MFA Boston Awards 2015 Maud Morgan Prize to Performance Artist Marilyn Arsem

BOSTON, MA (December 9, 2014)—The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), announced today that Boston-based performance artist Marilyn Arsem (born 1951) is the recipient of its 2015 Maud Morgan Prize—the first performance artist to receive the distinguished award. Arsem has been a fundamental figure in the field of performance art since the late 1970s, and was a faculty member at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (SMFA) for 27 years. Having performed 180 pieces around the world over the last three decades, she has had an enormous impact on multiple generations of performance artists in Boston and internationally. Founder of Mobius, a Boston-area collaborative of interdisciplinary artists, Arsem has been central to maintaining the presence of performance art locally and nationally at times when the art form struggled for recognition and funding. In honor of her contributions to the field, Arsem will receive a cash award and will present new performances in a special solo exhibition at the MFA in late 2015. The selection of Arsem as the Maud Morgan Prize recipient occurs at the conclusion of a year rich in performance art at the MFA, which included works by a variety of artists including Joan Jonas and Shinique Smith.

The MFA’s Maud Morgan Prize honors a Massachusetts woman artist who has demonstrated creativity and vision, making significant contributions to the contemporary arts landscape. The Prize was established in 1993 in recognition of the spirit of adventure and independence embodied by noted New England artist Maud Morgan (1903–1999).

“Just as Maud Morgan had a reputation for risk-taking, Marilyn has never shied away from risk over her career,” said Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund Director at the MFA. “Because of the very nature of performance, relatively few have experienced Marilyn’s work. This award and exhibition allow us to share her performances with audiences who otherwise might not encounter them, highlighting her many contributions to the art form.”

As a high school student in the 1960s, Arsem and her friends created “Happenings”—a genre that pre-dated the contemporary concept of performance art. She later chose to pursue a degree in theater directing at Boston University, given that performance art programs had yet to be established. Focusing on experimental projects, she was inspired to create multimedia works that merged theater with visual arts. In 1975, she founded Mobius, a collaborative of artists working in all media, and a space where experimental art could flourish away from commercialization. When the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) ceased funding for individual artists during the early 1990s, Arsem continued to promote performance art through artist-run initiatives. At a time when the art form was disappearing from mainstream institutions, Arsem and Mobius offered 40 weekends of experimental programming annually to Boston audiences and visitors. As Director of Mobius, she organized international artist exchanges and began creating durational works such as Orpheus, a six-hour interactive event involving 30 artists in multiple locations. Through Mobius and the SMFA, she has brought hundreds of artists from 41 countries to Boston, enriching the experiences of several generations of young Boston artists.

“As Maud Morgan was a leader in our community, so is Marilyn Arsem,” said Edward Saywell, Chair of the Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art and Arthur K. Solomon Curator of Modern Art. “I am delighted that the award of this prize will give Marilyn a platform to share her incredibly attentive and thoughtful work within the context of the MFA.”

By the mid-1980s Arsem had shifted focus to solo work in her own practice. Recurring themes in her art include death and afterlife; feminism and women’s work; war and Cold War politics; and environmentalism. Arsem worked at the SMFA from 1987–2014—serving as Faculty, a Graduate Advisor and Head of the Performance Area—and over the course of 27 years expanded its performance area to become one of the most extensive visually based performance art programs in the world. In 2013, she presented her first durational performance at the MFA as part of the one-day exhibition, Odd Spaces. For her work, With the Others (2013), she spent more than six hours lying under a bench in the Museum’s Egyptian Galleries. Though she was nearly invisible to Museum goers in the darkly lit room, the scent of jasmine emanated from her clothes and seeped throughout the space. Her quiet action invoked the senses in order to challenge viewers' expectations of how art is experienced in a visual arts museum. 

