Today, the word “curator” conjures an erudite, jet-setting figure who attends biennials around the world, but the job wasn’t always a glamorous one, and during the mid-20th century, a group of figures helped define the profession as we know it today by working tirelessly behind the scenes. In most cases, their names weren’t household ones at the time, but their impact is far-reaching, shaping the way contemporary art was seen in the years to come through groundbreaking surveys, experimental modes of presentation, and world-class biennials.
This list surveys the curators who aided in defining what the profession would later become. (For the purposes of this article, the purview was limited to figures who have died or no longer active.) Those included run the gamut from founders of major biennials to directors who transformed institutions with their boundary-pushing exhibitions.
Some of the curators here advocated for a merger of art and politics, others found innovative ways of presenting conceptual art, and still others injected new life into the art scenes of their respective countries. While hardly exhaustive, this list offers a glimpse at the people who pinpointed various art movements and launched the careers of artists involved. In the process, they showed that curating need not only lend itself to retrospectives and surveys—it also could encompass something close to an art form in and of itself.
A list of 20 of the most influential curators in art history follows below.
Alfred H. Barr, Jr.
Having taught a groundbreaking course on 20th-century art at Harvard, Princeton, and Wellesley College, Alfred H. Barr, Jr. became the first director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York age 27 in 1929. Barr’s first two solo exhibitions at the nascent museum focused on the work of Henri Matisse and Diego Rivera, and his 1936 exhibition “Cubism and Abstract Art” also proved influential, particularly for the diagrams he created that mapped the influences of modern art. Under his direction until 1943, MoMA continued to mount important exhibitions, like an Edward Hopper retrospective and the U.S. debut of Picasso’s storied anti-war mural Guernica (where it was on extended loan until 1981), and Barr helped secure major acquisitions, including Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) and Henri Rousseau’s Sleeping Gypsy (1897). For all this, he is credited with shaping what would become one of the world’s most important bastions of modern art. In its 1981 obituary for Barr, the New York Times described him as “a sharp acquisitor with a sense of historical importance.”
In 1953, Arnold Bode visited the Palazzo Reale in Milan. Though the museum was still damaged by World War II, Bode was so impressed by the giant Pablo Picasso show on view that he wanted to create something on its scale in his home country of Germany. The exhibition that resulted, Documenta, has since gone down in history. Its first edition, held in 1955 at the Museum Fridericianum in Kassel, Germany, was the largest exhibition of modern art ever staged in West Germany at the time, and it featured work by a spread of artists who had defined past half-century of European art history, from Henri Rousseau to Sophie Taeuber-Arp. Bode, who would go on to do three more editions of Documenta, in 1959, 1964, and 1969, would go on to help make the quinquennial exhibition one of the world’s most important surveys of contemporary art-making. Future organizers have only grown its ambitions further, with curator Okwui Enwezor crucially expanding Documenta’s purview to include non-Western artists with his 2001 edition. Even if Bode’s four Documentas seem limited by their Eurocentrist scope in hindsight, his exhibitions effectively plotted a path for the biennials that have proliferated around the world in recent years.
“To exist from outside the system amounts to revolution,” Germano Celant once wrote.
And with one gallery show outside a major art capital, he effectively set the Italian art scene on a new course. That 1967 show, “Im Spazio” at Genoa’s Galleria La Bretesca, helped identify a style known as Arte Povera, which involved relying on making art from the “low”—inexpensive materials that stood in contrast to the “high” ones associated with traditional mediums like painting and sculpture. Mario Merz, Pino Pascali, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Jannis Kounellis, and more were among its most important purveyors during the ’60s and ’70s.
Celant, who died in 2020 of Covid-related causes, continued to advocate for Italian contemporary art throughout his career, which included curatorial posts at the Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Fondazione Prada in Milan. While he was occasionally accused of selling out—particularly with his 1993 edition of the Venice Biennale, which many critics viewed as being unfairly weighted toward blue-chip artists—Celant appears on this list because he took a chance on art that was unlikely to curry favor in postwar Italy’s top institutions. “Celant changed the way art was made and looked at, and the way curating was done altogether,” curator Francesco Bonami wrote in 2020.
