Visionaries of the Visual

While crowds fill many of this country's museums and galleries each day to appreciate the soul-stirring qualities of exhibition art, a very small number of individuals—curators and directors—make momentous decisions about the works we stand in line to see. UC Santa Cruz alumni fill many of these important positions, and the half-dozen graduates profiled here make the critical judgments that determine the art that their institutions buy or borrow, which artists to feature, and in what contexts the works will be displayed. With past and present affiliations at some of the nation's most respected art museums and galleries, these six not only influence how art is viewed today, but how it will be remembered tomorrow. By Barbara McKenna

Photo: Gary Freidman/Los Angeles Times

Jeremy Strick

Director, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

Art History, 1977

Before coming to the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in July 1999, Jeremy Strick worked in curatorial positions at Washington, D.C.'s National Gallery of Art, the Saint Louis Art Museum, and the Art Institute of Chicago. He is credited with having a profound influence on programs in 20th-century art at those institutions, even managing to open a new wing of contemporary art at the Art Institute of Chicago during his tenure. "In all three jobs, I worked to bring those institutions more decisively into the present moment," Strick says.

As head of one of the largest and most important contemporary art museums in the world, Strick is in his element. MOCA's 4,000-piece collection draws thousands of visitors each day for exhibitions and public programming. Strick is involved in every aspect of the museum's operation–from acquisitions (there were more than 200 in his first year as director) and event programming, to fundraising and marketing. He even curates on occasion.

"It's a big responsibility," Strick concedes, "but one that's really more exhilarating than burdensome. It's very thrilling to be working where people come to discover the most ambitious art being created today."

Photo: R. R. Jones

Karen Moss

Director of Exhibitions and Public Programs, San Francisco Art Institute

Studio Art/Art History, 1977

AREN MOSS is drawn to both the scholarly and the hands-on worlds of art that have led to positions in either curation or education at such prestigious institutions as the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. But it wasn't until 1999, when she stepped into her current position, that Moss could finally combine her dual passions under one job title.

At the 125-year-old San Francisco Art Institute, one of the country's premier art colleges, Moss curates exhibitions in the institute's three galleries, manages an extensive public programming schedule, and oversees a far-reaching community education program.

Moss credits her wide-ranging interest in art to her training at UCSC. "The direction I took in my career was very much influenced by my studies in art history and the experiences I had in a museum studies seminar at UCSC," she says. Moss still has the printed program from a modern sculpture exhibition that she and fellow classmates put together under the supervision of her UCSC mentor, former faculty member Nan Rosenthal. "It was really unusual to experience that level of museum practice as an undergraduate," she says. "You were allowed to do things at Santa Cruz that absolutely didn't happen in other places."

Photo: Jim Goldberg

Philip Brookman

Senior Curator of Photography and Media Arts, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Individual Major, 1975

RECIAN STATUES, Renaissance landscapes, and other classical art will always occupy a prominent place in the art world. But, for more than a quarter century, Philip Brookman has been expanding exhibition practice to foster another important function of art–the reflection of everyday life.

During his eight-year tenure at the Corcoran, Brookman has curated scores of critically acclaimed exhibits, unveiling gritty and evocative realities–the hardened faces of homeless children; the pill-riddled rooms of dying cancer patients; guileless moments of exuberance, compassion, and intimacy.

Brookman's approach brings with it occasional controversy, perhaps the most publicized example being a 1989 exhibition at the Washington Project for the Arts (WPA) of the homoerotic works of Robert Mapplethorpe. The show was originally slated to go on exhibition at the Corcoran, but was canceled just weeks before the opening for political reasons. Brookman, a curator at the WPA at the time, and UCSC alumnus and then-WPA executive director Jock Reynolds, decided to bring the show to the WPA.

"It wasn't a hard decision," Brookman says. "We wanted people in Washington to see what they were being told they couldn't see. And people came in great numbers. I think we had about 50,000 people in 25 days. No one had seen anything like it."

"I have worked for a long time to rethink what a museum is and what a museum does," says Brookman, whose career also includes curatorial positions at UCSC's Sesnon Art Gallery, San Diego's Centro Cultural de la Raza, and the National Gallery of Art. "For a long time museums were mainly history archives. What I am aiming for is not so much a traditional academic look at art and art history, but art as it connects to the community, to people's lives."

Photo: William Coupon

Keith Christiansen

Curator of Italian Paintings, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

History and French Literature, 1969

N HIS JOB, Keith Christiansen comes face to face with some of the most magnificent art in the world. A staff member at the Met for the past 23 years, Christiansen oversees the museum's collection of 14th- through 18th-century Italian paintings. This gives him a full palette of job duties–from examining paintings with infrared equipment, to matching a Renaissance masterpiece to a period frame, to installing exhibitions at the Met using art from around the world.

Christiansen's detailed grasp of art history is essential in curating a show, but so is a certain pragmatism. "Exhibitions take place in a negotiable realm between the ideal and the practical," he says. "You get in your mind the works of art you need to carry out your concept, and then the negotiating and bartering begins: You learn that a work that would perfectly exemplify a certain period or style is never put on loan, that another has all the right components but is in terrible condition, and yet another belongs to a museum that is already lending you two paintings and won't be thrilled about making a third loan."

Christiansen not only decides what the public will see, but also what the museum will buy–heart-pounding decisions that can carry price tags into the millions. "If you're laying down $2-5 million on an acquisition, it's vital to have a clean, unbiased reaction to the piece," he says. "We all have these ingrained responses that, when you're making this kind of a purchase, you can't afford to follow uncritically. You have to stretch your expectations and ask, 'What am I looking at? How does this compare to works from a similar period? What will it add to the collection? Does it represent a historically pivotal moment?' You have to be absolutely certain–intellectually and intuitively."

Photo: R. R. Jones

Ada Takahashi

Director and Partner, Robert Koch Gallery, San Francisco

Aesthetic Studies, 1975

OST ART GALLERIES emphasize selling art, not collecting it. But the Robert Koch Gallery in San Francisco has gained an international reputation not only as a distinguished vendor of fine photography, but for its unique collection of vintage 19th- and 20th-century European and American photography.

Ada Takahashi, who has been with the gallery since 1986, shares duties with co-owner Robert Koch. Once a photographer herself, Takahashi now focuses on curating shows and managing the gallery. She began her professional career as a researcher at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, but quickly moved into gallery work where she found more opportunities for interaction with people–discovering new artists and sharing their work with others.

"It's exciting to come across new work," she says. "When it's a great discovery, you know it right away. The great pieces captivate your perception visually, intellectually, and intuitively. And then, when you can ultimately exhibit that work–when you see it up on the wall–that's a very satisfying experience."

Photo: Alex Contreras/Yale University

Jock Reynolds

Director, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven

Psychology, 1969

AKING ON THE JOB in 1998 as director of the Yale University Art Gallery–America's oldest university teaching museum and home to a collection of more than 86,000 works–was a logical step for the former director of a cutting-edge graduate program in interdisciplinary arts (San Francisco State University), executive director of a dynamic artists' organization (the Washington Project for the Arts), and director of another prestigious academic museum (Phillips Academy's Addison Gallery of American Art).

As a practicing artist, Reynolds and longtime artistic collaborator and wife, Suzanne Hellmuth, have created large-scale visual theater productions, installations, and exhibitions that have been seen around the world. Their works have been commissioned by MIT, the Carnegie Library, and the University of Washington, while some of their studio art resides in such collections as the Walker Art Center, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and the Smithsonian.

But it is his role as a teacher that Reynolds values most. For ten years Reynolds was a member of the San Francisco State University art faculty, and, from early in his career, he has made the education of up-and-coming artists and scholars a priority. Reflecting on the path that led him to Yale, Reynolds says: "I purposely eschewed chances to run big-city museums because I wanted to play an active role as an educator. It's a thrill to continuously engage the minds and creative curiosity of young people."

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