Magazine article Artforum International

Back to School: Jordan Kantor on Curatorial Returns to the Academy

Magazine article Artforum International

Back to School: Jordan Kantor on Curatorial Returns to the Academy

Article excerpt

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.)

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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. …

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