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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”