Who Should Replace Klaus Biesenbach at MoMA?
Klaus Biesenbach. Photo by Andrew Toth/Getty Images for The New School.
The announcement in late July that Klaus Biesenbach would be leaving New York for Los Angeles to be the new director of the Museum of Contemporary Art shocked art world observers; dismayed Angelenos facing another museum director imported from the Big Apple; and left two looming vacancies at the Museum of Modern Art. Biesenbach held the positions of chief curator at large at MoMA and director at its kunsthalle-like outpost in Queens, MoMA PS1. And in the weeks since his departure was announced, it’s become something of a parlor game to guess who might fill his shoes.
If the two roles remain centralized in one person, we’d put Thelma Golden forward for the gig. But the director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem is in the midst of a major expansion project uptown and, ultimately, we’d venture that Biesenbach’s present duties are more than sufficiently substantial to keep two people busy. (As Biesenbach’s muse and former lover Marina Abramović once observed, he has “sacrificed a very large part of his private life for the work.”)
The German curator’s purview expanded significantly during his tenure. When he joined MoMA PS1 as a curator in the mid-1990s, it was still very much a New York-centric institution. He eventually took the reins from its founder, Alanna Heiss, and helped it grow to become one of the most influential contemporary art spaces in the world. In 2006, Biesenbach was also appointed chief curator of MoMA’s newly formed department of media, a role that steadily expanded into his present title of chief curator at large.
The 10 candidates below—five for each position—are eminently qualified to take the respective roles and shape the futures of these beloved art institutions.
MoMA Chief Curator at Large
MoMA, 2004. Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images.
Clara M. Kim
Current position: Senior curator of international art, Tate Modern
Clara M. Kim’s international outlook and familiarity with both established artists’ practices and underrepresented voices makes her especially qualified to help diversify the marquee programming at MoMA. Prior to joining Tate Modern over two years ago as its senior curator of international art (with a focus on art from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East), she was a senior researcher at the Asian Cultural Complex in Gwangju, South Korea; curated a Mark Bradford exhibition at the Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai, a Paulo Bruscky exhibition in São Paulo, and the Spotlight section at Frieze Masters and Frieze New York; was a program advisor for the Kadist Foundation; and served on the jury for the inaugural Hugo Boss Asia Art Award.
Kim got her start as a curatorial associate at SFMOMA, but her career took off when she went to Southern California to work at the revered Los Angeles nonprofit REDCAT, where she served as director from 2007 to 2011. Kim left to become the Walker Art Center’s senior curator, where she organized a major Abraham Cruzvillegas survey, as well as Korean multimedia artist Minouk Lim’s first major solo museum show in the U.S., among other exhibitions.
Current position: Chief curator, Museo Universitario de Arte Contemporáneo
Though not as well-known in the U.S. as he should be, Cuauhtémoc Medina has ticked just about every box a contemporary art curator could be expected to prior to potentially landing a major gig like this one at MoMA. Since earning a Ph.D. in art history and theory from the University of Essex, he’s been a lecturer and researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico; served as Tate Modern’s inaugural associate curator of Latin American art collections (from 2002 to 2008); and was the head curator of the critically acclaimed ninth edition of Manifesta in 2012. And late last year, he was appointed to curate the upcoming Shanghai Biennale.
In his day job as the chief curator of the Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo, Medina has curated exhibitions of artists ranging from Hito Steyerl and the Raqs Media Collective to Andrea Fraser, Harun Farocki, and Jill Magid. Medina would bring intellectual and conceptual rigor to a role that, some have said, has become defined by celebrity artists and a populist tone in recent years.
Current position: N/A
Helen Molesworth certainly seems like a natural pick: Over a decades-long career, she’s held similar positions at Harvard Art Museums, the Wexner Center for the Arts, the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston, and MOCA Los Angeles, where her mission, as she told the Los Angeles Times soon after her hiring, was to “enter women into the canon or reinsert women who should have been in the canon to begin with.”
In 2016, she curated “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry,” the grand retrospective of the artist’s large-scale paintings that traveled from MOCA Los Angeles to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But her firing from MOCA by then-director Philippe Vergne in March set off a firestorm that eventually ensnared the director, setting in motion the course of events that brought Biesenbach west. Perhaps Molesworth is already too close to the whole fracas to jump back in, but she is eminently qualified to take the curatorial helm at MoMA.
Current Position: Senior curator of contemporary art, Brooklyn Museum
Eugenie Tsai is such a perennial fixture at the Brooklyn Museum that she may fly under the radar when major curatorial vacancies open elsewhere, but her track record makes her a serious contender. Since joining the Brooklyn Museum in 2007, Tsai has been involved in many of its major contemporary art shows and initiatives, including exhibitions devoted to Zanele Muholi, Kehinde Wiley, LaToya Ruby Frazier, and Sanford Biggers, as well as the borough-surveying exhibition “Crossing Brooklyn” (2014) and series “Raw/Cooked” (2011–13).
Tsai has previously held positions at the Whitney Museum of American Art and MoMA PS1, and as an independent curator, she has organized exhibitions devoted to Byron Kim, Robert Smithson, and others. Her ability to stay abreast of the art community in her own backyard while championing the work of ascending international art stars—especially artists from Africa and the African diaspora—makes her a very strong candidate who would likely bring greater diversity to MoMA’s special exhibitions lineup, while also preserving the accessible approach that partially defined Biesenbach’s tenure.
