After nearly a decade at the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis, Paul Ha has returned to the East Coast, as director of MIT’s List Visual Arts Center. Ha’s peripatetic career previously landed him at New York’s White Columns and the Yale University Art Gallery.
As CAM’s inaugural director, Ha supervised the construction of a new building in downtown St. Louis and organized nearly 100 exhibitions. Over the years he’s made a name for himself as a forward-looking curator promoting up-and-coming artists (Gedi Sibony, Laylah Ali, Slater Bradley) and re-contextualizing established figures (Richard Artschwager, Cindy Sherman, Polly Apfelbaum).
Ha spoke with A.i.A. soon after moving to Boston.
LEIGH ANNE MILLER You’ve just arrived at MIT. How is it going so far?
PAUL HA I’ve been here for a month, which is not very long! What I’m discovering is that the job is a lot bigger than it appears from the outside. MIT has a world-class public art collection, so I’ll be very involved with that. The List also has a permanent art collection, plus we have the student loan art program, which is really exceptional. One of my first observations was that there is a lot more going on here than just the exhibition program.
MILLER What is the student loan art program?
HA Each fall the students line up—first come, first served—to “check out” real artworks. There are about 1,000 pieces in the collection.
MILLER For their dorm room, you mean?
HA Yes, they can borrow an artwork and keep it for the year. It’s become really popular because there’s a limited number. We have an exhibition in the fall, and if students see something they like, they make a note of it, and then we have a lottery to determine who gets what. At first, we thought it would be much more efficient to have an online system, but the whole idea of actually putting someone in front of a work of art is really important.
MILLER Can you tell me a bit about MIT’s Percent for Art program? This kind of initiative is more common for a government agency, and is very unusual for a university museum. Have you commissioned public art before?
HA I personally have not worked with a public art program before, so I’m really excited to be involved with that here. MIT, like many universities, is growing in terms of facilities. So I know that we’ll have opportunities to build on its public art collection. I love the fact that we get artists involved at the beginning of the building process. From the start they get pulled into something that’s permanent, which is really exciting for all of us.
MILLER Are there any particular artists you have in mind for the Percent for Art program?
HA There are so many I’d like to work with. I really like the idea of collaborating with someone who you wouldn’t normally think of as a public art person, and giving that person a first stab at public art.
MILLER I went to college in St. Louis, so I remember when CAM opened in 2003, and I saw most of the early shows in the new building. Many artists who have become fairly well known in the past few years I remember hearing about first via shows at CAM.
HA Somehow we were good at picking artists who then took off. As a director of a contemporary art museum, that’s one of the most exciting things that you can do-to have a role in creating the next generation of artists we’ll be looking at for 20 or 50 years. Obviously, giving a city its first contemporary art museum is a tremendously thrilling experience.
MILLER What kind of reception did you get from your colleagues in St. Louis when proposing shows dedicated to, at the time, not especially well-known artists? Were people intrigued, skeptical . . . ?
HA What was really amazing about the whole interview process at CAM was that they were incredibly generous and trusting. They didn’t really ask me who I was going to exhibit. They allowed me to organize whatever kind of programming I was able to bring to the museum. I told them that I was going to make the place locally important and internationally involved, and I was able to accomplish that during my time there.
MILLER You’ve worked at a pretty wide range of institutions over the years—university museums [MIT and Yale], a nonprofit space [White Columns] and CAM. What are some experiences or lessons that have stayed with you?
HA For the List, it’s really important to be cutting-edge; we want to be recognized for research and discovery. My work at White Columns, presenting the untested and the unknown, prepared me for that. At Yale, understanding the importance of a cultural institution within a larger university setting was also a really valuable lesson.
MILLER What are some shows you organized at CAM that you’re particularly proud of?
HA Each show was important for different reasons. I’ve followed Sean Landers’s career for 25 years, so working on his retrospective was a really wonderful experience. Maya Lin’s exhibition was also important, because she’d never shown in St. Louis before. I’m also really proud of our exhibition of Aida Ruilova’s single-channel videos. Also at CAM, we had a sort of project space called the Front Room, where we brought in hundreds of artists from all over the world. That was really satisfying, to let the city see what’s happening right now in the art world.
MILLER I know you’ve just arrived, but what are you most excited about, in terms of living and working in the Boston area?
HA I feel like Boston is having a renaissance moment in the visual arts. I just toured the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, which opened a beautiful new building. The MFA just added a contemporary wing, which signals to everyone in Boston that contemporary art is important, something to pay close attention to. I have great relationships with many of my colleagues here. Helen Molesworth, the chief curator at the Boston ICA, and I proposed a project for the most recent Venice Biennale, and Jill Medvedow, the director of the ICA, is a dear friend.
MILLER Since the List is a university museum, is there a lot of collaboration? Do you work a lot with the other departments or schools?
HA The List is run as the contemporary art lab of MIT. One of the things you can imagine about MIT is that it really pushes entrepreneurship, and the current trend in entrepreneurship is collaborating. We are an individual arts institution, but we talk with everyone. Cross-pollenization isn’t just encouraged—it automatically happens here, which is one of the great things about this environment. For example, on my advisory committee there’s a Nobel Prize-winning engineer who has a passion for the visual arts and music. To see how his mind works and how he connects art and science is, for me, really moving.
MILLER Had you worked before with Joao Ribas, the List’s curator of exhibitions?
HA Joao curated the Manon de Boer show for CAM last year, so we’ve collaborated in the past. It’s great to be full-on partners here at MIT.
MILLER What kind of goals do you two have for the next couple years? Do you have any shows in mind?
HA We haven’t spoken about specific exhibitions yet, but we do know that we want to grow our presence in the local market and maintain our international reputation. In a way we’re more known in Basel, Switzerland, than we are in Boston! People will say, “MIT has a contemporary art museum? What?” So I definitely want to make sure people think of us as a contemporary art lab—that is one thing I will focus on first.
MILLER As you may know, Ribas was named one of the 25 most stylish Bostonians by Boston.com. Do you plan on giving him a run for his money?
HA I’m not even going to throw my hat into the ring on that one! I’ll hand him the trophy right now.