In the early 1990s, when many US institutions began to scale back performance art programming and funding, Arsem began to perform abroad in countries where performance art flourished as a medium. Instead of repeating previous performances, which relied heavily on spoken language, she began to create unique, site-specific works that resonated with audiences in each of the locations where she performed. To date, she has performed in 27 countries in Europe, Asia and Latin America, frequently creating works that deal with the local effects of US foreign policy. She researches each location she visits, and once on the ground, her performances are sometimes planned in as little as two days—inspired by an interaction or unique aspect of the location or culture. When featured in a gallery setting, Arsem often creates “performance installations” that evolve throughout the exhibition. Site-specific works such as these have taken her throughout the world, including the Philippines, Macedonia, Hong Kong, Poland, Chile and Canada.

“This was so unexpected! I am honored to be chosen to receive the 2015 Maud Morgan award. Performance Art has had such a complicated history in the United States, often operating at the periphery of the art world. I know I am not alone in welcoming the MFA’s recognition of the value of ephemeral forms of art making,” said Arsem.

Primarily interested in the relationship between the viewer and the live experience, Arsem often documents her work through photo, video and interviews with viewers following the performance. This performance documentation has been exhibited in group and solo shows at institutions such as the Harvard Film Archives and the DeCordova Museum. MFA curators Edward Saywell and Liz Munsell, Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art and MFA Programs, a position supported by Lorraine Bressler, will collaborate with Arsem on her 2015 solo exhibition at the MFA marking the award of the Maud Morgan Prize. 

Maud Morgan Prize

Established at the Museum in 1993, the Maud Morgan Prize honors the recipient with a cash award and an MFA presentation of her work. The $10,000 prize is given biennially to a Massachusetts woman who has worked as an artist for at least 10 years, who has demonstrated creativity and vision, and who has made significant contributions to the contemporary arts landscape. In addition to recommendations by MFA curators, nominations are solicited from a broad cross-section of contemporary curators from throughout the Commonwealth. This year’s process resulted in more than 40 nominees selected by committee and approved by MFA Director Malcolm Rogers. After submissions were reviewed, finalists chosen by a committee of MFA curators, and visits were made to the artists’ studios. The committee included Saywell and Munsell as well as Jen Mergel (Robert L. Beal, Enid L. Beal and Bruce A. Beal Senior Curator of Contemporary Art); Emily Zilber (Ronald C. and Anita L. Wornick Curator of Contemporary Decorative Arts); Al Miner (Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art); Dennis Carr (Carolyn and Peter Lynch Curator of American Decorative Arts and Sculpture); and Thomas Michie (Russell B. and Andrée Beauchamp Stearns Senior Curator of Decorative Arts and Sculpture, Art of Europe). Winners of the Maud Morgan Prize are Sarah Braman in 2013, and previously, Wendy Jacob, Ambreen Butt, Shelley Reed, Jill Weber, Ranee Palone Flynn, Suara Welitoff, Laura Chasman, Shellburne Thurber, Catherine McCarthy, Kendra Ferguson, Elsbeth Deser, Bonnie Porter, Natalie Alper, and Jo Ann Rothschild.

Maud Morgan (1903–1999)

During her most active years as an artist and instructor in Massachusetts, Maud Morgan represented a voice of recognition for women committed to a career in the arts. She was associated with some of the most distinguished artists of the 1930s and studied at the Art Students League in New York with Hans Hoffman. Morgan exhibited with the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York in the company of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko before instructing students of studio art, including Frank Stella and Carl Andre with her then-husband, painter Patrick Morgan, at Abbot Academy and Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. At the age of 92, she published her autobiography, Maud’s Journey: A Life from Art. Throughout her career, Morgan was a source of inspiration for many artists, young and old.

Performance Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Performance art has been a focus of the Museum’s Department of Contemporary Art & MFA Programs since the September 2011 opening of the Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art, when Irish artist Amanda Coogan presented the 24-hour work, The Passing. At the MFA, performance art encompasses a spectrum of live interactive experiences, and includes a range of works by local, national and international artists. The MFA was one of the first encyclopedic museums in the US to fully integrate performance art into its collection, exhibitions and programs. Performance Art at the MFA is supported by Lorraine Bressler.