Current position: Director, LAXART
By the time Hamza Walker joined the staff of Chicago’s Renaissance Society in 1994, he had immersed himself in the study of not only contemporary artists including Bruce Nauman and Mike Kelley, but also jazz and punk scenes, the history of the Bayeux tapestry, ancient Irish texts, and the theories of the revered academic Benjamin H.D. Buchloh. After two decades there, Walker’s profile rose nationally when he co-curated the acclaimed 2016 edition of the “Made in L.A.” biennial with Aram Moshayedi, and then moved to that city to take a job at LAXART, a nonprofit space that’s long been a vital part of the city’s ever-expanding art scene. It would be thrilling to see Walker’s diverse range of interests and expertise unleashed at MoMA’s home in midtown Manhattan.
MoMA PS1 Director
MoMA PS1, 2011. Photo by Cesare Lamanna, via Flickr
Current position: Director, Whitechapel Gallery
Considered by many to be “the most important woman in British art,” Iwona Blazwick has been the director of London’s Whitechapel Gallery—like MoMA PS1, a non-collecting institution focused on contemporary artists—since 2001. Before that, she served as the head of exhibitions and displays at Tate and the director of exhibitions at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, where she gave Damien Hirst his first major show in London.
After two years on the job at Whitechapel, Blazwick embarked on a £10 million fundraising push to expand the gallery and double its exhibition space, and her influence and power have only grown in the years since. In addition to her fundraising chops, Blazwick would bring a welcome and outspoken feminist voice to MoMA PS1; in 2005, the Whitechapel launched the Max Mara Art Prize for Women, a major award to support women artists based in the U.K.
Current position: Director, Kunsthalle Basel
The Kunsthalle Basel may be Switzerland’s oldest center for contemporary art, but in the past few years, Elena Filipovic has made it one of the contemporary art world’s most closely watched institutions. Since she joined from the Brussels institution WIELS in 2014, Kunsthalle Basel has become one of the more reliably star-making venues in Europe, shepherding toward greatness from artists including Anicka Yi, Marina Pinsky, Anne Imhof, and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye.
Kunsthalle Basel’s directorship has been a consistent springboard to big-shot positions: Its previous occupant, Adam Szymczyk, went on to curate last year’s controversial—if talked-about—edition of Documenta. And Filipovic’s stellar track record indicates she could bring fresh energy to MoMA PS1—similar to when Biesenbach himself left Berlin’s KW Institute of Contemporary Art in 1996 to join MoMA.
Myriam Ben Salah
Current position: Editor, Kaleidoscope; independent curator, Paris
It’s a diversity of projects that could make Myriam Ben Salah the right surprise pick to run MoMA PS1. She was born and raised in Tunisia before moving to Paris, where she has worked as a curator since 2009, drawing inspiration from the global exposure to the Middle East after 9/11, especially during the Arab Spring. In 2016, she became the editor-in-chief of Kaleidoscope, and she also produces a yearly edition of F.A.Q., a magazine that unfurls in your hands like an accordian and is co-run by the wily, semi-retired artist Maurizio Cattelan. Ben Salah was also the guest curator of the Abraaj Art Prize, which was awarded this past March to Lawrence Abu Hamdan. At MoMA PS1, she would bring a strong outsider perspective essential to finding and establishing new voices.
Current position: N/A
In just a few years at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, Beatrix Ruf worked her deep art world connections to assemble a vigorous run of shows by buzzy young artists including Avery Singer, Jordan Wolfson, Jon Rafman, and Ed Atkins. Then, last October, Ruf resigned following reports in a Dutch newspaper that she earned $500,000 as an art advisor while also running the museum. The art world world came to her side, with figures including collectors Bob Rennie and Dakis Joannou and dealers Barbara Gladstone and Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn vigorously defending her. Then, in June, a report cleared her of all wrongdoing, prompting three Stedelijk board members to resign.
While Ruf, who is among the globetrotting brain trust of mega-collector Maja Hoffmann, might just as soon stay out of the limelight cast by a globally recognized institution for a while, she would be a natural to take the helm at MoMA PS1 and help take it to the next stage in its evolution.
Current position: Director, Pérez Art Museum Miami
In the three short years since he became the leader of the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM), Franklin Sirmans has significantly raised the institution’s profile, both within the U.S. and internationally. In fact, after just six months, he secured the biggest gift of artworks in the museum’s history: a donation of more than 100 pieces from the collection of Miami developer Craig Robins.
But Sirmans is adept at working within bigger institutions, too; before moving to South Florida, he was the department head and curator of contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for over five years, prior to which he was a curator of modern and contemporary art at Houston’s Menil Collection. He was also the artistic director of the critically-acclaimed third edition of Prospect, the New Orleans triennial. While three years at the helm of PAMM may seem too soon to make an exit, taking over MoMA PS1 would make for a fitting homecoming for Sirmans, who was born in Queens, and could help make the institution more inclusive.
Cover image (from left to right): Portrait of Iwona Blazwick by Colin McPherson/Corbis via Getty Images.Portrait of Myriam Ben Salah by Nicolas Cottong. Image of Franklin Sirmans by Monica Schipper/Getty Images for PAMM.