During the 1960s, as artists moved their work into increasingly conceptual territory, Cladders reimagined institutions as spaces that could play host to ideas as well as art objects. He had a term for this ambitious kind of institution: the “anti-museum.” “The ‘anti’ in ‘anti-museum,’” he wrote in 1968, “must be understood as a teardown of the four walls and the construction of a spiritual building in which art and art cultivation find the ‘room’ in which they mutually support each other because they are mutually dependent.” As director of the Museum Abteiberg in Mönchengladbach, Germany, he staged eccentric shows for artists who were not yet famous—Stanley Brouwn emptied the museum of all objects for one 1970 show, and Daniel Buren made an exhibition entirely devoted to the concept of retrospectives for a 1975 presentation. A member of Harald Szeemann’s Documenta 5 curatorial team in 1972, Cladders went down in history for his experimental style, which helped cement the international reputations of Carl Andre, Joseph Beuys, Marcel Broodthaers, and many more.
Anne d’Harnoncourt served as director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art from 1982 until her death in 2008. Major retrospectives that d’Harnoncourt oversaw at the museum throughout her tenure were focused on Paul Cézanne, Constantin Brâncuși, Hon’ami Kōetsu, Barnett Newman, and Salvador Dalí. Among her greatest achievements at the institution was the reinstallation of its European collections and the renovation of several of the museum’s modern and contemporary art galleries. Before taking the helm of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, d’Harnoncourt had been a curator of 20th-century art at the institution. According to the New York Times, she was the only woman to lead a museum with an annual budget over $25 million when she was appointed to the top post in 1982.
David C. Driskell
David C. Driskell, who died in 2020 of coronavirus-related causes, dedicated his work as an artist, historian, collector, and curator to African American art history. Driskell’s groundbreaking 1976 exhibition “Two Centuries of Black American Art: 1750–1955” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art surveyed over 200 years of work by Black artists in the U.S., establishing a lineage for black art-making in the United States. That show, which featured work by Jacob Lawrence, Alma Thomas, Henry Ossawa Tanner, Bill Traylor, and many others, is considered one of the most significant presentations in LACMA’s history. “I was looking for a body of work which showed first of all that Blacks had been stable participants in American visual culture for more than 200 years; and by stable participants I simply mean that in many cases they had been the backbone,” Driskell once told the New York Times of the exhibition. (The show was recently the inspiration for an HBO documentary on Black art.)
Later in his career, Driskell established the David C. Driskell Center for the Study of the Visual Arts and Culture of African Americans and the African Diaspora at the University of Maryland, College Park. Each year since 2005, the High Museum in Atlanta has award a $25,000 prize named for Driskell to a scholar or artist who has made important contributions to the field of African American art.
An ambitious curator with an enterprising mindset, Okwui Enwezor, whose died in 2019 at 55, was known for the globalist view of the discipline that he espoused. After organizing two influential surveys of contemporary African photography, Enwezor rose to international prominence with his direction of Documenta 11 in 2001, which offered proof that the contributions of African, Asian, and Latin American artists were just as significant as those based in the U.S. and Europe. In the latter stages of his career, he was director of the Haus der Kunst in Munich, where he mounted important retrospectives of artists like El Anatsui, Frank Bowling, Ellen Gallagher, and others, as well as the groundbreaking 2016–17 show “Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945–1965,” which expanded art history from that period to include more non-Western artists.
Along the way, Enwezor also revolutionized the biennial circuit, imagining these recurring shows as events that unite the globe. Perhaps the greatest example of this was his 2008 Gwangju Biennale, which was more or less an assemblage of exhibitions that had already appeared elsewhere. Ahead of that show, Enwezor said, “My metaphor for these touring exhibitions is one of complex traveling worlds”—a statement that may as well apply to his entire curatorial practice.
