New MFA curator cherishes Dot roots

For Jen Mergel, becoming the new Beal Family Senior Curator of Contemporary Art at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston is a chance to plant her Boston roots even deeper. 

Born at Boston Lying In, the 34-year-old Jones Hill native said getting the job at the MFA is a bit of a dream come true and it’s not lost on her. “I truly love the MFA and grew up loving it,” said Mergel, who came to the MFA from the Institute of Contemporary Art where she was an associate curator. “The museum is a treasure and not just for the city.”

Mergel’s parents still live in the house she grew up in and she admits to making regular trips home to enjoy her dad’s cooking. (When the family does head out for a bite, their favorite spot is Cafe Polonia, a Polish restaurant on Dorchester Avenue near the Polish Triangle.) 

In many ways, Mergel has never really left Dorchester. “I went to St. Margaret’s, now Blessed Mother Teresa, up to eighth grade and then to Fontbonne Academy,” he said. Then it was on to Harvard and later to Bard College. (Her sister is a student at Boston Latin, where Mergel “took the exam and got in.”)
Like so many others who grew up in this part of the city, Mergel played soccer and she fondly recalls the annual competitions against other parishes held at the archdiocesan seminary. “There were so many teams and players,” said Mergel, adding that “there’s no doubt” that her soccer jerseys from those days are still somewhere at her parents’ home. 

When asked how she keeps so connected to her neighborhood she laughs and says, “lots and lots of phone calls.” She just sent congratulations to a friend who recently had a baby and now lives in Chelmsford, the two having formed a friendship from “walking to school together every day.” And then there’s the Le family on Stoughton Street. “I taught ESL when I was in college and worked with a lot of Vietnamese families from Dorchester,” Mergel said. One member of the Le family, whom Mergel taught years ago, has since followed her to Harvard where the young woman is a junior. “It’s really special to see how well she did.”

As for the Museum of Fine Arts, Mergel said she’s settling in, doing some travel and still getting used to taking the Green Line right to the museum. “That’s one thing for a girl from Boston, I’m now working at a place that has its own T stop,” said Mergel. “My office is no longer bare. I have organized piles with those sticky tabs on them on my desk, but my office is no longer bare.” She’s also working on looking at “prospects and prospective acquisitions” and is working directly with thesis students at the Museum School. 

Her arrival at the MFA has been greeted with a lot of enthusiasm inside the museum. “Jen will play a key role in enhancing the appreciation of contemporary art within the context of our encyclopedic Museum,” said Malcolm Rogers, the museum’s director, in a release. “Her vision will enable the MFA to reach new audiences as we expand the presence of contemporary art at the museum with new galleries, exhibitions, installations, and educational programs.”

Mergel has a simple but big wish for her tenure at the Huntington Avenue institution. “I want young people and long-time city residents and those people out in the suburbs to realize what’s inside these walls,” she said. “Not just the contemporary art. Yes, I want them to see what a great collection we have, but to see the whole collection. I want people to realize that this is their place.” 

She knows that it’s easy to take these local treasures for granted. “When I was at Harvard, I often only went into the Fogg when I had an assignment,” said Mergel. “But for people to see that these places belong to them, that would be great.”