16 Influential Young Curators Shaping Contemporary Art
Curators link artists and audiences. They translate the works of visionary painters, sculptors, filmmakers, photographers, and performers into presentations that move and inspire viewers. The power of curators resides in their ability to select which creative people and projects they want to promote in museums, biennials, galleries, and independent exhibition spaces.
The following 16 curators, all aged 35 years or younger, are bringing fresh, millennial perspectives to a global roster of institutions and programs. Their motivations skew political: They aim to promote art by underrepresented figures and minorities. They value transdisciplinary practices and art that critiques the art world itself. Altogether, they’re shaping the future of art around the world.
Installation view of “She Persists: A Century of Women Artists in New ” at Gracie Mansion, 2019. © Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office. Courtesy of Michael Appleton.
In early 2019, Jessica Bell Brown filled Gracie Mansion—New York City’s official mayoral residence—with furniture, paintings, sculptures, drawings, and photographs by female-identifying artists. The exhibition, “She Persists: A Century of Women Artists in New York,” featured work by 44 artists and collectives with ties to the city, created between 1919 and 2019. Visitors thrilled at viewing an Alice Neel portrait mounted in a swank dining room, an eerie Kara Walker sculpture at the home’s entrance, and dolls made by the mother of New York City’s first lady, Chirlane McCray.
Before the close of that triumphant project, in October 2019, the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) announced that it had hired Brown. Yet the curator’s presence is still felt in New York: In early March, she opened another exhibition at Gracie Mansion, titled “Catalyst: Art and Social Justice.” This time, Brown’s roster includes esteemed artists like Jeffrey Gibson, Gordon Parks, and Nari Ward, as well as the lesser-known Devra Freelander, a young artist killed while biking in Bushwick last year.
Brown previously worked at the Museum of Modern Art. While in residency at Recess, an experimental project space in Brooklyn, she co-founded the curatorial project Black Art Incubator. She said she views curation as “an act of care towards ideas, stories, objects, and—most importantly—artists.” She espouses diversity, artistic experimentation, and radical new interpretations of art history. Though she can’t yet speak in depth about her upcoming projects at the BMA, Brown gave Artsy a couple hints: “One is a solo presentation by an acclaimed American artist,” while the second is “a major commission and interdisciplinary research project that focuses contemporary art as a lens onto history, ancestry, and self-determination.”
Ross Little, still from My Body a Weapon as Yours Is, 2018. Courtesy of the artist and Falte Projects.
Giulia Colletti, co-curator of the 19th Biennial of Young Artists from Europe and the Mediterranean (opening later this year in the Republic of San Marino), privileges skepticism over conviction in her work. Inspired by the philosophy of Theodor Adorno, Colletti said she believes that “art must recognize the uncertainty of any form of constituted knowledge.” In other words, she’s a fan of art that critiques the world and institutions around it.
In 2018, the European Cultural Foundation awarded Colletti a grant to research the Armenian Revolution. Along with a collaborator, artist Ross Little, she focused on protest strategies.
Considering the idea of the “palimpsest,” or something that bears traces of early work (a manuscript page with writing half-erased, then written over, for example), Colletti is rethinking the layered subjectivities of European history. This is even more urgent in Colletti’s home country of Italy, where, she said, the “colonial past has never been thoroughly revised.”
Marguerite Humeau, installation view of “FOXP2” at Palais de Tokyo, 2016. Photo by André Morin. Courtesy of the artist and Palais de Tokyo.
Last April, the Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art announced Rebecca Lamarche-Vadel as the chief curator of its 2020 edition. The major honor followed a number of ambitious projects at Palais de Tokyo, where Lamarche-Vadel worked from 2012 to 2019. She curated Marguerite Humeau’s first major solo show at the Paris museum in 2016, the same year she organized “Carte Blanche to Tino Sehgal.” She called that show the “biggest live art exhibition ever realized, with 400 performers inhabiting the empty 13,000-square-meter space over 12 weeks.” Her 2018 presentation of Tomás Saraceno’s work became the most attended exhibition in the museum’s history.
The Riga biennial, like so many major global art events, is indefinitely postponed. Perhaps Lamarche-Vadel will find creative ways to think about recent developments and traumas. After all, she said, she’s “convinced that art and creation can offer alternative perspectives in times of unprecedented upheavals.” She believes artists are “guides for renewed ways of seeing, feeling, and sensing the world.” When the art world returns to its pre-quarantine state, Lamarche-Vadel will be able to create the “moments of encounter” between artworks and viewers that give meaning to her work.
Installation view of “Crush” at Para Site, Hong Kong, 2018. Courtesy of Para Site.
Qu Chang’s curatorial work often examines migration, obsession, and togetherness. In “Adrift: He/She Comes From Shanghai” at OCAT Shenzhen in 2016, she incorporated multimedia work by artists including Cheng Ran, Karel Koplimets, and Li Liao that considered the diverging promises and realities of migration. “Crush” (2018) at Hong Kong’s hip Para Site space—where she has been on staff since 2016—explored the seedy and violent dimensions of romance. Last year at Para Site, Qu curated “Café do Brasil,” inspired by the Hong Kong restaurant that was an important meeting place for cultural folk in the 1960s and ’70s. Qu hoped to reconsider that collective spirit with works by artists hailing from Hong Kong and mainland China.
Visual art, she believes, has the power to generate…a more radical understanding of the world—and perhaps to radical action itself.
In her upcoming projects, Qu said she will focus more specifically on the “art practices and sociohistorical context in Canton and Hong Kong, a region where I have grown my roots more and more deeply.” Though she is from mainland China, Qu’s colleagues at Para Site have helped her understand Hong Kong “in a larger colonial/post-colonial context.”
Describing her curatorial philosophy, Qu said, “Like writing and reading, I see curating as another means to converse, learn, and discern.” Visual art, she believes, has the power to generate new associations and imaginative new ideas in the viewer, which lead to a more radical understanding of the world—and perhaps to radical action itself.
Pia Camil, installation view at Clark Center. © Pia Camil. Photo by Art Evans. Courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo.
Robert Wiesenberger said he aims to present work by “emerging and global artists in an institution known for its historical, Euro-American focus.” Towards that end, the curator plans to mount Lin May Saeed’s first solo museum show, accompanied by her first monograph. The German-Iraqi artist focuses on the relationship between humans and animals in her multimedia work: She invents stories and dialogues, pairing anthropomorphized characters with human concerns. (Wiesenberger, a former critic at the Yale School of Art, will teach a course on the animal in contemporary art at the Williams College graduate program this coming fall.)
The Clark Art Institute’s exhibition “Lin May Saeed: Arrival of the Animals” will feature the artist’s drawings, reliefs, and Styrofoam sculptures. Ultimately, according to Wiesenberger, the artist seeks “a new iconography of interspecies solidarity.” The Clark provides an ideal venue, too, with its galleries on Stone Hill. “One can walk through the woods to get there—and may encounter real critters along the way,” Wiesenberger said.
The curator recently opened another exhibition, “Pia Camil: Velo Revelo,” featuring the Mexican artist’s large-scale fabric works. A new, site-specific commission drapes a 50-foot-long curtain of nylon pantyhose across the exhibition hall. Wiesenberger noted that the works “look stunning in our spare architectural spaces,” while the materials are “unexpected for the Clark.”
Kevin Beasley, installation view of Movement V: Ballroom at Project Row Houses, 2017. Courtesy of Project Row Houses.
Beginning in 2012, Ryan Dennis brought radical programming to Houston’s Project Row Houses (PRH). The community exhibition and education space is located in the city’s Third Ward, one of its oldest African American neighborhoods. In 2017, Dennis organized “Project Row Houses: Round 46: Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter” with artist Simone Leigh. A series of affiliated installations invited dozens of participating artists to create their own “joy and grief flags,” view films and performances, and attend meetings about topics that influence Black lives in the United States. “It was important to have these artists gather and hold space for the amount of pain that was reverberating in the country due to police brutality,” said Dennis.
