Ellen Freeman Roth                      

November 15, 2001

At Home with Jill Medvedow

Jill Medvedow, director of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, has been called political, ambitious, tenacious, and radical. All that may be true, but hear her greeting, shake her hand, step over the threshold into her home, and you'll find a warm and approachable working mother who embraces family, friends, social consciousness, and spirituality.

Medvedow, 46, is spearheading a $50 million capital campaign to build a new ICA on Boston's Fan Pier. She also has developed ICA programs such as Vita Brevis, which brings the public face-to-face with contemporary art by installing it in public spaces. That democratic ideal of accessibility characterizes her unpretentious home as well. She and her husband, Richard Kazis, whose work at the not-for-profit Jobs for the Future focuses on providing jobs and education for low-income people, have created a home in which nothing is hands off. The couple and their children, Noah, 14, and Sophie, 10, enjoy every room.

"Home is a happy place for us, but aside from books throughout the house, there's no unifying aesthetic to it, no overarching design vision," Medvedow says. "We have an accumulation of items that Richard and I each had or that we've purchased together."

They live in the two upstairs floors of a two-family house shared with Medvedow's cousin, his wife, and their two children. "This is the second two-family house we bought together," says Medvedow. "We owned a smaller one in Brookline, but when we had Sophie our space was pretty cramped, so we all looked for a larger space. It's a whole new definition of family planning."

"We are a close family, thankfully," she adds. "While Richard and I haven't consciously modeled that value, we're close to our families so Noah and Sophie have adopted that principle. They adore their grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles. And we have a small circle of friends who in many ways are like extended family."

The house is set up for casual entertaining with ease of movement between rooms. The dining room table accommodates large gatherings like pizza parties, ICA holiday parties, and Jewish Passover seders. Two pet finches, Sister Suffragette and Rock, flit about their cage by the window. In the opposite corner of the dining room, the graphic work on paper by Louise Bourgeois is one of Medvedow's favorites. Top billing, though, goes to a pink print by Agnes Martin that hangs in the corner of the living room, a gift from Jock Reynolds, director of the Yale University Art Gallery.

Throughout Medvedow's home, art adds texture, depth, and color without screaming for attention. One exception is a striking sculpture with huge eyes and thick lips that sits by the living room window.

"Noah made that in the fifth grade," Medvedow says with a chuckle. "I've always loved it. Every time I consider putting it away I think, `No, I'll keep that out a little longer.' It sees the world. It's all features."

Comfort and function rule in the living room as elsewhere. Ample seating invites relaxation with a book or the Sunday newspaper, and the family often gathers around a small table to play a game. "We're a card- and board-game-playing family," says Medvedow.

The work week is faster paced. "Working is easier than raising children, and raising children is more important than working. I have a fair amount of ambition and a bit of a legacy to make a difference in the world, so I've always been drawn to work. I like the social interaction and the community that's created in the workplace as much as I like my job, but I've never been torn about my priorities. My priorities are my children and Richard, and any time they have needed me, I've been there."

Noah and Sophie attend public school, which is important to Medvedow and Kazis for the diversity and the value of participating in public education. After school, there are flute lessons for Sophie, an after-school theater troupe for Noah, and religious education for both of them at their synagogue.

Most nights, the family dines together at home. Work takes Medvedow out a few nights, but often she leaves after dinner. "I enjoy cooking and I love this kitchen," she says. "The cook's stove was my indulgence. But we do more takeout than I ever thought I would. With limited time, I have to cut corners.

"In the evening, we hang out in Richard's and my bedroom. Everyone piles on the bed and watches TV or a movie. At a certain point in the evening, I check out with a book, but that never stops everybody from bringing their books in with me."

"My kids are talented and spunky and smart," Medvedow muses. "I think they arrived that way. What Richard and I want to pass on are compassion and kindness. I don't want my kids to lose sight of how lucky we are. And as someone who asks people to make philanthropic contributions to the ICA, I want to practice what I preach and take responsibility for giving back to society. Last year when Noah celebrated his bar mitzvah, he received gift money. He donated some of that to charity. We were so proud."