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New faces on Southland art museum scene

Curators, ranging in age from 30s to 60s, get a handle on art community in a new era of collaboration and cooperation.

April 04, 2010|By Suzanne Muchnic >>>
  • Among the new curators bringing their experience and perspective to Southland museums are, from left, Sarah Bancroft of the Orange County Museum of Art, Franklin Sirmans of LACMA, Jeffrey Richardson of the Autry National Center, Christine Y. Kim of LACMA and Britt Salvesen, also of LACMA.
Among the new curators bringing their experience and perspective to Southland… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )

Franklin Sirmans occupies a conspicuously neat space in a complex of glass-front offices at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The new head of LACMA's contemporary art department arrived in January with plenty of ideas, but it takes time to pile up the mountains of books and files that overwhelm many of his colleagues.
Around the corner, Christine Y. Kim has settled in, but just barely. She joined the museum's staff last September as associate curator of contemporary art. And down the hall, another notably uncluttered office belongs to Britt Salvesen, who came aboard in October as chief of two departments: photography, and prints and drawings.
LACMA's newest curators have landed in prestigious positions at a high-profile institution where their work will be closely watched. And they are not alone: Amid an economic downturn that has brought cutbacks at museums nationwide, an infusion of new curatorial blood at Southern California museums reflects a growing ethnic diversity as well as fresh perspectives and programmatic growth.
" Los Angeles still feels like a meritocracy," Kim says. "You've got a crazy idea? I've got five minutes." A Korean American who was born in Newport Beach, raised in the Bay Area and educated on the East Coast, she did curatorial work at the Studio Museum in Harlem before returning to the West Coast and co-founding, with Shamim M. Momin, Los Angeles Nomadic Division, a freewheeling nonprofit group that supports public art projects. In her new job Kim is gaining experience at a relatively traditional institution where she's developing a big show of time-based media, including film, television, video and Facebook.

New curators: An article last Sunday about new curators at Southern California museums said Harold B. Nelson has facilitated the bequest of a 300-piece collection of 19th century American decorative arts at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens. The collection includes 19th century pieces, but its strength is in 18th century objects. Also, the article said that Sarah Bancroft was filling the position at the Orange County Museum of Art formerly held by Deputy Director Karen Moss. Moss is still at the museum and curating several exhibitions. —

Whether the new curators work with the latest creations from artists' studios, 19th century American furnishings or indigenous arts of Africa and the Caribbean, they have chosen a time-honored profession. Unlike colleagues in academia, art museum curators use their training in art history to engage with objects, artists and the public. With the support of sympathetic directors, they can have a big impact as they shape collections, cultivate donors, organize exhibitions and write catalog essays.

Southern California's recent arrivals don't fit a mold. From their 30s to their 60s, they come from near and far. Some wear jeans or flannels; others have a flair for affordable chic. No one gets rich on a standard curator's salary. But there are perks: travel, close encounters with extraordinary art, professional and social connections, opportunities to explore ideas in exhibitions and publications.

Despite obvious challenges, the curators say, this is an exciting time to be in and around Los Angeles. In LACMA's contemporary art department, Sirmans, an African American, is working with Kim and Rita Gonzalez, who has extensive experience in Latin American art. At the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, associate curator Lucia Sanroman, a native of Mexico, lives in Tijuana and forges relationships with Mexico's art community.

Diverse staffs

Over the last couple of years, about 20 curators have started or accepted jobs at Southern California's art museums. And the number may rise after Jeffrey Deitch soon takes charge of the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Within the last 10 months, the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens has appointed Harold B. Nelson its first curator of decorative arts and the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach has hired Cecilia Fajardo-Hill as chief curator. The Hammer Museum has installed Douglas Fogle as chief curator and Anne Ellegood as senior curator. The Fowler Museum at UCLA has welcomed Patrick Polk as its first curator of Caribbean and Latin American Popular Arts and announced the appointment of Gemma Rodrigues, who will arrive in July as curator of African arts.

Whether filling vacancies or new positions, the curators say they were attracted by inspiring directors, opportunities to develop programs and collections and the cultural riches of the region.

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