2014 performances have included:

  • Reanimation (November 13, 2014) by Joan Jonas
  • Gesture I: Unraveling (September 7, 2014) by Shinique Smith, part of the exhibition Shinique Smith: BRIGHT MATTER
  • Performances presented in collaboration with Boston Ballet (Sarah Crowner’s Curtains (Vidas perfectas), 2011) and Harvard University’s Cultural Agents Initiative; part of the exhibition Conversation Piece
  • Big Bang (June 25, 2014) by Regina José Galindo and Funerary Egocentrism (April 30, 2014) by Lázaro Saavedra were part of Permission To Be Global/Prácticas Globales: Latin American Art from the Collection of Ella Fontanals-Cisneros
  • Song for a Military Band (May 26, 2014) by Nascimento/Lovera
  • Onto Objects (January 29, 2014), a one-day performance art exhibition of new works by Patty Chang and Jeffrey Gibson
  • Now Speak! (January 20, 2014–December 31, 2014) by Amalia Pica, an outdoor installation that encourages impromptu performances by all MFA visitors and passersby. (This concrete lectern was installed on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and is the first performance artwork to enter the Museum’s collection.)

In 2015, MFA performances include:

  • Gesture II: Between two breaths (February 11, 2015) by Shinique Smith, part of the exhibition Shinique Smith: BRIGHT MATTER
  • Continuing performances by Boston Ballet in front of Sarah Crowner’s Curtains (Vidas perfectas) (2011) as part of the exhibition Conversation Piece (January 21 and February 18, 2015)
  • Sonic Blossom (March 2015) by Lee Mingwei

Joan Jonas: Reanimation was made possible through the generous support of Francis H. Williams. Promoted in partnership with New England Conservatory.

Conversation Piece, with generous support from The Contemporaries.

Shinique Smith: BRIGHT MATTER is sponsored by Celebrity Cruises. Presented with generous support from the Robert and Jane Burke Fund for Exhibitions, The Contemporaries, and the Callaghan Family Fund for Contemporary Exhibitions. Additional support provided by the Eugenie Prendergast Memorial Fund, made possible by a grant from Jan and Warren Adelson. Shinique Smith: BRIGHT MATTER continues a series of annual exhibitions focused on internationally known SMFA graduates of the past decade whose work is exemplary of the excellence, innovation and influence of SMFA alums.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, presented Permission To Be Global/Prácticas Globales: Latin American Art from the Collection of Ella Fontanals-Cisneros in collaboration with the Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation. This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Supporting sponsorship by Copa Airlines. With generous support from the Robert and Jane Burke Fund for Exhibitions and the Leigh and Stephen Braude Fund for Latin American Art. Media sponsor is El Planeta.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), is recognized for the quality and scope of its collection, which includes an estimated 500,000 objects. The Museum has more than 140 galleries displaying its encyclopedic collection, which includes Art of the Americas; Art of Europe; Contemporary Art; Art of Asia, Oceania, and Africa; Art of the Ancient World; Prints, Drawings, and Photographs; Textile and Fashion Arts; and Musical Instruments. Open seven days a week, the MFA’s hours are Saturday through Tuesday, 10 am–4:45 pm; and Wednesday through Friday, 10 am–9:45 pm Admission (which includes one repeat visit within 10 days) is $25 for adults and $23 for seniors and students age 18 and older, and includes entry to all galleries and special exhibitions. Admission is free for University Members and youths age 17 and younger on weekdays after 3 pm, weekends, and Boston Public Schools holidays; otherwise $10. Wednesday nights after 4 pm admission is by voluntary contribution (suggested donation $25). MFA Members are always admitted for free. The Museum’s mobile MFA Guide is available at ticket desks and the Sharf Visitor Center for $5, members; $6, non-members; and $4, youths. The Museum is closed on New Year’s Day, Patriots’ Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. For more information, visit or call 617.267.9300. The MFA is located on the Avenue of the Arts at 465 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA 02115.



Amelia Kantrovitz