The Seasoned National Curator Has Been a Big Fan for 10 Years – Now She’s in Charge
On Aug. 2, the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art will have a new executive director and chief curator for the first time in three decades. JoAnne Northrup joins the museum from the Nevada Museum of Art, where she founded the contemporary art program in 2012.
“I really want people to know that I consider the Nerman to be this incredible diamond. All we’re doing is replacing the setting, but the diamond is intact,” Northrup said.
Bruce Hartman led the museum from 1990, when it was the Gallery of Art within the Cultural Education Center of Johnson County Community College, through the completion of the Nerman in 2007, and until his retirement in December of 2020. He oversaw the acquisition of nearly 2,000 pieces.
Hartman and Northrup met in 2011 when the Leo Villareal touring exhibition Northrup curated and authored came to the Nerman.
Northrup said she remembers being blown away by the architecture and the sophistication of the space — even the beautiful dinner the museum hosted.
From that time on, she’s tracked everything that happens at the Nerman.
“What has caught my attention since then is that there have been these exhibitions that I feel really show that Bruce has his finger on the pulse,” Northrup said. “And I never thought there would be a vacancy.”
By “finger on the pulse,” she means Hartman’s talent for, and dedication to, supporting regional and national artists early in their careers — artists like Kerry James Marshall, who did a solo exhibition at the college in 1995.
Marshall’s piece in the Nerman’s permanent collection has recently been appraised at $25 million, but Hartman acquired “Untitled (Altgeld Gardens)” long before it could command such a price.
Furthermore, of the works he’s collected, 33% are by women artists, according to a study at the University of Missouri-Kansas City; at other area museums, only 1 to 2% of their collection is by women. Hartman has also taken great care from the earliest days of his tenure to collect works by Latinx, African American, and Native American artists.
He’s also collected Native American art for more than 50 years, an interest dating back to his childhood in Lee’s Summit. His parents were collectors of Native American art, and he travelled with them looking for new pieces.
One of his first projects after retirement is working with The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art to curate a show of the Native American paintings in his personal collection.
Hartman said, “One of our concerns was that it would be very difficult to find somebody that had much knowledge of contemporary Native American artists. We have 200 to 300 works by Native artists; we were pleasantly surprised when (Northrup) had demonstrated a great interest in that work.”
Northrup said that in her positions at nine other museums over 30 years, she adapted to the priorities of the region; the Nerman will be no different. For instance, during her time at a museum in Silicon Valley, she saw a need to integrate digital media into the contemporary art program.
“I’m really excited to explore the regional artists and get to know people, then sort of have a lovely mix of both regional artists, national artists and international artists,” she said. “Honestly, to follow in the footsteps of Bruce Hartman will be a big challenge, because he’s a phenomenal curator.”
She said she’s looking forward to elevating the work of underrepresented artists, presenting groundbreaking traveling exhibitions, and forging partnerships locally and outside the region.
Kate Allen, Johnson County Community College’s vice president for advancement and chair of the hiring committee that selected Northrup, said, “Attracting a candidate of this caliber speaks volumes of the arts community in our region.”
Northrup said she and her husband, assemblage artist Philo Northrup, are excited for their move to Kansas City.
The first exhibition that Northrup will curate during her tenure will be a Charlotte Street Foundation show that was scheduled to have taken place in 2020, according to Hartman.
“The idea of coming to Kansas City, which has this robust art scene,” Northrup said, “artist studios and galleries, people involved with art from all different levels, a body of collectors that are world class: the Oppenheimers, the Nermans, the Halls . . . that’s something that a lot of places in the country don’t have. To me, I think Kansas City has a huge amount of attraction for people who are truly immersed in art.”