Nancy Spector Joins Brooklyn Museum: No More Crowd-Sourced Exhibitions!

by Paddy Johnson on December 18, 2015 Newswire + Opinion


Nancy Spector has been hired as the new chief curator and deputy director of the Brooklyn Museum. The just-announced news comes as a shock, since she has defined the Guggenheim’s programming over the course of her thirty year career there. Her tenure at the Brooklyn Museum will start in April, and there’s a lot to ponder on what will be her expected impact.

The scoop serves a blow to the Guggenheim. Few on staff are as knowledgeable about the museum as Spector. And this comes on the heels of JiaJai Fei, their associate director of digital marketing known for widely popular instagram account for the Jewish Museum just earlier this month. (She’s moving up: she’ll be their director of digital marketing.)

But the Guggenheim’s loss is the Brooklyn Museum’s gain. The hire comes just four months after Anne Pasternak took over as the Brooklyn Museum’s new director in September. Pasternak has no previous experience working in a collections museum—she comes to the Brooklyn from the public art organization Creative Time—but with this move has already made her mark. Separating herself from her audience-pleasing predecessor, Arnold Lehman (now at Phillips) Pasternak plans to beef up the curatorial staff and is already removing the garish faux architecture in the Egyptian galleries.

That architectural detail was emblematic of Lehman’s mandate to better connect varied audiences with the art in the collection.  Lehman’s populist approach had some successes—their contemporary programming is more diverse than any other museum in the city, and events like their first Saturdays dance parties are known for attracting neighborhood Brooklynites in droves. The exhibition program, though, has often been perceived to be pandering rather than educational. “Click! A Crowd Curated Exhibition”, asked viewers to evaluate art submitted to Flickr from an open call. The final show was arranged by voter ranking. And “Brooklyn Crossing”, an exhibition of work by Brooklyn based artists that “engage the world” was described by AFC’s Whitney Kimball as suffering from the trite feel-good-art-making formula where inspiration is found by “being asked to make an artwork and answering “world peace.”” The art was so simplistic in message it failed to spark any kind of conversation past critic complaints.

Spector should help make those kinds of exhibitions disappear. During her time at the Guggenheim, she launched many of its widely-discussed shows. Highlights from the past fifteen years include Matthew Barney’s career-defining the Cremaster Cycle (2003), The Maurizio Cattelan 2012 retrospective (just as he announced his retirement from art), and a three decade Carrie Mae Weems 2013 retrospective that was lauded by just about everyone.

While these shows hopefully indicate exhibitions completely disavowing scholarship will no longer plague the institution, I expect we may still see the occasional crowd-pleaser in the mix.  Both have hosted their fair share of spectacle-indulging nonsense ranging from Nick Cave’s dancers in horse costumes at Grand Central Station (a Creative Time production) to the James Turrell retropsective/experiment in sci-fi aesthetics (the Guggenheim). Each exploits the popularity of an artist for the gain of the institution and a questionable public good.

Though those exhibitions disappointed me, there was always enough programming I liked to bring me back into the fold—particularly in the case of Creative Time, whose focus on social practice has grown over the years. We need to see more of this, and with Spector joining the museum, we will. In Spector’s conversation with the Times, she notes her interest in the job grew out of conversations with Pasternak about socially-engaged art and social justice. My hope is these concerns will become part of a collective vision that will define the Brooklyn Museum in the years to come, and even change the way exhibitions are curated at a collections museum.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: