Coming Months Will See New Hires in New and Established Positions
This is shaping up to be a huge year for the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, one that will determine the future of the institution for decades to come.
A three-year plan to restructure the museum’s employee benefits programs led to nearly two dozen retirements and early retirements in recent months.
Several of those were curatorial positions. Among them: Robert Cohon, curator of ancient art; Leesa Fanning, contemporary art; and Jan Schall, modern art. Nii Quarcoopome, African art, left in 2016; Colin C. Mackenzie, East Asian art, left for the Art Institute of Chicago in 2018.
Catherine Futter, the museum’s director of curatorial affairs, said those and other departures created an opportunity to rethink how the Nelson brings art to the community.
“The curator of the 21st century is very different from the curator of the 20th century,” she said. “That model has shifted quite a bit.”
Futter said in previous years curators might spend 75 percent of their time in their field researching and studying the collection and the rest in donor development.
“The curators of the 21st century — at least the way I look at it — are curators who spend maybe a third of their time on the field, a third on community and a third in donor development,” she said. “That ‘community’ is not just Kansas City or the region, it’s of scholars, other curators, academics, dealers. You have to know what’s out there at all times.”
Over the next several months, the Nelson plans to hire six lead and assistant curatorial positions. All in all, though, Futter said the Nelson will see an increase in curatorial positions.
“We’re actually getting more curators than retired,” she said. “We haven’t had an African curator (since 2016); now we will have two positions. There’s earmarked money for them to do their jobs. There’s travel; there’s professional development.”
Director Julián Zugazagoitia said those who retired not only were in important positions, but in many cases, they were the faces of the institution.
“All of the museum was impacted,” he said. “So we started thinking, ‘What is mission critical and how do we prepare for this?’ We are using this time to create a very different way of engaging, whether it’s collections or community.”
The new curatorial positions include global contemporary art, modern global art, African art, Chinese art, Japanese art and Native American art. Futter said she does not expect to fill the position of ancient art curator.
The global contemporary art curator will be focused on the years 1980 to the present.
“That position is thinking about the art world today, especially in the last 30 to 40 years,” she said. “It has become increasingly international. This curator should be aware of what’s happening in Africa, Central America, South America, China, the U.S. and Europe, because our borders and information sharing are so porous.”
The assistant curator of modern global art will be responsible for art from around the globe from 1910 to 1980 and report to the curator of American art. Because of the will of William Rockhill Nelson, which stated the museum could only purchase with his funds works by artists dead at least 30 years, Futter said that is not an area where the museum can make huge strides in acquisitions.
The curator of Japanese art will be a new position. Futter said the museum has a very strong curatorial assistant for what she called a very important collection. Futter said she is looking forward to giving the curatorial assistant someone as a mentor.
The African art curator is expected to have a strong knowledge of pre-21st-century art, as the Nelson’s collection is overwhelmingly historical and not contemporary art.
In the next few weeks, Futter expected to start the search for a new Chinese art curator for one of the museum’s most important collections, with works encompassing thousands of years of history.
Finally, Futter expects to hire a junior curator or assistant curator in Native American art.
“That’s a department that’s really grown in the last 16 years,” Futter said.
If that sounds like a lot, it is. The hiring will be done in stages over the next several months. In the interim, junior curators in respective departments have been given new duties, and departments have shared resources.
“People have been retiring over the last 12 to 14 months, and for some, they have been shadowed by people replacing them,” Zugazagoitia said. “For others, in the curatorial field, many of the curators who retired had depth on the benches to replace them.”
The natural question when a company or organization undergoes such a radical personnel change is: Are you doing OK financially?
Zugazagoitia said yes.
“We could only do this because we were financially strong,” he said. “Our statements show that we have a strong endowment. We were able to pay these financial packages for some in a way that was generous and also celebrating their tenure.”
Futter said the ages of the Nelson’s curators range from the early 30s to their mid-70s.
“Could it be more diverse? Absolutely. And that’s what you want,” she said. “But you also want the most qualified people.”
The pools for each hire are of different sizes. She expects many applicants for the contemporary and modern positions; the pools for Chinese and Japanese curators may be smaller. They’ve commissioned a hiring firm for the African art position.
Zugazagoitia said the Nelson will be looking to be more inclusive, diverse, accountable and accessible.
“That is shaping all of these searches,” he said.
Futter said they’ll be looking for hires who are open to experimentation and innovation, in order to keep moving the Nelson toward the forefront — though maybe not the bleeding edge.
“It’s better to let some other institution find out what fails or find out what questions you need to ask in order for it to be successful,” she said. “What we’re looking for are curators who want to continue what we’re doing in the last 10 years of really being an externally focused institution while also continuing our excellence in art history and acquisitions and education.”
Zugazagoitia is looking for one quality above all.
“Curiosity,” he said. “People who are curious are always looking to develop knowledge. Experts are people who kill knowledge. An expert started in a learning path, but then decides she or he is an expert, so they stop thinking and make of whatever knowledge they have as canon. We are revisiting all the canon of art history. What you want is people who have as their No. 1 quality curiosity.”
Both view this as time to reshape the Nelson for the future. Futter said it helps that the profile of the Nelson is higher than it used to be.
“When I first arrived here,” she said, “people would say, ‘Oh, I’ve heard of that museum . . .’ Now it’s, ‘Oh! I haven’t been, but I hear it’s amazing!’ Kansas City itself has a better reputation.”
Zugazagoitia expects the new hires to be quickly visible to the community.
“We don’t want the curators to think their work is to be only responsible for shows,” he said. “We want them to be engaged with community, making people love what they do. My guess is you’ll see those new recruits active very quickly.”