PRINT March 2007


curatorial returns to the academy

TAKEN BY ITSELF, last November’s announcement by Russell Ferguson, chief curator and deputy director of the Hammer Museum of the University of California, Los Angeles, that he was leaving his position after some five years at the institution to take the reins at UCLA’s Department of Art may seem not to warrant much comment. While the studio art program, one of the nation’s best, has traditionally been chaired by practicing artists, the transition promises by all accounts to be both smooth and organic, not signaling any immediate change in the overall program of either the museum or the school. (Indeed, the appointment cements an already strong relationship between the two entities, and Ferguson will retain an affiliation with the Hammer as an adjunct curator.) Paradoxically, however, the very unremarkableness of Ferguson’s move across campus is telling: Whereas the choice of a nonartist to head a storied studio art department, as well as the decision of a veteran curator to leave a senior museum post to work in an art school, would once have seemed unorthodox, today UCLA and Ferguson are hardly alone. Indeed, as Matthew Higgs, director and curator of New York’s White Columns gallery, recently remarked in these pages [“On the Ground: New York,” December 2006], a pervasive trend seems to be emerging.

A quick survey of the field reveals that what began as a trickle is becoming more of a flood. In the past three years alone some four major curators have moved into an art school context, beginning in 2004 with Lawrence Rinder’s departure from the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York to become dean of graduate studies at the California College of the Arts (where he has since been promoted to the newly created position of dean of the college). Rinder’s move to San Francisco marked a homecoming of sorts—he had previously served as founding director of the school’s CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts—but it was nonetheless striking that such a vocal contributor to New York’s productive curatorial cacophony was opting for a very different kind of job. His move portended other high-profile shifts, both in Europe and in the United States. The following year, Okwui Enwezor, who through a broad portfolio of international exhibitions, most notably his deeply self-reflexive Documenta 11 in 2002, had practically defined the model of the ubiquitous independent curator at the turn of the millennium, took over as dean of academic affairs and senior vice president of the San Francisco Art Institute. Also in 2005 another international heavy hitter, Saskia Bos, resigned her directorship of Amsterdam’s De Appel Centre for Contem­p­orary Art, a position she held for more than two decades, to become dean of the School of Art at New York’s venerable Cooper Union. And last year Yale University’s School of Art landed Robert Storr—a former curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art—as dean and professor of painting and printmaking. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I also recently left a curatorial job to accept a studio appointment at the CCA.)

What is going on? Why are so many curators going back to school? While these curators’ specific reasons for accepting academic positions are doubtless as diverse as their aesthetic sensibilities, one might reasonably argue that the relocations are a consequence of three aspects of the broader transformation of the art world: the meteoric rise of the contemporary art market; a shift in the role of the curator within large institutions; and the evolution of museums toward a more administrative model (at least in the United States). Over the past thirty years or so, many museums that were previously content to focus on the preservation and interpretation of historical collections began actively to concern themselves with cutting-edge contemporary art and, in Rinder’s words, “to imagine themselves as being generative of contemporary culture and discourse.” This gave rise to programs such as MoMA’s fabled “Projects” series, which began in 1971 (and which Storr oversaw from 1990 to 2000) and the “Matrix” series, which started in 1975 at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, and was also instituted a few years later at the Berkeley Art Museum in California (where it was organized by Rinder). At the same time, there was a remarkable increase in the popularity of such exhibitions as the Whitney Biennial (though scarcely on today’s scale, when it seems every museum draws crowds with a contemporary roundup). To hear it from many curators relocating out of such institutions, these were heady times, with regularly programmed, autonomous opportunities to bring art of the present to a wide audience, both specialist and generalist. The “Projects” exhibitions, for example, were often right at MoMA’s entrance, giving a dose of contemporary art to visitors there to check off the highlights, as well as to cognoscenti who had come specifically to see the work of a little-known emerging artist.

