Who Are the Most Influential Curators of the Last Century? 19 Art-World Tastemakers Weigh In
Who are the heroes of the curatorial field, and why?
Curators are the rock stars of the contemporary art world—or maybe more like the superstar deejays, mixing together every aspect of the art experience into one vision. While many curators today have a status on a par with the artists with whom they work, it was not always thus. The celebrity status of the curator has mushroomed with the professionalization of art, the multiplication of international events, and, not least, with difficult-to-define contemporary art being in desperately in need of able ambassadors to the public.
artnet News asked leading art world tastemakers who their thoughts on who the most influential curators in the course of the last 100 years were. Here’s what they said.
Tobias Ostrander, chief curator, Pérez Art Museum Miami
There are many, but Harald Szeemann (Swiss curator of “When Attitudes Become Form”), Catherine David (deputy director of Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris), Lynne Cooke (senior curator, special projects in modern art at National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC), and Okwui Enwezor (artistic director, managing director of Haus der Kunst, Munich) are several of the most significant.
Jens Hoffmann, co-artistic director of FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art
Since everyone is going to say Harald Szeemann, Hans Ulrich Obrist, or Okwui Enwezor, which is well deserved in all cases, I propose two perhaps lesser-known curators. The probably most important curator initiating many novel concepts in museum display and, in many ways, making the transition from a traditional art historian—who oversees, builds, and interprets a museum collection—to the curator of today is the late German art historian and museum director Alexander Dorner (1893–1957). Today, Dorner is mostly associated with creating the “Abstract Cabinet” together with El Lissitzky as well as “The Room of the Present” with Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, both at the State Museum in Hanover, Germany. Both artworks are room-size installations that could be understood as total works of art, including film projections, furniture, wallpaper designs, sculptures, photography, textiles, and more. Dorner also led the fight again the Nazi’s “Degenerate Art” exhibition in Munich. Many of his ideas can be found in the groundbreaking book, The Living Museum: Experiences of an Art Historical and Museum Director (New York: NYU Press, 1958).
The second curator I would like to propose is Mary Jane Jacob. With just a few exhibitions such as “Places With a Past” (Charleston, 1991) and “Culture in Action” (Chicago, 1992), Jacob redefined the concepts of site-specific artistic and curatorial practice and moved deep into an artistic territory that only about 15 years later would actually find a name to be describe it: Social Practice. Both exhibitions were milestones in the development of exhibitions taking place outside the traditional institutional framework—and inducing the idea of the independent curator to the US—with their direct connection to the history and current realities of both cities, Charleston and Chicago. An influential teacher, writer, and curator, Jacob has continued to be a major force while avoiding museum structures entirely and operating out of the academic context at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Honorable mentions: Johannes Cladders, Pontus Hultén, Paulo Herkenhoff, Rosa Martinez, Germano Celant, Maria Lind, Adriano Pedrosa, Marcia Tucker, Jan Hoet, and Lucy R. Lippard.
Jenny Dixon, director of the Noguchi Museum
Dorothy Miller (1904–2003), a woman curator who began working at the Museum of Modern Art in 1934—wow. Her series of Americans exhibitions (“16 Americans,” “14 Americans,” etc.) introduced new artists, many of whom would become major figures, to the American public.
Henry Geldzahler (1935–1994), who was both curator of American art and then of 20th-century art at the Metropolitan Museum and NYC’s cultural commissioner—combining the elite and the inclusive.
Bill Rubin (1927–2006) was probably the most-influential curator of the 20th century. His kind of domino view of the School of Paris, his work on Cubism, and so much more, set the agenda not only at MoMA but at modern art museums across the globe, shaping the way art was presented to the public.
Almine Ruiz-Picasso, owner, Almine Rech Gallery
I chose these curators as they have done exhibitions of the most important artists of the 20th century, and this is a major risk because you can’t make any mistakes with these kinds of artists.
Nicholas Serota: Among many other of his exhibitions, I saw the most impressive Donald Judd show done by Nicholas Serota at the Tate, I think it showed Judd in his place as one of the major sculptors of the second half of the 20th century.
Carmen Giménez is a great Picasso specialist. “Picasso Black and White” at the Guggenheim can’t be forgotten. She also realized a fantastic Brancusi exhibition at the Tate in London and Richard Serra at the Guggenheim Bilbao.
Yve-Alain Bois did an exhibition at Centre Pompidou, among many others, that I will never forget—”L’Informe/Formless.” The catalogue remains a reference point on the subject that crosses the 20th century. Yve-Alain Bois, along with Rosalind Krauss, introduced a third term between form and content that allows one to analyze works by artists such as Duchamp, Jackson Pollock, Cy Twombly, Cindy Sherman, Claes Oldenburg, Jean Dubuffet, and Robert Smithson.
Vilma Jurkute, director, Alserkal Avenue
Personally, I would have to say Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath who curated a comprehensive show on Egyptian Surrealism titled “Art et Liberté: Rupture, War and Surrealism in Egypt (1938–1948),” the culmination of almost five years of research. The show toured five leading global museums, including Centre Pompidou, and Bardaouil’s book won the coveted MSA Book Prize by the Modernist Studies Association this year. The show will open next at the Tate Liverpool this November.
Peter MacGill, president and founder, Pace/MacGill
John Szarkowski (1925–2007): When a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, he changed the way people thought about and looked at photography. Prior to Szarkowski’s efforts, photography was relegated to the basement, if relegated at all. Szarkowski, with good reason, gave it a deserved place on the first floor.
Susan L. Talbott, executive director of the Fabric Workshop and Museum
Mary Jane Jacob and Chick Austin representing both ends of the century. During the 1990s, Mary Jane Jacob was instrumental in defining the issues that engage us today. In 1991, her landmark exhibition for the Spoleto Festival, “Places with a Past” dealt with the notion of place and also with what later morphed into social practice. “Culture in Action” (1993) extended that discourse. Jacob laid the groundwork for art that could address pressing social issues about race, gender, authenticity, and societal impact while placing a high value on the transformative nature of art.
As director of the Wadsworth Atheneum, Arthur Everett “Chick” Austin (1900–1927) championed the great European modernists in Hartford, Connecticut, during the 1920s and ’30s. It was he who presented the first Picasso retrospective in America and first staged the Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thompson opera, “Four Saints in Three Acts,” before it went on to Broadway. Austin had an instinct for the “new” that extended from art to music and dance—he bought the first Balthus painting for an American museum and, with Lincoln Kirsten, brought George Balanchine to America.
Philip Hewat-Jaboor, chairman of Masterpiece London
Philippe de Montebello (former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, director at Acquavella Gallery) has to be one of the leading curators of the last century. He is a man of great knowledge and vision. He has a strong sense of a “standard” (not a canon), which I think is important. There is good and less good art out there, and there is beautiful and less beautiful art. Quality is still an important judgment tool—we can’t do away with discernment. He also has a great appreciation for all kinds and eras of art. No museum rivals the Met in depth and comprehensiveness. I think it’s important that we don’t distinguish too much one century of art from another or one discipline of art from another. We should judge a work of art with open eyes, considering its unique beauty, and not be preoccupied with categories. We should never think “I only like contemporary art,” especially when contemporary art in itself incorporates so much.
Jordana Pomeroy, director of the Frost Art Museum at FIU
William Rubin (1927–2006), director of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art; John Szarkowski (1925–2007), curator of photography at MoMA; Pontus Hultén (1924–2006), founding director of Centre Georges Pompidou, former head of Moderna Museet, Stockholm; Thelma Golden, chief curator and director of the Studio Museum in Harlem; Alanna Heiss, founder of MoMA PS1.
Gonzalo Casals, director, Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art
Thelma Golden: Redefined the role of cultural specific museums at the turn of the century, and their approach to contemporary image making. Coining the term Post-Blackness, Golden problematized identity politics in contemporary arts. She also is responsible for mentoring and launching the careers of many curators and arts administrators of color.
Lucy R. Lippard: The force behind the criticism of traditional gender expectations and the art-historical canon, Lippard created a new framework of interpretation of art from a feminist lens. She confounded Printed Matter and the Heresies Collective. Her curatorial approach combined aesthetics with politics centered in ethical activism.