During the 1960s, Paris’s most august institutions faced widespread criticism from students and radicals that they catered solely to the tastes of middle-class audiences. But the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris briefly escaped these critiques because of Pierre Gaudibert’s curatorial work. He introduced a program known as Animation-Recherche-Confrontation, or ARC for short, which showcased art grappling with the Vietnam War, protests against French officials’ leadership, and more. ARC’s explicitly leftist programming included a 1971 solo show by Lucien Mathelin featuring paintings that envisioned Parisian monuments as symbols of death and decay. Amid an outcry, the police removed two works from the Mathelin show, and the museum closed for four days. (The following year Gaudibert resigned from ARC amid a disagreement over how a vast survey of Parisian contemporary art would be presented.)
With ARC, Gaudibert showed that, in order to stay relevant, museums could not ignore political happenings that seemingly had little do with them. Speaking of ARC on the occasion of Gaudibert’s death in 2006, curator Suzanne Pagé told Le Monde, “Before, a museum was a place reserved for a privileged class. He opened it up to contemporary art and he downgraded it!”
The New York–based critic and curator Henry Geldzahler is perhaps best known for his tireless work as an advocate for artists like David Hockney and Andy Warhol, both of painted Geldzahler as a subject in their work. At age 33, Geldzahler joined the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a curator of American art, and one of his most acclaimed presentations at the institution was the exhibition “New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940-1970,” which opened in 1969 and featured over 400 works from artists associated with Abstract Expressionism, Color Field painting, Pop art, and Minimalism. The curator would go on to become the commissioner of the U.S. Pavilion for the Venice Biennale in 1966, which exhibited Helen Frankenthaler, Ellsworth Kelly, Roy Lichtenstein, and Jules Olitski, and in 1977 he would take up the post of commissioner of cultural affairs for New York City.
Werner Hofmann, a Vienna School art historian, writer, curator, and esteemed scholar of modern art, got his start in the museum world as founding director of the Vienna’s Museum of the 20th-Century (now the Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien) in 1962. He left that post in 1969 to become director of the Hamburger Kunsthalle in Germany, which he would lead until 1990. At that institution, Hofmann mounted exhibitions of work by Francisco Goya, Philipp Otto Runge, Caspar David Friedrich, and others. Hofmann garnered wide recognition and acclaim for his contributions to the field during his lifetime. He was awarded the Sigmund Freud Prize for Scientific Prose in 1991, and he was given the vaunted Aby Warburg Prize for German art historians in 2008.
A champion of artists including Ed Ruscha, Ken Price, Robert Irwin, and Edward Kienholz, Walter Hopps was a towering figure in the Los Angeles art scene starting in the postwar years. Early in his career, he opened Ferus Gallery, which was operational in the city from 1957 to 1966. In 1962, he left the gallery to enter the institutional sphere, working first as a curator of the Pasadena Art Museum, then as its director. There, he gave figures like Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Cornell, and Kurt Schwitters their first U.S. retrospectives, and he mounted “New Painting of Common Objects,” which is considered to be the first major institutional survey of Pop art in the country.
But he is best known as the founding director of the Menil Collection in Houston, where he worked as curator of 20th-century art at the museum. In the later years of his career, Hopps’s curatorial endeavors also extended to the Whitney Museum and Guggenheim Museum in New York. “I think that the closest analogy to installing a museum exhibition is conducting a symphony orchestra,” Hopps said of the intricacies and nuances of his work in a 1991 New Yorker profile.
Long before the world was paying attention to mid-20th century talents like Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and Nam June Paik, Pontus Hultén was following their every move. As head of Stockholm’s Moderna Museet from 1958 to 1973, Hultén helped elevate boundary-pushing art that might not have otherwise made into institutional spaces, exhibiting, for example, Niki de Saint Phalle’s She – A Cathedral (1966), a giant sculpture featuring a woman’s splayed legs that provoked controversy. Yet Hultén’s many accomplishments weren’t merely limited to the Moderna Museet, which became a destination under his leadership. In 1968, for the Museum of Modern Art in New York, he curated the influential exhibition “The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age,” which placed Leonardo da Vinci drawings beside Jean Tinguely’s kinetic sculptures.
