Director of El Museo del Barrio becomes fifth director in the museum’s 75-year history.
An exhaustive international search ended Friday March 5 with the official announcement of Dr. Julián Zugazagoitia being named the fifth director and chief executive officer of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Zugazagoitia, 46, an international scholar, museum director and consultant who has served for the past seven years as the director and CEO of El Museo del Barrio in New York. He was the unanimous choice of search committee members and will begin his position Sept. 1.
Board of Trustees Chairwoman Sarah F. Rowland says the museum has seen incredible growth and an improved stature under the direction of Marc F. Wilson, the museum’s Menefee D. and Mary Louise Blackwell director/CEO for the past 28 years. Wilson announced his retirement last year and will step down June 1. During Wilson’s tenure, the Nelson-Atkins became a world-class destination that earned acclaim for its Bloch Building expansion, the new Ford Learning Center, renovated Kansas City Sculpture Park and dramatic new galleries, including recently opened American and American Indian galleries. Zugazagoitia says it’s an honor to follow Wilson who has led in the museum’s transformation into one of the leading national museums.
“A successor to honor the breathtaking array of accomplishments was not easily found, but Julián Zugazagoitia is just such a person” Rowland says. “He is a man of many talents; a man of broad vision, one whom we believe will honor the accomplishments of others. He has the temperament and the training, plus the passion for the arts we need. His energy has delighted all who have met him.”
A committee made up of nine museum trustees began searching for Wilson’s successor more than a year ago, and they encountered strong interest in the position locally, nationally and internationally. They were taken with Zugazagoitia’s energy as a leader, his passion for the arts, and his international background — born in Mexico City and educated in France; Zugazagoitia speaks six languages and has worked at institutions in the Americas, Europe and Africa.
Zugazagoitia holds a doctorate in philosophy from the Sorbonne Paris IV, with a focus on Aesthetics and Modernism in the arts. His work as a consultant, lecturer and curator has involved projects around the globe with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles. From 1999 to 2002, he served as executive assistant to the director for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. During his tenure at El Museo del Barrio, a leading museum of Latino and Latin American art, Zugazagoitia led the institution through a $44 million capital campaign and a full renovation, which opened in 2009 to critical acclaim.
“Julián has been a great leader for El Museo and brought it to new heights, culminating in a major capital renovation,” says artist Tony Bechara, chairman of the board of El Museo del Barrio. “He strengthened our institution financially, and he galvanized the community and art lovers nationally and internationally by bringing superb exhibitions and programs to the museum. While we are sad to see him go, we are also honored that he is pursuing his commitment to the arts in a world-class encyclopedic museum such as the Nelson-Atkins.”
Louis Smith, chair of the Nelson-Atkins search committee, says he was delighted that Zugazagoitia had accepted the offer. “Julián has an impressive national and international background, a passion for the Nelson-Atkins and Kansas City, and the commitment and energy to build on the outstanding work and legacy left by Marc Wilson and his leadership team.”
On his visits to Kansas City, Zugazagoitia has been struck by the vibrancy of the city, especially the arts culture, the university, science and research climate, and the community’s commitment to philanthropy.
“I see a city that offers a high quality of life, a city with a great deal of civic pride and investment in the arts,” Zugazagoitia says. “I look forward to being part of the synergy that exists between the arts, science and business institutions in Kansas City.”
The Nelson-Atkins, he says, holds a compelling history as a museum that has been committed to excellence from its beginnings in 1933 and has built one of the top encyclopedic collections in the country. He learned of Kansas City and the Nelson through referenced works while a student at the Sorbonne in Paris. “I am beginning to learn about the potential of this city. I spent time with Kansas City Symphony Director Michael Stern and looked at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. It will be a joy to continue to help prove that the arts are integral to everyone’s lives.”
Zugazagoitia says he has curated many exhibits and collections. “I see myself more as a generalist. With the Nelson, I see different collections talking to each other. I want to see the ensemble rather than the individual piece. There is a dialogue that is created and brings even more to life. We continue to raise the bar and keep in high when people have that one-on-one experience. It is how we help people live these moments.”
He also sees education as critical. Art must be a relevant and transformative experience, he says. He applauded the strengths of the collections at the museum. “I am honored to follow in the footsteps of the visionary Marc Wilson, and I look forward to getting to know the talented staff, the generous patrons and the civic leaders,” he says. “My family and I are so looking forward to joining the community and making Kansas City our home.”
Zugazagoitia is married and has two children, ages 6 and 10.
Zugazagoitia’s international background includes the following highlights:
• Born and raised in Mexico City, Zugazagoitia’s father was a mathematician and his mother is a stage and screen actress.
• Graduated from L’Ecole du Louvre, with a major in modern and contemporary art and concentrations in Egyptology and Medieval art.
• Educated at the Sorbonne Paris IV in France, earning a Ph.D. in Philosophy, with a focus on Aesthetics and Modernism. His dissertation was titled The Total Work of Art as Horizon Modernity: Wagner, Mallarmé, Monet and Rodin
• Lectured in art history at the Sornas School of Design, Paris.
• Served as Cultural Attaché, Permanent Mexican Delegation to UNESCO, Paris.
• Worked as a consultant with the Getty Conservation Institute, developing European and African projects while based in Paris and Rome, 1991-1999.
• Served from 1997 to 1999 as director of visual arts with the Spoleto Festival, Italy.
• Served as executive assistant to the director at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, organizing exhibitions and conferences, 1999 to 2002.
• Awarded Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres Medal, French Ministry of Culture, 2003.
• Served as a curator for the 25th Sao Paulo Biennale in Brazil in 2002 and the international art fair ARCO 2005.
• Became director/CEO in 2002 of El Museo del Barrio, where he repositioned the museum nationally and internationally as one of the foremost museums on Latin American and Caribbean art and developed major collaborations with such institutions as the Museum of Modern Art, the National Portrait Gallery and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
• Currently serves as vice chair of the Cultural Institution Group, made up of New York City’s top 33 cultural institutions.
• Currently serves as chair of the cultural committee for NYC & Company, the official marketing and tourism organization for the city.
• Has served on the Board of the Association of Art Museum Directors since 2007.