Like many museum directors, I have a curatorial background. I learned much of what I know about curating from a legendary and contentious figure, William Rubin, who led the Museum of Modern Art’s flagship department of painting and sculpture from 1969 to 1988. Bill believed that exhibitions come and go, but the collection is the measure of a museum. As a director, acquiring art for the permanent collection remains one of the great pleasures and privileges of my job.
Once installed in the museum’s galleries, art can seem fixed, as if it has always been there, chosen by a single powerful intelligence; in fact, a collection is a dynamic organism, the constantly changing product of the strengths and weaknesses—and competing agendas—of each of the directors, curators, and patrons who built it. Some examples: Carnegie Museum of Art’s holdings from the mid-19th century to around 1910 are excellent, including major works by Whistler, Van Gogh, and Monet, and reflecting the acuity of the institution’s founders and the art historical sensitivity and knowledge of those who followed. In the 1960s, we acquired little US Pop and an abundance of European postwar art, suggesting that our leaders did not yet realize that the United States had become an artistic powerhouse. Starting in the 1980s, the contemporary collection took off: in line with the most influential developments, adventurous directors and curators acquired German painting in the eighties; works by YBAs (Young British Artists) in the nineties; and by Angelinos in the aughts. Today, globalization has changed the face of the contemporary art world, bringing South American, Asian, and African artists to the fore. As fine as Carnegie Museum of Art’s contemporary art collection is, I feel strongly that it should reflect this development in more depth.
I identified my first acquisition for the museum at the opening of last year’s Venice Biennale, when I saw Series of Vulnerable Arrangements—Domestics of Community by Haegue Yang in the Arsenale. Because Haegue participated in the last show I
organized at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, I saw that Series of Vulnerable Arrangements melded many of her basic concerns—notions of domestic life and community, drawing and sculpture, the handmade and the mass-produced—in original and intriguing ways. Her presence in both the Arsenale (the Biennale’s curated exhibition) and the Korean National Pavilion confirmed that her career was on the rise. Also, I knew that she participated in the 2008 Carnegie International, and that the museum had not yet acquired a work by her.
Following a longer acquisition process than most people would imagine (explored in my post “Behind the Scenes: Making an Acquisition”), Haegue came to Pittsburgh in
January to work with us on installing this very complex piece. You can see Series of Vulnerable Arrangements in our contemporary galleries now, installed to Yang’s specifications with videos from the 1970s by US artist Martha Rosler, an influential figure whose work deals with representations of femininity, domesticity, class, and war. There’s no guaranteeing how future generations will assess Series of Vulnerable Arrangements, but I find it intellectually compelling and visually very beautiful.
Until next month,