PRINT September 2006

US News

Jens Hoffmann

THREE’S A CROWD. That would appear to be the thinking, anyway, among adventurous international curators at London institutions. For no sooner than Hans-Ulrich Obrist arrived at the Serpentine Gallery and Ralph Rugoff settled into his seat at the Hayward Gallery (see Artforum, Summer 2006), Jens Hoffmann—whose audacious two and a half years as director of exhibitions at the city’s Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) arguably paved the way for them—announced his departure. In November the Costa Rica–born curator will become director of the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in San Francisco.

This, of course, is the post just vacated by Rugoff, during whose six-year directorship Matthew Higgs also left the ICA to work as a curator at the CCA Wattis. What does this venue—smaller, outside an international art hub—have to offer over London’s most determinedly edgy art establishment? Hoffmann’s answer is multipronged. “I’m very interested in the relationship between the Wattis and the California College of Arts,” he begins, “and I hope to be able to integrate the program of the school into that of the gallery, and vice versa.” It’s no secret that Hoffmann has a pedagogical bent; he has paired his exhibition work in London with teaching a curatorial-studies course at Goldsmiths College, and now he will lecture at CCA.

He had also long wanted to return to the United States—he previously worked for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Dia in New York, and he curated several shows in Los Angeles and Chicago—and was keen, he says, to work on the West Coast. “Wattis,” adds Hoffmann, “has been one of the few places in the US where there is a real visible investigation into curatorial practice. I want to build upon this and push the borders of the understanding of curating further.”

And then there’s another, perhaps deeper, reason. Last year the ICA hired a new artistic director, Ekow Eshun, and one senses that he and Hoffmann have not always seen eye to eye. “My way of curating,” Hoffmann explains, “was associated with the directorship of Philip Dodd, who appointed me and told me to set out to do more unorthodox exhibitions. The overall ICA is planning to change, aiming to become more popular and maybe more mainstream. There will be a very different program once I have finished my exhibitions there.” Whether or not Hoffmann has simply been caught in a broader paradigm shift within the venue, one long-term upshot of his tenure may be a feeling, particularly in London’s public spaces, that a curator can’t treat such an institution—especially one with a fixed admission charge—as his own aesthetic laboratory. What effect this will have on Obrist’s and Rugoff’s programs, if any, naturally remains to be seen.

Then again, virtually any successor to Hoffmann would be more orthodox than he is. In London he has consistently and flexibly questioned the form of exhibitions, whether by devolving responsibility—“Artists’ Favourites” (2004) invited thirty-nine artists to select a favorite artwork; “London in Six Easy Steps” (2005) was a succession of six group shows by outside curators—or by moves such as giving Tino Sehgal a three-part program of exhibitions to take place over the course of three years. (After his departure, Hoffmann will return briefly to supervise the forthcoming final segment.) For a show later this year by Cerith Wyn Evans, Hoffmann has OK’d the removal of a gallery wall at the ICA. The venue’s summer exhibition is called “Surprise, Surprise,” but in effect that was the motto of every show he mounted there. Not all have come off—the recent “Around the World in 80 Days,” in which artists responded to Jules Verne’s novel, turned out frustratingly incoherent—but the thinking has always been inspiringly bold.

Will Hoffmann’s policy continue at the CCA Wattis? Of course—it’s why they hired him. “I certainly will carry the ideas that I have developed here in London with me,” Hoffmann states. “I would like to continue to investigate unorthodox exhibition models, continue with the investigation of basing shows on books and novels, have artists curate exhibitions, work with collections, continue the idea of treating the exhibition as a stage, the communication between art and the audience, et cetera.” Furthermore, he says, he’ll probably continue to work with artists over multiple shows. And there’s one firm plan for next year: an extravaganza titled “America”—fifty exhibitions in as many weeks, each dedicated to a single US state, beginning in Florida and ending in Vermont. “A survey of US art in 2007, if you will,” says Hoffmann.

As to whether he feels he made a difference in London, Hoffmann is modest, unsurprisingly crediting the Frieze Art Fair and Tate Modern as decisive factors in the city’s newfound internationalism. But it’s a shift that his time at the ICA—which may come to look like some kind of brief golden age of off-the-leash public curating—surely advanced. “I think that with our program we pushed some ideas further, and made people in London aware of others,” he says. “Now I want to establish a different way of thinking about exhibitions in the United States.”

Martin Herbert is a writer and critic based in Turnbridge Wells, Kent.