New curator calls Broad role "once in a lifetime" opportunity


Michigan State University's new Broad Art Museum is welcoming its first curator. Alison Gass has just arrived in East Lansing after serving for five years as assistant curator of painting and sculpture at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Last year, the New York Times named the 35-year old a "Young Curator to Watch." At the Broad, she'll be responsible for developing exhibitions and commissions with an international focus. Gass tells WKAR's Mark Bashore that joining a brand new institution feels like a "once in a lifetime opportunity."

ALISON GASS: It's so rare that you get to be part of a museum that has such a strong vision, but no real programmatic history and to just be part of the team to shape that and see what's the right thing to do is incredibly exciting.

MARK BASHORE: Your boss Michael Rush refers to the "fresh perspective" that you'll bring. How would you describe your particular perspective?

GASS: Well, I'm really committed to seeing the museum as a point for learning. I was very much torn between going into academia or being a curator, and I think that my perspective is such that the museum is really a place to teach from contemporary art to help everybody who comes to see the exhibitions we do learn a little bit more about the world around them through the perspective of artists. And that's really what my approach is.

BASHORE: One of the Broad's particular missions is international contemporary art in all media and that's borne out in one of its inaugural exhibitions, Global Groove,' which explores trends in international video art. Your formal education was in art history. How does your awareness of the history of art interact with the notion of video as art? How do those connect?

GASS: Well, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, I was curating for our 'New Work' series, which is showcasing the work of emerging and younger artists working in all media. And I think right now, there's really no real distinction to be made among artists. Artists work in video and painting and sculpture and installation. It's not as separate as it traditionally has been. And what I have said is that the best contemporary art being made now doesn't present a radical break with the history of art. Rather, it really takes the themes and ideas that artists have been struggling with for years, for centuries even, and kind of builds them and extends them. So that you can always link back to art history whether you're looking at video art, whether you're looking at painting or whether you're looking at sculpture. There's just the difference of the language the artist is using to get their point across.

BASHORE: What's been the most memorable exhibition you've helped create and what made is so?

GASS: Probably the most memorable exhibition that I worked on in San Francisco was the retrospective of the painter Luc Tuymans, a Belgian painter. And it was a show I was just assisting on, but it was a huge international retrospective. Tuymans is an artist who works in the very traditional medium of painting, but he's taking up the most complex and challenging issues of our modern era. He starts with the kind of traumas that have confronted humanity in modernity. He deals with the holocaust, he deals with September 11. And he does this through quite beautiful paintings. And it was really quite a challenge and a really strong opportunity to put these paintings on the wall and help viewers come and decipher them and get access to the kinds of important historical, political and social events that have happened in our lifetime, or just prior to our lifetime, and be able to have a dialogue about those things, stimulated by paintings on the wall, which is not necessarily what you do every day.

BASHORE: How did you get on this career path in the first place? Was there an experience or a person that largely determined this journey?

GASS: I really liked making art when I was younger. And it turned out when I was at college that I was a lot better at writing about art and talking about art than at making art. So I really fell in love with art history very quickly and went on to graduate school in art history. And I had some professors in graduate school who were working also as curators and they brought me on as a researcher on some exhibitions. And to me, it just felt like the best way possible to reach the broadest audience possible in terms of helping people understand that contemporary art isn't different from the other kinds of visual languages that we deal with every day. It's not that different from even watching TV or seeing a movie or reading a magazine. It's just that those things are oftentimes more familiar to us. But the same tools of watching and listening and thinking and learning that we use there, we use in contemporary art. So for me, it just became a really exciting thing to do. It felt like a way to take a passion I really have and that I think is significant in terms of what you can learn about the world and try to make it accessible to everybody.

BASHORE: What are you looking forward to the most here in East Lansing?

GASS: I'm really excited to get to know the community, for sure. I like the idea of an academic community, a smaller community that can really make this museum their own. And I'm really excited to get into this building and see what it's like on the inside.

BASHORE: Our most dramatic reminder of what's about to unfold with the Broad is the building. What do you make of it?

GASS: I think it's incredibly exciting. Zaha Hadid is one of the most significant and intriguing contemporary architects certainly just the right kind of a figure in terms of her personal biography and in terms of her approach to architecture to make a museum dedicated to international contemporary art.

You know, I went to see the Cincinnati Art Center, which is the other building that she's done in the United States and it was very exciting. It was dramatic and challenging and (it) allowed you to experience art not just in galleries, but in public spaces, in hallways and things like that. So I'm thinking that this building will be a great place to show all different kinds of art.

I also think that it will be, itself, a conversation starter in the community just because looks different than the buildings around it.

BASHORE: I think it already is.

GASS: Yes. (laughs) That's what I understand.

BASHORE: And what do you expect to be the biggest challenge in your new position?

GASS: The biggest challenge I expect to be what is also the most exciting part of it, which is that I'm working with this amazing team of people, but everything is sort of new. The building is new, the programs are new. And to figure out what's the right groove, so to speak, I think will take some time, but I think it will also be incredibly exciting.