Later, Hultén went on to become the first director of two major institutions, the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles. All the while, he built up a collection of hundreds of artworks that now resides at the Moderna Museet, and he inspired other curators to view their exhibitions as an art form unto themselves. When Hultén died in 2006, curator Daniel Birnbaum remarked that, “more than anyone else, [he] tested the limits of the contemporary art museum from within.”
The Dutch city of Eindhoven was by no means an art destination until Jean Leering helped make it one through his leadership of the Van Abbemuseum. From 1963 to 1973, Leering organized exhibitions that, for some, did not even appear to include art. There was, for example, 1972’s “The Street. A Form of Living Together,” which focused on urban streets as social spaces—and, in a surprise to both Leering and city officials, drew massive crowds.
“If you want the museum’s public to be interested in art, you should not only bring in art,” Leering, who also served on the international committee of Documenta 4 in 1968, told curator Hans Ulrich Obrist in a 2002 interview. To complement this, Leering made a point of acquiring art that bridged disciplines, in particular works by El Lissitzky and artists associated with the De Stijl movement of the early 20th century. In showing that one could find success in exhibiting work that may not fall under the traditional rubrics for art-making, Leering’s forward-thinking work inspired generations of young curators, including Obrist.
Dorothy Canning Miller
Dorothy Canning Miller was the Museum of Modern Art in New York’s first curator, and she worked closely with Alfred H. Barr, Jr., starting in 1934, when she was hired as his assistant. A passionate collector of pieces by Stuart Davis, Alexander Calder, Arshile Gorky, and others, Miller would remain at MoMA until 1965. Having worked with the Rockefeller family on their art collection, Miller was tasked with liaising with artists when she joined Barr’s fledgling team. A New York magazine tribute to Miller, published following her death in 2003, described her as “a den mother to an entire generation of American painters, mostly men.” One of Miller’s crowning achievements at MoMA was the 1959 exhibition “16 Americans,” one in a series of shows that centered new frontiers in American art being explored by the likes of Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Frank Stella.
Grace McCann Morley
In 1935, Grace McCann Morley, who was 34 years old at the time, became the first director of what would later be known as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The young curator, who had previously worked at the Cincinnati Art Museum, took up what SFMOMA has characterized as a “populist strategy” in her exhibitions and educational endeavors at the institution. Under her leadership, the museum acquired the basis for its world-renowned collection, and its early years saw landmark exhibitions of work by Henri Matisse, Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky, Clyfford Still, Pablo Picasso, and other marquee names. Among her accomplishments was a strong partnership with MoMA in New York that brought key showings to audiences across the country, including a presentation of Picasso’s Guernica. Of her decision to keep the institution open until 10 p.m., which was considered a radical move at the time, Morley told the San Francisco Examiner in 1935, “We are embarking on this new and democratic experiment in hopes that we will build up a regular following of art lovers whose days are occupied.”
The art historian Linda Nochlin is known for the pioneering feminist perspective she brought to scholarship. She penned the groundbreaking and seminal essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?,” published in ARTnews in 1971, that examined the dominance of the white male perspective in art history, the way artistic genius had been defined, and how women artists had been historically pushed to the margins. Her curatorial endeavors complemented her art-historical ones. In 1976, with Ann Sutherland Harris, she organized “Women Artists: 1550–1950,” a Los Angeles County Museum of Art survey that showed that women had been creating important art alongside their male colleagues all along. And in 2007, with Maura Reilly, she curated the Brooklyn Museum exhibition “Global Feminisms,” which highlighted the work of non-Western artists like Lin Tianmao and Lee Bul.
A friend of artists including Alice Neel and Deborah Kass, Nochlin was a celebrated professor the New York University Institute of Fine Arts. Nochlin won the College Art Association’s Frank Jewett Mather Prize for Critical Writing in 1978, and, in addition to criticism, she published numerous books during her lifetime, including Women, Art, and Power, and Other Essays (1988), The Politics of Vision (1991), and The Body in Pieces: The Fragment as a Metaphor of Modernity (2001).