At PRH, Dennis also partnered with Houston-based collective Otabenga Jones & Associates to mount a mobile, community radio station, broadcast from a 1959 pink Cadillac Coupe de Ville. She’s brought works by Kevin Beasley, Dem Black Mamas Podcast, and Okwui Okpowasili to the site as well. “My curatorial goals are ever-evolving,” said Dennis, noting that she always aims to “uplift artists of color” who engage ideas about social justice. She views her role as a “co-conspirator,” alternately challenging and supporting artists.
Dennis will make big moves in the coming months. She was recently appointed to lead the curatorial department at the Mississippi Museum of Art, a position she’ll begin this June. She’ll also curate her final program at Project Row Houses, focusing on climate change, and along with Evan Garza, she’s co-organizing the (now-postponed) Texas Biennial.
Ruth Root, installation view at Carnegie Museum of Art, 2019. Photo by Bryan Conley. Courtesy of Carnegie Museum of Art.
The Carnegie Museum’s Hannah Turpin rethinks art history through a queer lens. The curator said she’s particularly motivated by artists who consider “issues of representation, the personal, and historical revisionism.” For example, she’ll mount an upcoming solo exhibition of new work by photographer Elle Pérez. “Pérez’s practice is grounded within a queer sensibility of connection to and validation of their subjects,” said Turpin. For the show, the artist will focus on “the presence of intimacy and individual determination within the context of sport.”
Turpin previously worked as the collections assistant at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art. She’s organized forums on the paintings of Ruth Root and on queer perspectives in portraiture. In the future, the curator said she hopes to keep working with themes and artists that illuminate contemporary issues. She wants her work to catalyze individual experiences with art and “nurture challenging conversations.”
Installation view of “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” at Brooklyn Museum, 2018-19. Photo by Jonathan Dorado, Brooklyn Museum. Courtesy of Brooklyn Museum.
Ashley James, who worked as an assistant curator of contemporary art at the Brooklyn Museum from 2017 to 2019, recently began a new role at the Guggenheim in New York and became the institution’s first Black curator. What excites James about the curatorial field? “Gen Z; young people get it,” she said. Her own curatorial work has taken a boundary-pushing, forward-looking approach. Her 2019 exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, “Eric N. Mack: Lemme walk across the room,” juxtaposed fashion and fine art. Mack draped dyed textiles of all shapes and sizes across the museum’s Great Hall. During one performance evening, Mack invited artists including singer MHYSA, poet April Freely, and experimental musicians Justin Allen and Devin Kenny to interact with his work.
James was also the lead curator for the Brooklyn Museum’s iteration of the lauded 2018–19 show “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power.” The exhibition brought Black artists including Barkley L. Hendricks, Sam Gilliam, Faith Ringgold, Betye Saar, and the Spiral Group into an interconnected spotlight.
Next up, James will co-curate a presentation of new work by John Edmonds at the Brooklyn Museum later this year. The show, she said, will “take up questions of African diasporic (art) history and modernity, possession, desire, and power.” Her first curatorial outing at the Guggenheim will be a collaboration with Katherine Brinson, organizing a solo presentation for the winner of the esteemed Hugo Boss Prize. The strong list of finalists—Nairy Baghramian, Kevin Beasley, Deana Lawson, Elias Sime, Cecilia Vicuña, and Adrián Villar Rojas—promises an intriguing show, no matter who is the victor.
Speaking of her own ambitions, James noted her admiration for curators like Kellie Jones, “who write new art histories in their exhibition making.”
Installation view of “Abortion is Normal Part 2” at Arsenal Contemporary Art, 2020. Photo by Coke O’Neal. Courtesy of Downtown for Democracy.
As a social justice curator, Jasmine Wahi has a progressive mandate spelled out in her title: Her position’s namesake Holly Block, a long-time director of the Bronx Museum, was a major proponent of diversity and community engagement. When the institution marks its 50th anniversary in 2021, Wahi intends to embrace the milestone as “an opportunity to look back at examples of erasure and propel those narratives towards the future.” While she’s discreet about specific programming, Wahi noted that her upcoming shows will be “deeply rooted in the idea of invisibility/visibility.” She believes that “creating visibility” is “a potential solution towards combating systemic oppression.”
