An Interview with William Keyse Rudolph, New Top Curator at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
William Keyse Rudolph joined The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art as deputy director of curatorial affairs in March, following seven years at the San Antonio Museum of Art, where he was co-interim director and previously served as chief curator and curator of American and European art. Rudolph has also been a curator at the Dallas Museum of Art, Worcester Art Museum and the Milwaukee Art Museum and held research and support positions in European paintings and European decorative arts at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. After working remotely for the Nelson-Atkins for several months, Rudolph arrived in KC in May.
Brian Hearn: Congratulations on your new position as deputy director of curatorial affairs at NAMA. What was it like to start work during the pandemic and then relocate to KC?
William Keyse Rudolph: I am very excited to be here. The Nelson-Atkins collection offers so much. My last good prowl through the galleries was my last interview visit in February. I started working remotely shortly after the museum closed to the public in March and moved at the end of May. Fortunately, I have some cousins who live here. I can’t wait to get to know Kansas City. I have every intention of being a part of the KC art community, but it’s been like having your nose pressed against the glass.
BH: What has been happening behind the scenes at NAMA since it closed to the public on March 14?
WKR: The essential museum employees are amazing; maintaining the facility, grounds, security and climate control have been the priorities. Our curatorial staff has started to return to our offices in staggered visits. The galleries will be the last piece. We are all excited to get back into the galleries, as much as the public is. During the time of shutdown, we’ve conducted some back-of-house work; for example, socially distanced teams (which means everything takes longer) have been cleaning casework, which is much easier when the public isn’t present. NAMA has pivoted to take advantage of needed maintenance, touch-ups and capital projects that would’ve disrupted the visitor experience.
BH: What’s on your “to do” list right now?
WKR: To learn our collections. What do we have? What do we need? What are we doing? It’s clear that we’re living in a moment where the ordinary rules don’t necessarily apply. We are a community focused museum — we must take the time to learn and listen. The curatorial team is really invested in figuring out the best way forward. How do we connect better? How do we contribute? How can we serve our communities better? How can we use our authority as a place for creativity to be a force for good in the world? It’s a great time for curators and educators to lay groundwork for new programs.
BH: There are a number of open curatorial positions at NAMA; what is their status?
WKR: We are currently in a hiring freeze as part of the museum’s sustainability framework. But we can still plan for it and prepare. Given the influence of the pandemic and its economic impact, we have to figure out what the opportunities are, including hiring, but nothing will be business as usual. The ways we learned about curatorial work no longer apply, besides the constraints of what we are able to do fiscally. All museums will face that. We have the opportunity to rethink traditional curatorial categories and different scenarios based on what NAMA has.
BH: How do you anticipate museum public programming evolving in the near future? How will NAMA strike a balance between digital engagement and IRL (in real life) art experiences?
WKR: It’s a dance, the balance between IRL and digital. Nelson-Atkins@Home is a new initiative to provide more digital content that helps create desire for the real thing. We are learning that digital isn’t killing the in-person art experience, but making people want it more. It can’t all just be digital. People need the connection with the authentic and the real. Some want hands-on activities; others want to learn about an object, or just seek information. We are organically figuring out what it means going forward, how digital content gets worked into the mosaic of programming. We all assumed COVID-19 would be a blip (at first), but now we’re learning patience and learning as we go: What kind of content? How do we deliver it? We want a robust digital presence because most people will visit us digitally before coming in person.
We are so lucky that we have the Hall Sculpture Park for people to enjoy in a safe manner. You can get some fresh air, exercise and get an art fix. Flexibility and creativity are the keywords for 2020. Maybe the rules don’t apply the way we thought. What if we treated our permanent collection like a special exhibition? How do we activate it more? There is evolving thinking toward more local and regional partnerships. If you can get past the anxiety of not having answers, this is intellectually a really fascinating time — figure out how to swim. I’m really interested in seeing what happens.
BH: Recent Black Lives Matter protests brought renewed scrutiny to the role of art institutions — from the sources of their funding, to hiring practices, to their social responsibilities. What role do you see NAMA fulfilling in Kansas City?
WKR: Museums should not be passive temples of art — which long has been a guiding principle. It actually doesn’t work; it implies that there is a level playing field, and there isn’t one. Claiming to be a neutral, passive vessel of culture can be part of the problem, perpetuating inequality. Museums must be active players in the worlds in which they live. We have to be involved with our communities. We have a moral obligation as representatives of culture and creativity. We have to learn as well as teach and listen as well as speak. Act or become part of the problem. It’s not the work of a season, but a lifetime. I was really attracted to NAMA’s efforts toward diversity, inclusion, equity and sustainability. All that matters is what we’re doing and what we’re going to do next. Can’t rest on laurels, can’t get comfortable and complacent. If I didn’t believe in art’s power, I wouldn’t do what I do.