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Frieze New York 2022

Five Curators Shaking Up the New York City Scene

Profiles by Makayla Bailey trace how a raft of recent appointments is redrawing the landscape of museums and art spaces across the city

BY Makayla Bailey in Frieze New York , Frieze Week Magazine , Profiles | 13 MAY 22

A raft of recent appointments across the city has brought new leadership to some of New York’s most influential and beloved cultural institutions, at a time when the public discourse about injustice and the need for social change means the role of museums and art spaces is being profoundly rethought and reframed. Rhizome’s Makayla Bailey profiles five of the key figures shaking up the city's scene.

Jesse R. Erickson

Astor Curator and Department Head of Printed Books and Bindings, The Morgan Library & Museum

Jesse R. Erickson by Daniel Shea
Jesse R. Erickson by Daniel Shea

Jesse R. Erickson is committed to understanding the role of books as both objects and vectors for the transmission of knowledge and global cultural heritage. Approaching the collection of the Morgan Library & Museum with the aim of identifying its existing strengths while fostering greater diversity in its acquisitions, Erickson is building towards a future in which the literary production of knowledge engages audiences of all ages and backgrounds.

Appointed Astor Curator and Department Head of Printed Books and Bindings late last year, Erickson has developed a curatorial, pedagogical and research-based practice that draws on his experience in rare-book librarianship and education at the Getty Center and University of Delaware. His commitment to promoting diversity and inclusion did not start as a reaction to the recent national debate, but rather has always been at the core of his professional mission to, as he tells me, undertake “labor, intellectual and  otherwise, that deals specifically with the preservation of history and culture.”

Erickson emphasizes engagement with the cultural canon as a means to an end. In this framework, historical work allows us to better understand how the concept of “high” culture is constructed and how it operates in society. He sees his practice as promoting a dynamic exchange between objects and periods, one that is constantly shifting as the world evolves. A number of questions animate his present concerns: What is the nature of time and our relationship to it? Who is benefitting most from the preservation of literature, history and culture? How can we reframe our understanding of the canon in a way that celebrates more voices both within and beyond its current limitations?

Erickson’s predecessors in his field — including Lawrence Clark Powell, Sydney Cockerell, Belle da Costa Greene, Miriam Matthews and Arturo Schomburg — have helped shape his view of what it means to work at an institution devoted to “the preservation and curation of collective cultural memory.” For Erickson, literacy is an expansive concept that he wishes to expand further by confronting the exclusionary history of rare books and special collections, increasing cross-cultural competency and building bridges between different cultures and generations.

Naomi Beckwith

Deputy Director and Jennifer and David Stockman Chief Curator, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation

Naomi Beckwith by Daniel Shea
Naomi Beckwith by Daniel Shea

For Naomi Beckwith — who joined the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation as Deputy Director and Jennifer and David Stockman Chief Curator last year — art is never separate from the world around it. Beckwith questions the notion that artists are lone geniuses, finding ways for us to see their practices as part of a “community formation,” as she tells me. Building on this framework, she positions artists within a relational environment that includes family, friends and creative communities, opening up new  interpretive possibilities for each work. “I’m particularly interested in artists acting as engaged citizens rather than simply visionaries who create nice forms,” she explains.

Over the last few years in particular, Beckwith stresses, artists have been at the forefront of efforts to imagine alternative political formations. Central to these endeavors are cross-disciplinary practices, she notes, citing as examples the For Freedoms collective, an artist-run platform for creative civic engagement and direct action, Carrie Mae Weems’s 2021 exhibition "A Land of Broken Dreams" at the Logan Center in Chicago, and the initiative to preserve Nina Simone’s childhood home in Tryon, North Carolina (spearheaded by Ellen Gallagher, Rashid Johnson, Julie Mehretu and Adam Pendleton, who purchased the home together in 2017).

By framing art within its social contexts, Beckwith is also stewarding a necessary realignment of institutional priorities at the Guggenheim. A notable example of this agenda is "Forothermore," a major retrospective of Nick Cave’s work, curated by Beckwith in her former role as Manilow Senior Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, which will travel to the Guggenheim this fall. The most comprehensive museum survey of Cave’s work to date, the exhibition spans fashion, sculpture, immersive installations, videos and performances. It showcases the artist’s desire for “a safer and more equitable world,” as Beckwith describes it, for those marginalized by society.

Akili Tommasino

Associate Curator, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Akili Tommasino by Daniel Shea
Akili Tommasino by Daniel Shea

Akili Tommasino’s tenure as Associate Curator at The Metropolitan Museum of Art began in 2021, in a moment when the historic institution is redefining itself. Prioritizing contemporary art and an interdisciplinary, interdepartmental perspective, Tommasino’s upcoming slate ranges from acquisitions of work by historically marginalized artists to exhibitions that include contemporary commissions, a cross-departmental, collection-based display and a major thematic, transhistorical and interdisciplinary loan-based show. Tommasino is working hard to expand the reach and impact of the museum’s collection and activities.

