As a postgraduate student in the Whitney Museum of Art’s Independent Study Program, Sheena Wagstaff would often head straight for the Metropolitan Museum of Art after Saturday drawing classes at the Art Students League. She’d spend hours in the Met’s classical and Japanese galleries, thrilling at the range of human creativity—and despairing of her own artistic abilities.
Her drawing never flourished, but her curating did. Now, 30 years later, she has been appointed chair of the new modern and contemporary department at the Met, after having spent a decade as chief curator at Tate Modern. There she was responsible for programming, oversaw the Mark Rothko and Joan Miró blockbusters, among others, and spearheaded the hugely successful Turbine Hall commissions.
Wagstaff’s new job will involve creating a contemporary- and modern-art program, working with colleagues across the Met’s 16 other curatorial departments, and buying artworks, she told ARTnews.
“Being in an encyclopedic museum is a fantastic and incredibly exciting opportunity to add an historic trajectory to a great deal of contemporary art practice,” she says, adding that it “offers an extraordinary scope to a contemporary program in a way that no modern or contemporary museum can do.”
Many see the hiring of a power curator like Wagstaff, who brings scholarship and a wealth of strategic experience, combined with the decision to move part of the contemporary collection to the Whitney Museum’s iconic four-story Marcel Breuer building, as a sign that the Met’s director, Thomas Campbell, intends to turn the museum into a serious player on the contemporary-art scene—a goal some have questioned, given New York’s already crowded terrain.
Aside from the Met’s impressive rooftop exhibition series, which has proved a popular draw, hosting such shows as Mike and Doug Starn’s ”Big Bambú” and installations by Anthony Caro and Frank Stella, the contemporary program has been widely viewed as an area of weakness in the museum, whose collection spans 5,000 years.
“Obviously the MoMA, the Whitney, Guggenheim, and other institutions within the city and the country have extraordinary, in-depth collections that the Met’s collection would not seek to rival or duplicate even,” Wagstaff says. “Another challenge of the job is to ensure that what we do is complementary to our peers.”
In pushing contemporary, the Met is following in the footsteps of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Louvre, and the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, which have all expanded their programs in an effort to catch up with the 21st century, boost audience figures, and attract more funds.
“One can overstate the extent to which this is a departure,” says Campbell, pointing to the modern department’s establishment in the 1960s under its curator, Henry Geldzahler. “It’s evolving. I see it as an integral part of what the Metropolitan should be to have a lively, engaging, and thoughtful program of late-modern and contemporary programming in the context of our global collections. No one should think that I’m diverting resources from one area to another,” he says. Campbell acknowledges the existence of big gaps in the contemporary collection but declined to say whether Wagstaff would have an expanded budget to fill them.
Wagstaff, 55, inherits from her predecessor, Gary Tinterow, a leaner operation, after Campbell decided to split off the 19th-century collection to the European paintings department. Nevertheless, what remains still consists of some 12,000 works, many of which are in storage. Although Campbell’s choice of a fellow Briton raised some eyebrows, Wagstaff has ample experience in the United States, including a stint at the Frick Art & Historical Center in Pittsburgh, from 1993 to 1998, as well as time spent in the Whitney program, which counts among its noted alumni Guggenheim director Richard Armstrong and Lisa Phillips, director of the New Museum.
Much of Wagstaff’s appeal lies in her experience as a core member of the team behind the success of Tate Modern, which since its inception in 2000 has transformed Britain’s contemporary-art landscape and become a top tourist draw, with around five million visitors annually, roughly as many as the Met. She has overseen more than 60 exhibitions, and has curated retrospectives of Edward Hopper (2004), Juan Muñoz (2008), and Jeff Wall (2005), who perceives Wagstaff as an “old school” curator. “I don’t think she sees the curator as an impresario inventing a fantastic framework in which works of art play a role,” says the Canadian artist. She has also curated a forthcoming Roy Lichtenstein show in collaboration with the Art Institute of Chicago.
