and to oversee the reinstallation of the museum's contemporary art wing.

Helen Molesworth, an assistant professor and the director of the Amelie A. Wallace Gallery at the State University of New York at Old Westbury, will begin her new job in January. She will step into a curatorial position unfilled since early 1998 -- when Brenda Richardson resigned after holding the job for 23 years.

"I'm terrifically excited," said Molesworth. "The job seems to be filled with enormous possibility. The BMA itself is filled with possibility, and it clearly has a commitment to contemporary art that is strongly spoken by the new wing."

Molesworth, who earned a doctoral degree in art history from Cornell University, also teaches at Bard College and at the Cooper Union School of Art in New York City. At SUNY, where she has been gallery director for three years, she has curated shows such as "Harlem: The Vision of Morgan and Marvin Smith" and "Picturing the Civil Rights Movement." From 1990 to 1997, the 33-year-old worked in the education department at the Whitney Museum of American Art, where she trained docents and planned educational programs. Molesworth also is co-founder and co-editor of Documents, a magazine of contemporary visual culture.

"She is a thinker and a writer," said BMA director Doreen Bolger, who announced the hiring yesterday. "She is filled with enthusiasm about living artists, and she has the ability to communicate that enthusiasm and really build the audience for contemporary art."

As the BMA's curator of contemporary art, Molesworth will be responsible for the care, growth and interpretation of the museum's collection of post-1945 contemporary painting and sculpture, which features works by Carl Andre, Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol and Mark Rothko. Unlike Richardson, her predecessor, who held the position of curator and deputy director, Molesworth will report to Jay Fisher, the museum's deputy director for curatorial affairs.

"She is terribly impressive -- a terrifically strong addition to the curatorial staff in terms of knowledge of art theory, art history and art development," said Gary Sangster, director of the Contemporary. "It is a very interesting appointment and possibly unexpected because she hasn't been doing a lot of exhibitions in the past three or four years. She has been doing a lot of teaching. The BMA is saying, `We are going to make a very serious attempt to deal with contemporary art and remain up-to-the-minute.'

"Helen is going to put everyone on notice that the museum will be doing very challenging and interesting work."

An art advocate

Within the art community, Molesworth is known for a sense of humor and an ability to communicate complex ideas, without diluting them, to a broad range of people. "She is passionate about art and really cares about objects and artists," said Connie Wolf, director of the Jewish Museum San Francisco and former associate director at the Whitney. "But what really distinguishes her is that she cares about audiences, too. A lot of curators are focused on the object and the artist, but Helen adds the other leg of the three-legged stool."

"I'm heartbroken she's leaving," said Doug Ashford, an artist and adjunct professor at Cooper Union. "She understands art and -- this sounds contradictory, but speaking as an artist myself -- it is quite unusual to find people who are as intelligent about culture who simultaneously understand what it is that artists go through to produce work. There is a kind of creative empathy which is almost disturbing in its directness."

The BMA's search for a curator of contemporary art began nearly two years ago. Last June, Bolger hired Heidrick & Struggles of Irvine, Calif., to speed up the process.

"I asked her how she would relate difficult subject material, was she able and willing to talk to the community about it and I came away with the feeling that, yes, she not only had the knowledge, but she had the willingness to share," says Margot Heller, a 25-year member of the museum's board of trustees. "It is easy to be a preacher to your own flock, but it is not so easy when you are preaching to people whose minds aren't as open to this kind of art."

Molesworth's tentative plans include creating a project room in which young artists could develop small exhibitions, mounting contemporary exhibitions that would travel to other museums, presenting retrospectives for mid-career artists and reinstalling the 6-year-old contemporary art galleries.

Adding educational element

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