Few curators have made as significant a contribution to contemporary art from Africa as Bisi Silva, who died in 2019 following a battle with cancer. Silva served as the founding director of the Center for Contemporary Art, Lagos, which opened in 2007. Over the course of her tenure there, the CCA quickly became an influential art space that has hosted major shows by many of Africa’s top artists working today. The CCA was established to offer African artists making more experimental work a chance to gain a foothold in a system largely devoid of government-funded art nonprofits. Her goal, she once told Frieze, was “to start an organization that supported new artistic and curatorial possibilities.” CCA’s offerings have included shows by El Anatsui and J. D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere, and there is also a library on site with 1,000 volumes devoted to African art history.
Alongside this, Silva also formed Àsìkò, a roving pedagogical platform that led programs around the continent, and curated editions of the Dak’Art Biennial of Contemporary African Art in Senegal and the Thessaloniki Biennale in Greece. With her various exhibitions and initiatives, Silva charted a new path for curators working in Africa, showing the various ways one could “give access to information that could lead to meaningful dialogue, exchange, and collaboration,” as she once put it.
In 1961, Harald Szeemann became the director of the Kunsthalle Bern in Switzerland, making him one of the youngest people ever picked to lead a museum worldwide at the time. But that is hardly the only reason Szeemann has gone down in art history—he was also known for the multitude of famed exhibitions he went on to do. Among them was 1969’s “Live Inside Your Head: When Attitudes Became Form,” which aimed to survey art that prioritized process and ideas over aesthetics. Though critics reacted biliously toward the show (Szeemann ended up resigning from his post as a result), “Live Inside Your Head” helped crystallize several burgeoning artistic movements, including Minimalism and Conceptualism.
Once Szeemann departed the Kunsthalle Bern, he continued organizing trailblazing exhibitions, including 1972’s Documenta 5, whose participants influentially made use of an artist contract that controlled the resale of their work. He later organized the 1999 and 2001 editions of the Venice Biennale. (Szeemann is one of two curators ever to helm both Documenta and the Venice Biennale, along with Okwui Enwezor.) Szeemann’s quirky sensibility established him as one of the first curator impresarios, paving the way for future ones like Klaus Biesenbach and Hans Ulrich Obrist.
Now a fixture in the contemporary art world, the New Museum in New York was founded by Marcia Tucker in 1977. Having just left a curatorial position at Whitney Museum, Tucker was 37 years old at the time of the institution’s establishment, and with the New Museum she aimed to create a bastion for contemporary, boundary-pushing, transgressive, and politically-minded art. Some of the exhibitions organized under her direction were solo outings for Joan Jonas, Martin Puryear, Hans Haacke, Ana Mendieta, and Nancy Spero, as well as thematic presentations like “Difference: On Representation and Sexuality” and “Damaged Goods: Desire and the Economy of the Object.”
During the mid-20th century, at a time when the contemporary art scene in Brazil was still nascent, Walter Zanini was among those pushing to make his home country a more artistically vibrant place. As director of the São Paulo Museum of Contemporary Art (MAC) from 1963 to 1978, Zanini staged exhibitions devoted to European modernism, as well as cutting-edge surveys of conceptual art that helped kickstart the Brazilian art scene. Among those included in these shows were Jannis Kounellis, On Kawara, Anna Bella Geiger, Leticia Parente, and more. (MAC was at the time the only university museum in Brazil.) While Zanini frequently ran up against issues imposed by modest budgets and oppressive political regimes, his exhibitions aided in the importation of avant-garde art that was being seen abroad. Crucially, Zanini, who went on two organize two editions of the Bienal de São Paulo, in 1981 and 1983, was an advocate for creating a network of Latin American museums, ensuring that the momentum he was generating in Brazil spilled beyond its borders.