Illustrating a keen awareness of popular taste and the growing public interest in the participatory-art experience, Wagstaff expanded Tate’s remit to embrace performance art and film. She has also pioneered a new model of small-scale international show based on curatorial exchanges with arts organizations from Amman and Kabul to Mexico City and Istanbul.
“Her resources as a curator with great vision and her capacity to bring projects to successful realization are absolutely superb,” says Ann Goldstein, the artistic director of Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum, who has collaborated with Wagstaff on plans for a joint Marlene Dumas retrospective with another institution.
Among Wagstaff’s biggest achievements has been managing commissions for the monumental interactive artworks in the cavernous space of Turbine Hall. Viewers have sunbathed before Olafur Eliasson’s colossal indoor sun (2003), explored—and fallen into—the Colombian artist Doris Salcedo’s 550-foot-long crack in the floor (2007), and hurtled down Carsten Höller’s shiny slides (2006).
Each commission presented a major challenge, Wagstaff says, because of the risks involved for the artist in responding to such a space and the need to capture the visitor’s imagination. “If they fail, they fail literally on a spectacular level and the museum does likewise. Every enterprise is embarked upon with a great deal of thought, trepidation, exhilaration, and experimentation,” she says.
British artist Tacita Dean, whose installation FILM is on view at Tate Modern through March 11, says Wagstaff’s calm confidence was crucial when, just four months before the exhibition, the artist was only beginning to have a clear idea of what she wanted to do. “Even then,” Dean recalls, “technically I wasn’t sure it was possible, so it was a bit of a tightrope. But I didn’t get any hassle from the Tate at all about being so late. The point is that she trusted me, which is really important in a curator.”
Salcedo was similarly impressed by the Tate team, and by Wagstaff’s respectful attitude in particular, when the artist proposed cleaving open the Turbine Hall floor to leave a permanent scar for her work Shibboleth. “She listens,” Salcedo says, “so one is able as an artist to establish a dialogue that is quite productive.” Wagstaff keeps in touch, writing “thoughtful and even poetic” letters to her when she sees exhibitions of Salcedo’s work.
Wagstaff’s extensive network of friends among international artists will undoubtedly be significant in helping her drive forward the Met’s contemporary program.
“I think it’s very, very important that what we present at the Met is artist-centered,” Wagstaff says. “It is artists’ voices always over centuries that enable us to understand the world we live in now and the world of the past.”
Wagstaff is married to Mark Francis, codirector of the London Gagosian Gallery, who worked as a curator for the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh in the 1990s and was founding director of Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol Museum. She has a grown son and daughter and counts boxing among her otherwise cultural hobbies. “I do it,” she says, “because I really genuinely enjoy it—you have to be dab quick.”
Born in England, Wagstaff grew up in the Mediterranean—Cyprus and Malta—and Germany and Scotland. She studied history of art and architecture at the University of East Anglia, specializing in Cubism and Futurism, with a minor in Renaissance art and architecture. After graduating she worked at the Whitechapel Gallery in east London, which was then headed by current Tate director Nicholas Serota, and then left to attend the Whitney program. It was there that she cut her teeth as a curator with a comic-art show she cocurated with John Carlin at the Whitney’s downtown branch. She returned to the Serota fold in 1998 as head of exhibitions and displays at Tate Britain before moving to Tate Modern in 2001.
Wagstaff has worked closely with the Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron on Tate Modern’s new annex building and has led plans to open up massive oil tanks beneath the former power station for performance art and multimedia installations.
When she takes up her Met post in late spring, the art world will be watching in expectation of innovation, if not revolution, in the contemporary department. It is a challenge she never dreamt she would be given, back in her student days at the Whitney. “I would have been astounded had I known I would go into the portals of the Met with a much greater sense of purpose than I did then. I would hope to keep that same sense of wonder and exploration alive.”
Elizabeth Fullerton is a London-based freelance writer and former foreign correspondent for Reuters.