“It sounds idealistic, and perhaps a little cliché, but I genuinely think that art is a conduit for change.”
Wahi previously worked as co-director of Newark’s Project for Empty Space, which she founded in 2010. The Project welcomed such innovative programming as an extended collaboration with Montreal’s theater group The Other Theatre. Over the course of two years, their Etiquette for Lucid Dreaming presented multimedia work and performance inside and outside Wahi’s Newark galleries. She also co-curated the celebrated “Abortion is Normal” project organized by Downtown for Democracy earlier this year (at Galerie Eva Presenhuber and Arsenal Contemporary), which raised money for reproductive rights. Wahi has presented exhibitions outside the United States, as well: In 2011, she organized “And the falchion passed through his neck” at Delhi’s Latitude 28 Gallery, featuring Anjali Bhargava, Chitra Ganesh, Divya Mehra, Hamra Abbas, Samira Abbassy, Shweta Bhattad, and Sangeeta Sandrasegar.
Wahi’s diverse projects are all motivated by what she calls “systemic social impact.” She said, “It sounds idealistic, and perhaps a little cliché, but I genuinely think that art is a conduit for change.”
Pascale Marthine Tayou, installation view of “Beautiful” at The Bass, 2017-18. Photo by Zachary Balber. Courtesy of The Bass, Miami Beach.
From her post at The Bass in Miami Beach, Leilani Lynch makes it a priority to work with artists from outside of major art hubs. In 2018, she organized an exhibition of brightly colored, hard-edged abstractions and sculptural installations by local artist Karen Rifas. She’s also presented solo shows featuring the Ghent-based Cameroonian artist Pascale Marthine Tayou. Later this year, she’ll open “Hialeah Eléctrica – Metavector,” which focuses on architecture, urban planning, and design ideas of Cuban-American artists Rafael Domenech and Ernesto Oroza. Together, they’ll reconsider progress in Miami’s Hialeah neighborhood—a largely Hispanic area that’s a hotspot for fabrication in the city.
Lynch said she hopes her projects “find resonance with those who avidly follow art, as well as those who may consider museums to be unwelcoming spaces.” Two of her forthcoming projects—with Abraham Cruzvillegas and Naama Tsabar—promise participatory elements to draw in audiences both devoted to contemporary art and new to its pleasures.
Installation view of “In the Open or in Stealth” at Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, 2018. Photo by Miquell Coll. Courtesy of Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona.
Kabelo Malatsie describes her curatorial work as a fantastical journey. “I would like to make projects that read as novels, opening up ways of reading the world,” she said. She’s excited to see “where this rabbit hole” of exhibition making will take her.
In 2018, at Johannesburg’s Wits Art Museum, Malatsie presented a solo exhibition of work by photographer Sabelo Mlangeni. The show included mostly black-and-white shots of Zionist churches throughout South Africa. The same year, Malatsie worked in Spain, participating in a collaborative curatorial program with Raqs Media Collective at the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona. The resulting show, “In the Open or in Stealth,” featured over 20 international artists whose work loosely considered what the future might look like.
This year, look out for Malatsie’s project at the Yokohama Triennial, where she’s again working with Raqs Media Collective, and at the (indefinitely postponed) Art Dubai, where she’s curating a special “Residents” section featuring African artists.
Faustin Linkyekula, still from My Body, My Archive, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Tate Modern.
As a curator of performance, Tamsin Hong said she often works with artists “who use their bodies as agents for social, ecological, and political change.” On March 20th, she was planning to open the BMW Tate Live Exhibition “Our Bodies, Our Archives,” featuring over a week of performances by Faustin Linyekula, Okwui Okpokwasili, and Tanya Lukin Linklater. The works all center on the idea that the body itself can be an archive—of memory, tradition, linguistic inheritance, knowledge, and protest. Though Tate canceled the program due to COVID-19, interested audiences can still watch a contribution by Linyekula online.
