A new generation of curators at New York’s Museum of Modern Art aims to present a more nuanced and inclusive view of modern-art history
As the Museum of Modern Art gears up for its next expansion, the 85-year-old institution has just finished a curatorial changing of the guard. The recent announcement that Martino Stierli would replace Barry Bergdoll as chief curator of architecture and design completes a turnover in the leadership of the museum’s six curatorial departments that began in 2007. In that year, Rajendra Roy, then 35, succeeded Mary Lea Bandy, who retired as head of film. Since then, John Elderfield of painting and sculpture, Deborah Wye of prints and illustrated books, and Peter Galassi of photography have all retired after tenures at the museum of three decades or more, replaced, respectively, by Ann Temkin, Christophe Cherix, and Quentin Bajac. Stuart Comer came in last year as chief curator of media and performance art, a department founded in 2006 by Klaus Biesenbach, now director of MoMA PS1 and also serving as chief curator at large for MoMA.
MoMA director Glenn D. Lowry has challenged this younger cohort to “try to tell a fuller story” than in the past with the museum’s unparalleled collection. “We’ve built up our holdings of feminist work from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s,” he says, noting the institution’s increasing willingness to engage with contemporary art. “We’ve built up our Conceptual holdings where we were incredibly weak 10 years ago. How does all this now weave itself in a regular beat across everything we do?” he asks. “That’s a very big subject. It’s part of the reason we’re expanding.”
While Lowry credits the enormous talents of the previous generation of chief curators, he says they viewed the collection more rigidly according to medium. “We have a new generation now of chief curators in their early 40s or 50s whose way of thinking was shaped by a very different kind of art history,” says Lowry, who has encouraged collaboration among these scholars, all schooled in multicultural and interdisciplinary art. “Where there was a real tension with curators who were practicing here, and elsewhere, in the ’80s and ’90s between connoisseurship and critical theory, for this generation of curators that’s almost a nonissue. It’s much more fluid now.”
Part of the groundbreaking program conceived by Alfred H. Barr Jr., founding director of the museum, was to put the modern mediums of film, photography, architecture, and industrial design on equal footing with painting, sculpture, drawings, and prints. “His decision to organize by medium created tremendous expertise among curators and loyalty among people who collected in those areas, producing extraordinary gifts,” says Lowry. Yet over time, the departments became balkanized. The well-known curatorial rivalry between William Rubin and William S. Lieberman in the department of painting and sculpture, for instance, caused the trustees to create a stand-alone department of drawings (given to Lieberman) separate from paintings and sculpture (given to Rubin) in 1971.
“In the past, a sculpture show would not typically have included drawings,” says Temkin, the only one of the current chief curators who worked within the old paradigm, first as a curatorial assistant for three years in the mid-1980s under Rubin and then as a curator in the painting and sculpture department from 2003 to 2008 under Elderfield. Rather than using the painting and sculpture galleries to present a purely canonical narrative, she has broken with her predecessors by treating individual galleries more like rotating special exhibitions, showcasing MoMA’s holdings in certain areas and providing a more inclusive and nuanced view of modern-art history. Up now, for example, alongside galleries devoted to ’70s Minimalism, is a room devoted to more exuberant paintings from the same period by Sam Gilliam, Elizabeth Murray, Jack Whitten, Joan Snyder, and Al Loving, among other mostly female and African American artists.
Addressing a gap in expertise in African American art, Temkin has recently hired Darby English, a specialist in African American art history, as a consulting curator whose duties will include broadening MoMA’s holdings in this area. She feels the change in MoMA’s institutional culture now on “an hourly basis,” as she and her colleagues coordinate on acquisitions and exhibition research, and cross-pollinate each department’s permanent-collection galleries with works in other mediums.
“The medium-specific is still valid in many ways but it shouldn’t be the only path,” says Cherix, chief curator of drawings and prints (the department was reconstituted in 2013), who with Temkin co-organized the recent Jasper Johns show of paintings and works on paper installed in the drawings galleries. “It’s about using what you need from the collection with a big ‘C’ to make your point, not just within the department you are assigned to. One of the challenges, but also one of the exciting things, is how you can preserve connoisseurship about the medium, but at the same time broaden the horizons.”
In the painting and sculpture galleries, Temkin has invited temporary interventions from other departments. The early films of D. W. Griffith, for example could recently be seen in a gallery adjacent to Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). “It was this interesting dialogue between the birth of the narrative motion picture and the birth of abstraction in painting in the same era,” says Roy, head of film. “It was a unique opportunity for audiences to experience that in a way that really only MoMA can do with the level of masterpieces that are in the collection.” Roy has worked to integrate film into the fabric of the museum, with shows devoted to filmmakers from the Quay Brothers to Tim Burton installed in the special-exhibition galleries.
Photography chief curator Bajac recently installed 75 photographs by Walker Evans in the painting and sculpture galleries next to Andy Warhol, Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg, casting the photographer as a progenitor of Pop. Meanwhile, Bajac’s current collection show, “A World of Its Own: Photographic Practices in the Studio,” installed in the photography galleries, features films and videos by artists such as Geta Brătescu, Peter Fischli and David Weiss, Bruce Nauman, David Askevold, William Wegman, and Roman Signer. “I wanted to have something more thematic and open to other techniques than the old chronological history of photography starting with early 19th century and going to contemporary,” says Bajac, who came last year from the Pompidou Center and wants to bring additional international perspectives, including those of Latin America and Africa, to his department.
In the nascent department of media and performance art, Comer hasn’t had to contend, as have his colleagues, with a weighty departmental history. “The histories of time-based media haven’t been written by any museum or art-historical curriculum yet,” says Comer. “What’s particularly exciting is to see this kind of work presented cheek by jowl with some of the landmark paintings and objects in the collection,” he continues, pointing to a recent dance and music performance by Simone Forti and Charlemagne Palestine staged in the context of the painting and sculpture collection. Comer is deeply involved in the expansion plans, working to create a purpose-built hub for performances and immersive film and video projections. He recently hired Thomas J. Lax from the Studio Museum in Harlem as associate curator. Lax will join associate curator Ana Janevski, who comes from an Eastern European background. “To have two curators with such deep knowledge in performance and very different points of view really positions the department as a think tank,” he says. “The history that our department in particular represents has always been very invested in questions of gender, questions of race, and questions of activism.”
Stierli, a professor of modern architecture at the University of Zurich, will take the helm of architecture and design next March, and Lowry believes he will be a good fit: “He comes out of a multidisciplinary background, utterly comfortable working with architecture, design, painting, photography, and film.”
The chief curators have worked collectively to fill gaps in the museum’s holdings; a recent acquisition is the Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection, the largest collection and archive of Fluxus art in the world. “It’s over 8,000 items and something we had almost nothing of,” says Cherix. “Fluxus had been extraordinarily important for contemporary artists and if you are interested genuinely in their work, you need to be interested in their references. You constantly try to catch up and rebalance the present with the past and the past with the present. That’s the story of the museum.”
Hilarie M. Sheets is a contributing editor of ARTnews.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the images of Martino Stierli and Christophe Cherix.
A version of this story originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 104 under the title “MoMA’s New Guard.”