Marcia Tucker (1940–2006): Founder of the New Museum, Tucker created a blueprint for museums focusing on contemporary art. Under her tenure, 1990s agitprop collectives such as Act Up, and Silence=Death Collective found a home within the museum walls.
Dorothy Moss, curator at Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery
Helen Molesworth (chief curator Museum of Contemporary Art, LA); Thelma Golden (chief curator and director at the Studio Museum in Harlem); and Rick Powell (curator and professor of art history at Duke University)—for pushing the boundaries of curatorial work through a tenacious commitment to the artists they show. Their curatorial work rewrites the history of art in real time.
George Goldner, art advisor; former chairman of prints and drawings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Most important art historian—John Pope-Hennessy (1913–1994): Through his books, catalogues, and lectures, he advanced and popularized the study and appreciation of Italian sculpture in the English-speaking world and gave it the prominence it deserved. Later on, he made a major contribution to the field of European paintings, as chairman of that department at the Met and as an advisor to collectors Jayne and Charles Wrightsman.
Lori Waxman, columnist, Chicago Tribune; participated in documenta 13
Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, director of the Castello di Rivoli Museum of Contemporary Art and GAM in Turin: I lived in the middle of documenta 13, and so I was able to understand how complex and organic and multi-headed and radical and poetic and intellectual and political it was—all at the same time. It was not easy to appreciate in a short visit but was fantastic and complex to experience in a deep and long way over time. That marks a very new way of thinking about exhibitions and about culture and the city and life in general. I single her out because I’m awed by the fact that one person was able to spearhead and conceptualize this unwieldy creature in a way that it actually cohered. You had to live in it to understand that cohesion in the way you have to live in a really vibrant city to understand how it works together.
Michelle Grabner, artist and co-artistic director, FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art
Art Historian Alfred H. Barr, Jr. (1902–1981), who believed artists are the only producers of cultural work and discourse. Today, this seems a radical position as curators and institutions now act as cultural creatives instead of cultural interpreters.
Julien Lombrail, co-founder of Carpenters Workshop Gallery
At 27, Alfred H. Barr, Jr. was named the first director of the Museum of Modern Art. His exhibitions changed the art world. He created an educational program around art, blurred the lines between art, design, and architecture, and convinced the MoMA trustees to acquire the Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.
Franklin Parrasch, owner, Franklin Parrasch Gallery
Kirk Varnedoe (1946–2003), as the chief curator of painting and sculpture at MoMA, had a deeply effective view of abstraction that I’ve absorbed in my own understanding of what we reflect in the gallery. The idea that art has a significance outside of the art world, that it has the capacity to provide clues to our existence, was a position he uniquely championed and revealed in show after memorable show.
Alexander Gilkes, co-founder, Paddle8
Massimiliano Gioni (artistic director of the New Museum, curator of the 55th Venice Biennale); Thelma Golden (director and chief curator of The Studio Museum in Harlem; Paola Antonelli senior curator of the department of architecture & design MoMA, curator of “Items: Is Fashion Modern,” 2017); Hans Ulrich Obrist (artistic director at the Serpentine Galleries in London); Axel Vervoordt (designer, curator); Susan Cross (curator at MASS MoCA); Daniel Birnbaum (director of Moderna Museet, Stockholm).
Corinne Erni, curator of special projects, Parrish Art Museum
With curators of contemporary art it’s all about having a radar for the zeitgeist, an insatiable curiosity about the world we live in, and seeing connections that others don’t see. Harald Szeemann (1933–2005) pushed the boundaries of the acceptable in the art world and redefined the role of the curator. He was radical, uncompromising, and turned traditional museum curatorship on its head. Hans Ulrich Obrist is probably the most influential and omnipresent curator today. He has expanded his knowledge far beyond the visual arts, which has made him so apt at fertilizing the arts with fresh ideas. Marcia Tucker, who founded the New Museum in 1977 after being fired from the Whitney, fearlessly invested in young and emerging artists that nobody else believed in.
Li Shurui, artist
Harald Szeemann was the first independent curator, so he was on top of the whole system. Hans Ulrich Obrist is the most successful curator working today.
Follow Artnet News on Facebook:
Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.