For the museum, Hong has also organized a display of fabric works by German artist Franz Erhard Walther and a presentation by Bulgarian polymath Nedko Solakov. Solakov—who works in drawing, painting, video, and installation—choreographed a performance, A Life (Black & White) (1998–present), in which two participants continuously painted the walls of a gallery for a month.
Going forward, in this uncertain time, Hong sees immense opportunities for performance art. Right now, she said, “there is great urgency for art centering on the body and building connection. We, the live art community, are using our collective creativity to ensure these thriving communities are sustained.”
Isuma, installation view at the Canada Pavilion for the “58th International Art Exhibition - la Biennale di Venezia,” 2019. Photo by Francesco Barasciutti. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Canada and Isuma Distribution International.
Asinnajaq’s curatorial work prioritizes sharing indigenous perspectives. The curator was born in Kuujjuaq, an Inuit village in Quebec. She said she’s motivated to share her own perspective on “what it means to be Inuk,” an umbrella term for many indigenous Arctic populations, while supporting other artists and their own “personal voices.”
Last year, Asinnajaq co-curated a presentation by Isuma, an Inuit film and production collective, for the Canadian pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Over the past three decades, the group has made lauded movies that share stories of their people, often in their own Inuktitut language. In 2018, the artist and curator organized an exhibition of the late Elisapee Inukpuk’s cozily bundled dolls at Concordia University’s FOFA Gallery. Next up, Asinnajaq will contribute her own curatorial efforts to the inaugural exhibition at the Inuit Art Centre in Winnipeg, which is slated to open later this year.
Installation view of “Five Bhobh: Painting at the End of an Era” at Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, 2018. Photo by Erika Bornman. Courtesy of Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa.
Tandazani Dhlakama loves to see teenagers wandering around Zeitz MOCAA, taking selfies next to work by Kehinde Wiley, Zanele Muholi, Portia Zvavahera, or Otobong Nkanga. This says they’re seeing themselves reflected in contemporary culture—which is a major goal for Dhlakama. Much of the world is still recovering from the wounds of segregation and racial hatred, she noted, and “for a long time, certain histories were muted, distorted, or almost erased.” Part of her curatorial responsibility, she believes, “is to examine and highlight some of these narratives.” She wants to demystify the art space in a way that engages historically disadvantaged groups in a new way.
To that end, Dhlakama has presented work by dozens of regional artists. Her 2016 exhibition at Harare’s Tsoko gallery, titled “Beyond the Body,” showcased art by five local artists who address corporeal absence and presence. Her 2018 show at Zeitz MOCAA “Five Bhobh: Painting at the End of an Era” juxtaposed socially oriented work by 29 Zimbabwean artists.
She wants to demystify the art space in a way that engages historically disadvantaged groups in a new way.
Next up, Dhlakama is excited about “Shooting Down Babylon,” a traveling retrospective for revolutionary South African artist Tracey Rose, which will open later this year at Zeitz MOCAA. The exhibition will explore Rose’s aesthetic interests in both violence and healing. “For Rose, the body, often her own body, is a site for protest, outrage, resistance, and pertinent discourse,” said Dhlakama. “It is a channel for the demonstration of exasperation, aggravation, disruption, and paradox.”
Ligia Lewis, Water Will (in Melody), 2018, at Performance Space New York, 2019. Photo by Maria Baranova. Courtesy of the artist.
The Hammer Museum’s beloved “Made in L.A.” biennial is planned to open this summer with Ikechukwu Onyewuenyi—along with Lauren Mackler and Myriam Ben Salah—at its curatorial helm. “It’s been a demanding and enriching process, with the three of us combing L.A. and conducting 300-plus studio visits,” Onyewuenyi said. The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown their programming into flux and forced them to push the biennial’s start date (it was originally slated to open on June 7th).
Onyewuenyi said he enjoys working closely with a group of mostly female-identifying artists who are “thinking critically and expansively about queer and feminist politics.” In 2017, he organized “Sexual Fragments Absent” at Paddles, a nightlife venue in New York. All three artists involved in the one-night exhibition and performance—Doreen Garner, Shawné Michaelain Holloway, and Tiona McClodden—explored the politics of BDSM.
Onyewuenyi is currently collaborating with chief curator Connie Butler to bring an Andrea Fraser performance to the Hammer. Discussing what motivates him, Onyewuenyi said he keeps in mind an edict from his old mentor, Adrienne Edwards, while both were working at Performa. “I follow artists,” he said.
Installation view of “The Exhaustion Project” in Forecast Festival, HKW Berlin, 2018. Photo by Laura Fiorio. Courtesy of Forecast .
Abhijan Toto said he believes that curating can “serve a shamanistic, even cannibalistic” function. Curating, to his mind, allows us “to recognize the uneven topographies of our worlds and produce situations where we might experience them as enchanted.” His work has focused on ecology, geography, and the history of war.
For example, Toto’s “Exhaustion Project” (2016–present) transforms issues of labor and ideas about worn-down bodies into imaginative new presentations. Toto has organized iterations of this project at HKW Berlin, as part of the Forecast Festival, and at the MMCA Seoul Changdong Residency. He’s involved artists and collectives including Eglé Budvytytė, Anna Ridler, Jessika Khazrik, Sarah Naqvi, Alisa Chunchue, the Rice Brewing Sisters Club, and Jang Su Mi.
Toto’s “Forest Curriculum” is a roving curatorial platform that presents screenings, lectures, workshops, and writing that foreground the natural world. For a 2019 show at Bangkok’s WTF Gallery, titled “The Ghost War,” Toto mounted video, print, and sound works by Rohini Devasher and Sung Tieu that reconsider the ways that wars of the 20th century affected Thailand and Southeast Asia. In the coming months, Toto plans to present “In the Forest, Even the Air Breathes” at GAMeC in Bergamo, Italy—an outgrowth of this Forest Curriculum project, which won the 2019 Lorenzo Bonaldi prize.
Corrections: A previous version of this article stated that Jessica Bell-Brown worked for Recess. She actually co-founded Black Art Incubator, a curatorial project formed through a residency at Recess, but she did not work for Recess. Additionally, The Clark Art Institute is in Williamstown, Massachusetts, not North Adams as originally stated.
Header and Thumbnail Image: Portrait of Leilani Lynch by BFA - Tiffany Sage. Courtesy of The Bass. Portrait of Ryan Dennis by Sidney Mori. Courtesy of Ryan Dennis. Portrait of Robert Wiesenberger by Tucker Bair. Courtesy of Clark Art Institute. Portrait of Rebecca Lamarche-Vadel by Kristine Madjare. Courtesy of Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art. Portrait of Ikechukwu Onyewuenyi by Ben Filo. Courtesy of Hammer Museum. Portrait of Asinnajaq by Pati Tyrell. Courtesy of Asinnajaq.
Portrait of Jessica Bell Brown by Michael Avedon for 65CPW. Courtesy of Baltimore Museum of Art. Portrait of Giulia Colletti. Courtesy of Giulia Colletti. Portrait of Rebecca Lamarche-Vadel by Kristine Madjare. Courtesy of Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art. Portrait of Qu Chang. Courtesy of Para Site. Portrait of Robert Wiesenberger by Tucker Bair. Courtesy of Clark Art Institute. Portrait of Ryan Dennis by Sidney Mori. Courtesy of Ryan Dennis. Portrait of Hannah Turpin by Bryan Conley. Courtesy of Carnegie Museum of Art. Portrait of Ashley James by Elle Pérez. Courtesy of Ashley James.Portrait of Jasmine Wahi. Courtesy of Jasmine Wahi. Portrait of Leilani Lynch. Courtesy of The Bass. Portrait of Kabelo Malatsie. Courtesy of Kabelo Malatsie. Portrait of Tamsin Hong. © Tamsin Hong. Courtesy of Tamsin Hong. Portrait of Asinnajaq by Pati Tyrell. Courtesy of Asinnajaq. Portrait of Tandazani Dhlakama by Richard Kilpert. Courtesy of Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa. Portrait of Ikechukwu Onyewuenyi by Ben Filo. Courtesy of Hammer Museum.Portrait of Abhijan Toto by GR. Berlin. Courtesy of GR. Berlin.