We want to welcome to New England the new Director of the MIT List Visual Arts Center, Mr. Paul Ha.
I personally am very excited to discover that Mr. Paul Ha is back on the East Coast. I have followed his activities from the mid 1990’s when he was the Director of White Columns, New York’s oldest alternative art space. At that time, White Columns was a focal point in the art world for discovering new artists. Their monthly shows were attended by countless art lovers and were a regular topic of rigorous discussion among the young and established artists alike.
Since that time he went on to become the Director of the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis where he worked for 10 years and was successful developing it on two important fronts. He both expanded the museum as well as established it as a leader in contemporary art.
At this turning point Mr. Ha has agreed to an interview with China Blue, Founder & Executive Director of The Engine Institute and Editor of “Entanglement” magazine, about his vision for the future of the MIT List Visual Arts Center. Here are a few questions she posed to him.
CB: Paul, there seems to be some large differences between the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis (CAM), and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT’s), List Visual Arts Center. One of the differences between CAM and List is that the List Visual Arts Center is part of MIT where CAM is an autonomous museum, do you feel that being the Director of a academic based art center will have an impact on your leadership role and if so in what way?
PH: Thanks for inviting me to have this conversation with you China Blue. Although the List is very much aware and appreciates the fact that we are part of and represent MIT, we at the same time, feel very much autonomous. MIT is one of the world’s leading research institutes, and from what I’ve observed, one of the reason that it has such a high rate of success is that it has a culture of respecting individual research. The research and experimentalism that is occurring throughout campus is also occurring within our gallery walls. And the institute, because of the respect and the reputation the List has garnered, it very much does not get involved in our programming. I’m pretty sure that the Institute wants and expects the List to be one of the leading contemporary art museums in our field, and that is what everyone at the List strives to achieve for the List.
CB: The MIT’s mission is to advance knowledge in technology and science how does that figure into the focus of the List Visual Arts Center’s programming and your future plans for the List Visual Arts Center?
PH: I think that what MIT appreciates and expects from those who represent the institution is to be the “best” in their field. Science is extraordinarily strong here and that is what most people associate with that is being researched and taught here. However even from the way back, arts and humanities were very much appreciated and emphasized here at the Institute. If you go onto the Department of Architecture’s website, you will discover that, “Architecture was one of the four original departments at MIT, and it was the first signal that MIT would not be narrowly defined in science and technology. Through recognition of architecture as a liberal discipline, the Department has long contributed to learning in the arts and humanities at MIT.” And additionally, MIT’s School for Humanities Arts and Social Sciences had presence on campus as far back as 1860’s. And the department’s current website states that, “To name just a few areas of impact, the School’s research helps alleviate poverty, safeguard elections, steer economies, understand the past and present, improve health policy, articulate morality, plan space policy, assess the impact of new technologies, understand human language, and create new forms at the juncture of art and science.” So you can see that although MIT excels in science, the work and teaching that we do in the arts and humanities is diverse and far-reaching. So the List’s future programming is in keeping with our past which is to program and to create exhibitions that are based on excellence and not necessarily based on science.
CB: List’s mission is to present the most challenging contemporary art and to provide education on how art reflects the social and cultural issues of our world. One of your goals for your tenure is to expand List’s activities into the community. How do you envision that evolving?
PH: One of the reasons I am now at the List is the stellar reputation it has within the contemporary art world for its rotating exhibition program and the scholarly catalog program – and that will continue. What was an eye opener for me was that when I arrived on campus, I realized that in addition to the catalog and the exceptional exhibition program, that MIT had a world-class public art collection – and I discovered that the List oversaw the program. In addition, I also discovered that MIT had an active (because there’s on-going capital projects) a Percent-for-Art Program. Where when a new building gets built for MIT or an existing building gets a major make over, that we (MIT and the List overseeing the project) commission a new major piece of public art from a living artist. Some of the recent commissions include pieces by: Cai Guo-Quiang, Anish Kapoor, Martin Boyce, and Sarah Sze, who will be representing the U.S. in the next Venice Biennale. And in a way, with our international programming, the List’s reputation is more well known among those visiting the Venice Biennale than those who live right here in Cambridge and Boston. When I first arrived at MIT, I took a totally unscientific poll among the faculty and students while standing in line at the lunch spots on campus. I would simply ask them if they knew about the List Visual Arts Center. And my unscientific survey said that the List was not on the radar of most of the people buying sandwiches. And I felt, we can’t serve the student and faculty population, if they did not know about us. So we now have our very first Campus and Community Outreach Coordinator, Courtney Klemens. And she is already having great impact not only on campus but for the Boston and Cambridge community. Recently we offered a “Family Week” and we were targeting the Graduate Students at MIT with children but it turned out that caretakers from Harvard, Cambridge, and Boston area found about the event and we had over 100 toddlers receiving a tour of the Amalia Pica exhibition that then turned into hands on activities. We will be looking into programming events to reach a wider audience that we currently serve. I feel a museum should serve the widest audience possible – and sometimes in a surprising way. So look for additional activities at the List. We will continue with our artist lectures and the spring tour of the public art collection but we will be asking everyone “how we can better serve”. So everyone’s input will be welcomed.
CB: Paul, thank you very much for your time and your comments. We look forward to seeing the List Visual Arts Center’s future exhibitions under your direction.