The Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) has made three major curatorial hires for senior positions: Margot Norton will join as chief curator on May 1, while Victoria Sung and Anthony Graham will become senior curators on March 1 and March 20, respectively.
Norton, who is currently a senior curator at the New Museum in New York, is among the most closely watched curators working today. Having spent 12 years at the New Museum in various roles, she is known for mounting major exhibitions for contemporary artists such as Lynn Hershman Leeson, Sarah Lucas, Chris Ofili, Pipilotti Rist, Kaari Upson, Carmen Argote, Mika Rottenberg, and Bárbara Wagner and Benjamin de Burca. She curated, with Jamillah James, the 2021 New Museum Triennial, and two additional shows of hers will open at the New Museum later this year: a survey of Wangechi Mutu, curated with Vivian Crockett, and a solo for Pepón Osorio. She also organized the Georgian Pavilion at the 2019 Venice Biennale.
In an interview with ARTnews, BAMPFA director Julie Rodrigues Widholm described Norton as a “superstar” and a “bold curator” with “a thoughtful sensitivity to the way she curates.” In Norton, Rodrigues Widholm found a curator who aligns with her vision to reshape BAMPFA.
“I envision BAMPFA as being at the forefront of cultural change and being a museum that is responsive to this moment and that is very much of this moment,” Rodrigues Widholm said. “We share the same values around what can museums do to push—not just the form of exhibition making—but bringing different kinds of practices, narratives, and stories by artists from around the globe to our audiences to help us rethink what art is, what art does, what it can look like with a commitment to historically marginalized stories and art forms.”
Norton told ARTnews that she has long admired BAMPFA, saying that “historically, it’s given such an important platform to artists at such crucial moments in their careers,” with an emphasis on Bay Area artists like Joan Brown, Jay DeFeo, Bruce Connor, Rosie Lee Tompkins, and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, whose archive is held by BAMPFA.
“It’s such an honor to engage with this legacy at such an important moment for the institution, and also an important moment historically,” Norton said, adding that in the chief curator role she hopes “to work toward expanding this legacy, amplifying diverse and fresh perspectives, and bringing the program to address the most crucial conversations happening in the present day.”
Sung comes to BAMPFA from the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis where she is associate curator for visual arts. At the museum, she has organized some of the most important artist surveys of the past few years, including for Siah Armajani and Theaster Gates, with her final one, for Pacita Abad, opening in April. She has also commissioned pieces for the institution and helped the Walker acquire major works for its collection, including pieces by Abad, Patty Chang, Jonathan Lyndon Chase, Ellen Lesperance, Jacolby Satterwhite, and Haegue Yang.
Sung is known for “embracing experimental and interdisciplinary artistic practices” and “working with underrecognized artists, and putting forth new scholarship in major exhibitions,” Rodrigues Widholm said. “That’s exactly the kind of work that we want to bring here too.”
Graham joins BAMPFA from the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, where he was associate curator for seven years. At the MCA San Diego, he organized solo shows for Alexis Smith, Griselda Rosas, Nancy Lupo, and Sadie Barnette, and a major exhibition of artists from the border region, titled “Being Here with You/Cuando Estoy Contigo: 42 Artists from San Diego and Tijuana” (with co-curator Jill Dawsey). Additionally, he aided the MCA in acquiring works by Barnette, Math Bass, Jonathan Lyndon Chase, Louis Fratino, Toyin Ojih Odutola, Christina Quarles, Alison Saar, and Tschabalala Self, and was instrumental in the museum’s inaugural permanent collection display at its new building.
Rodrigues Widholm said that Graham will be “key to helping us develop the collection,” while also bringing “a strong record of working with Latinx artists, artists from San Diego, and from the border region” and she is keen to see “he will translate that experience and interests from Southern California up to Northern California.”
These three appointments represent a major change to BAMPFA’s curatorial department. The museum last had a chief curator in 2016, when Lucinda Barnes, who had been in that role for 12 years, retired. Upon her retirement, then BAMPFA director Lawrence Rinder took on the role of chief curator.
Taken together, Rodrigues Widholm views this as “a rethinking of the roles to reflect new priorities,” adding that BAMPFA is “place that is many things at once: a place of higher learning student engagement, of creating and sharing knowledge, and of centering artists in the production of knowledge. I wanted to build a curatorial team around these kinds of urgencies of criticality from a contemporary perspective in our programming, and also a demonstrated commitment to expanding the canon, providing a platform to shape new direction for art history through the work of artists.”
As part of the reorganization, Rodrigues Widholm has also eliminated a standalone curatorial role for the museum’s “Matrix” exhibition series, and instead, all three newly appointed curators, as well as occasional guest curators, will contribute to producing “Matrix” exhibitions.
The “Matrix” series was established in 1978 by James Elliot, who had created a similar series at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Connecticut. The series has been “dedicated to more spontaneous, responsive contemporary art exhibitions,” but was conceived at a time when much of the museum’s galleries were given over to showing the permanent collection, Rodriguez Widholm said. “As the museum has evolved and grown, we’ve had the most amazing artists featured in the ‘Matrix’ series,” including Jean-Michel Basquiat, James Lee Byars, Juan Downey, Cecilia Vicuña, Geta Brătescu, Nicole Eisenman, and Otobong Nkanga.
“It’s an exciting time for this new team to think about what does the ‘Matrix’ series need to do now, what does it need to be now,” Rodrigues Widholm said. “How can we use it to serve artists better? I would just say watch this space to see how the ‘Matrix’ series will be reconceived.”
In addition to working on temporary exhibitions, the three curators will be charged with growing the museum’s permanent collection of some 28,000 objects, across centuries of production, with an eye toward “modern and contemporary art from Black diasporic, global Asian, and Latinx communities,” according to the museum. In the near future, the museum’s lower level will be transformed into permanent collection galleries.
In the job postings for the three roles, Rodrigues Widholm described the ideal candidate as “a curious generalist,” someone with a “contemporary critical lens who can bring that to an engagement with our collections.”
She continued, “In many ways, I think the collection is the DNA of an organization. It reflects its history and can create a sense of familiarity for audiences. I’m foregrounding the collection in our work in many ways and making public access to the collection a real priority because it’s incredibly important to acknowledge the resource that the collection is for teaching, for learning, for telling stories.”