HUBweek Change Maker: Paul Ha

Director, MIT List Visual Arts Center

Paul C. Ha is the Director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) List Visual Arts Center. The List Center is the contemporary art museum at MIT, and is well known for presenting experimental and timely exhibitions. The List also runs MIT’s Percent-for-Art program, which is one of the most outstanding collections of public art, and it maintains more than 3,500 works in the permanent collection. Most days, you can find Paul thinking about or looking at art (and the art is probably contemporary art).

What problem are you solving? The List Visual Arts Center is the contemporary art museum at M.I.T. We collect art, put on temporary exhibitions, and commission permanent art for MIT–which happens to be one of the leading research universities in the world.

Our work is not to problem solve per se but to experiment. The artists we exhibit have yet to be written into the canons of art history, and so what we are doing is to be in a larger conversation with our peers and the art world to seek and to ask — what will be the future of art?

Why did you return to Boston to take on the role at the List Center? The List Center is experimental in nature and is recognized by artists and our peers as truly being artist centric. Meaning, our underlying motive is to simply help artists to be able to create their vision through support. I am at the List Center because I wanted to be working at a place that focuses on research and production of new art — that has not been tested.

What impact do you (personally or collectively) hope to have on our future? The popularity of contemporary art has grown tremendously in the last 30 years. Just fifty years ago, most of the general public did not consume art. With the proliferation of art fairs, biennales and growth in number and size of museums, more people visit museums more than ever before. Also attending art openings and visiting galleries has become an expected ritual for the general public (think First Fridays). The impact we hope to have is to be part of those who helped create and to predict the future of art.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your career? Our biggest challenge at the List Center is that — in a way we are a small startup — and how and where we allocate our resources is what we think about carefully. Our curatorial team has no shortage of great projects they want us to embark on, it is how we edit and to pick the most appropriate and the most impactful project is our biggest challenge. Also that more people know about the List Center outside Boston than in Boston. Our reputation is stellar within the field and if you are talking to an art fan at an opening in a museum Switzerland, they will tell you all about us and our programming. But if you ask someone standing just outside our museum and ask if they’ve heard of the List, unless they are an art nerd, they probably will say they’ve never heard of us.

One thing people might find surprising about you or what you do? I think most people are surprised in our age of the internet and digital communication, how much travel that we still have to do in the art world. Skype, emails, transfer of high resolution files — those help our work tremendously, but art is still about meeting the artists and standing in front of an object — looking at the work together and having a discussion. And to interact with an object and artist like that, we have to go to where the art is.

What role do you see science & tech playing on the arts and vice versa? Artists have always been early adopters of technology. They see technology as a tool, and if a new technology can help create the vision that they have, they will absolutely co-opt it. Whether sculptors using 3-D printing to mock up new work or using the new LED technology due to the fact that they’ve come such a far way in terms of lack of heat it now produces, the ability to control colors and brightness with an app — artists will always try new things. And I think artists have helped the tech world enormously by having convinced the engineers that design does matter. That a product should be as elegant as it is functional. That design aids in functionality.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? The best piece of advice I got was from a friend who told me that his mom told him once that complaining to someone about your problem is pointless… in that 95% of the people you are complaining to don’t care — and that the other 5% of the people are complaining to actually are glad that you are having the problem. So you will rarely hear me complain.

What’s next? What’s next at the List Center is that we will continue to bring art and artist that’s not been tested to Cambridge and in some case to the U.S. What’s next is that M.I.T.’s Percent for Art program, where we commission site specific art work for new buildings will go into overdrive as M.I.T. and Cambridge starts to develop the Kendall Square area. Currently on campus we have just around seventy pieces of major public art — it is truly one of the great public art collections that exists today and most of it (except for some dorms) are always open and free to all the visitors.

The HUBweek Change Maker series showcases the most innovative minds in art, science, and technology making an impact in Boston and around the world.