Having begun his curatorial career 15 years ago with an internship at MAMbo – Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna, Tommasino holds a breadth of experience that is underscored by his expertise in modern art. While it is this lens that shapes his view of contemporary art and emerging practices, he traces the roots of his forthcoming transhistorical and interdisciplinary projects to a childhood passion for the history of ancient cultures. These nascent interests — vigorously pursued as a youthful visitor to the Brooklyn Museum, then a teenage devotee of New York’s museums, and later an overseas student in Italy — give him a special role to play at The Met, a museum that represents 5,000 years of human creative endeavor: to inquire, to contextualize and to expand.

As a native New Yorker, Tommasino is keen to strengthen The Met’s connections to the local communities to which he belongs; the son of immigrants from the small Caribbean island-nation of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, his heritage also informs his approach to uplifting marginalized narratives in the history of art. Citing The Met as a museum he routinely cut high school to visit, Tommasino strives to bring a remnant of that adolescent wonder and curiosity to his present work. He describes his position as a “dual role”—institutional ambassador and community advocate—and believes that his curatorial remit is primarily to assert rather than decry. “There is a tendency to cast the curator of color as disruptive,” he tells me, “any change I represent I endeavor to be constructive.”

Legacy Russell

Executive Director and Chief Curator, The Kitchen

Legacy Russell by Daniel Shea
Legacy Russell by Daniel Shea

Born and raised in the East Village to a gerontologist mother and photographer father, former Studio Museum curator Legacy Russell grew up in a period when what she refers to as “the collection” of artistic institutions in New York was a complex and rigorous cultural hub. When we spoke, she cited a mentor who once said: “Institutions weren’t built to love us. If you want to be loved, go home and build that there.”

The possibility that art spaces could one day be a kind of home, offering us a hard-earned love, guides Russell’s plans for The Kitchen — an artist-centered space founded in 1971, dedicated to experimental new media, art and performance — which she joined as Executive Director and Chief Curator in 2021. At the heart of these plans is a greater generosity towards community and audience, a shift prompted by the challenging and transformative experiences of the last two years. Russell is now stewarding programming that goes beyond one-off performances and exhibitions that run for limited periods of time. Instead, she plans a shift to a model of longer duration: “not only in the sense that we will have expanded runs of projects, but also in that the organization will commit to more fully resourcing our collaborations with artists,” enabling the program to have “a more maturated structure of learning and public engagement.” Russell believes this mission-driven shift will further cement The Kitchen as an “unparalleled site of cultivation and radical care for the next generation of the avant-garde.” A planned renovation will re-invigorate the space as a nexus of artful play, risk-taking and ground-breaking performance.

As well as a curator and academic, Russell is also an award-winning writer, with her book Glitch Feminism (2020) notably focusing on gender, performance, digital selfdom, internet idolatry and new-media ritual through the idea of the digital “glitch.” By deliberately broadening the definition of “avant-garde” and engaging critically in what it means to steward a dynamic and emotionally and culturally intelligent institution, Russell wants to take the opportunity “to address head-on the failures of art, right alongside proposing the future of it. That’s The Kitchen.”

Jordan Carter

Curator, Dia Art Foundation

Jordan Carter by Daniel Shea
Jordan Carter by Daniel Shea

Jordan Carter, who was appointed Curator of Dia Art Foundation in 2021, emphasizes the centrality of radical hospitality in his process, privileging both artist and artwork and building relationships with makers across categories and institutions. For example, a forthcoming Stanley Brouwn exhibition, highlighting the practice of the celebrated, late conceptual artist, marks a continuation of Carter’s work at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he has organised a concurrent exhibition of the artist’s work, due to open next spring. Taking the form of a room-sized piece that will go on view at Dia Beacon, this show constitutes Dia’s first presentation of Brouwn’s work in its almost 50-year history.

For Carter, radical hospitality in curation is, he tells me, about “hosting artists and publics and risk” in ways that transform our understanding of art’s history, present and institutional contexts. Spread across 11 locations — from the industrial Dia Beacon to land-art sites throughout the US and abroad — Dia enables him to commission projects that innovate through scope, timeline and scale. Carter believes that artists should not be engaged as mere ciphers for their demographics nor as vehicles for broadening a canon. Rather than seeking to define the terms under which an artwork is experienced, he aims to develop meaningful collaborations over time, celebrating the creative possibilities that emerge when an artist’s goals differ from those of the institution.

Following this ethos, Carter is overseeing a forthcoming commission by Cameron Rowland, which will be presented at Dia in 2024. Rowland’s work — which exposes the institutional structures that perpetuate racial capitalism and, in turn, racial and socioeconomic inequities — goes beyond exploring categories of identity. His project chimes with Carter’s own process-oriented curatorial mandate, which challenges limiting conceptions of what it means to enlarge the canon.

This article first appeared in Frieze Week, May 2022 under the headline 'The New Class'.

Main image: Akili Tommasino by Daniel Shea

Makayla Bailey is a museum professional and Development Director at Rhizome, an affiliate in residence at the New Museum in New York City. She is based in New York City.