The boom of the contemporary art market since the mid-1990s seems to have ratcheted up the stakes for what began in this laboratory ethos, however. What had been a discipline on the margins of the larger institutions increasingly took center stage, as the awkward stepchild invited from the dusty lofts of alternative spaces blossomed in the lights of the debutante ball. Keeping up with the newest art—especially in the expanded context that globalization ushered in—became a full-time task, albeit largely a welcome one for contemporary apologists, who saw their interests catch on. But the hours and days that had traditionally been dedicated to studio visits, research, and writing seemed to evaporate as the scene heated up. To cite just one aspect, the travel demands that became necessary to keep abreast of contemporary production entailed a serious constriction of what was already precious little time for scholarship. As Ferguson notes, “It can be an all-enveloping world if you want it to be.” The popularity of contemporary art brought other (unforeseen) changes to the job as well, for with higher prices for artworks, institutional curators often found themselves collaborating on purchases with generous private collectors, and wooing donors, which had traditionally been the exclusive domain of museum directors and development administrators, became an integral part of a curator’s job description. As Storr puts it, “Increasingly, curators are living in the world of collectors and dealers and less in the world of artists’ studios.”

These changes coincided with a larger shift within museum culture, as many institutions moved toward a business model modeled, well, more on business. This changed the environment in which many of these curators had been accustomed to working—leaving some of them feeling that art had become secondary to a new set of priorities. The directors who took the helm at most major art museums in the late ’80s and early ’90s (such as the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation’s Thomas Krens, who boasts an MBA in addition to art-historical credentials) were participants in a broader trend toward the administration of culture, focused on institutional branding and expansion, increased audience numbers and membership, and fund-raising. While such changes may arguably have been a necessary recalibration to the realities of the new cultural landscape, for many curators they represented the final surrender of old museum culture to the forces of the market.

That said, the situation is not as bleak for museums as it might appear at first blush—plenty of talented and committed curators have come of age in this new environment and enthusiastically embraced it on its own terms. And although it is fashionable to decry both the shifts in museum culture and the current hot art market, few lament the visibility of new art in the public sphere. Indeed, top art schools have surely benefited from these changes, too: The buoyancy of the market has given more prospective artists hope that artmaking might be a viable way to make a living, and art schools certainly at least make it possible to gain some exposure.

For many former curators, however, relocating into art schools reflects a desire to counter the instrumentalization of contemporary art. “The curators moving into art schools now by and large are from a generation that got a taste of the generative model of museum practice,” Rinder says. “As this model has become increasingly threatened by the risk-averse realities of the current market-saturated art culture, these people are finding that art schools offer the kind of relationship to artistic experimentation and production that is closer to what they had imagined and enjoyed when they began as curators.” Making the transition represents a return to the fundamentals that originally motivated them—working closely with artists and objects, creating models for contemporary art’s reception, and prioritizing research and writing.

As much as art schools seem to offer an opportunity to return to the familiar, their attractiveness may also reveal more fundamental trends in art practices. As interest in participatory art has grown—be it touted under the banner of “relational aesthetics” or “social practices”—and as many artists have moved away from the creation of objects to situations, the discursive context of a school appears more relevant and appealing than does the fundamentally preservationist mission of most museums. And although art schools inevitably come with their own administrative baggage, the built-in criticality of context and the curricular nimbleness that an educational situation provides seem both well adapted to a burgeoning generation of artists and exciting for those interested in helping facilitate the newest art. As sites where creation, argumentation, production, and, increasingly, even display all come together, art schools provide conditions for risk taking and research that museums, catering to ever-broader constituencies, have difficulty matching. Clearly, the appeal of playing an integral role at the site of production of new art and discourse proves irresistible to many curators. As Enwezor gushed, even if tongue in cheek, “If there is such a thing as utopia, education may well be the last utopia.”

Of course, only time will tell if this “utopia” is sustainable and if those going there will find what they seek. Surely art schools are susceptible to most of the same pressures that have transformed museum culture. Indeed, many art schools are already migrating toward a model in which they have to demonstrate tangible benefits for spiraling tuition costs—many of these recent high-profile hires may, in fact, reflect exactly such a motivation on the part of art school leadership. Part and parcel of this, most top schools now actively solicit visits by independent curators and art dealers in an effort to promote their students and demonstrate the use-value of their degrees. While such access and professionalization is surely part of the appeal of attending art school, when students have to borrow work back from collectors in order to fill their MFA exhibitions (as happens in many top programs), fissures appear in the utopian rhetoric schools promote. By and large, however, and at least for the time being, optimism prevails among the former curators, who maintain that the educational mission of art schools can protect them from the brunt of the forces that they see as having complicated the curatorial field. It may not last, but in the meantime, a generation of students stands to benefit from their new leaders’ hands-on knowledge of the art world beyond academe’s confines.

Jordan Kantor is associate professor of painting and humanities at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco.