Making the Modern More Contemporary

This week, Kathy Halbreich, who retired as director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis on November 1, takes up her new role as associate director at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The position was created especially for Halbreich, whose responsibilities will include organizing exhibitions and making acquisitions, but not fund-raising or other directorial duties. Despite its affiliation with P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, MoMA is often seen as unwilling or unable to engage with truly contemporary work, and it is clear that the appointment of Halbreich—whose reputation at the Walker was founded on her commitment to contemporary art, and particularly to its interdisciplinary and international character—is at least partly intended to correct that perception. She spoke to Museums about her experiences at the Walker and her ambitions for MoMA.

Kathy, congratulations on your new appointment. It looks like a dream job.

It’s perfection. I’m an excessively fortunate person

It sounds like all of the good parts of a museum director’s job without any of the bad parts.

Yes. I can shed a lot of the things that directors have to do, like worrying about the shop or the restaurant, or all of those things that make a museum director’s job immensely complex. At MoMA I can actually focus on the art and the artists, and on the curators and educators and administrators. I might even organize a show occasionally!

It’s been a long time since you could do that at the Walker.

God! A long time! But one of the delicious things for me was that even though I wasn’t curating shows, my work at the Walker was as a curator of more social concerns. For example, is it possible to create an internal culture of respect and trust that can be reflected externally in how we do our work? One of my great satisfactions was the way in which the Walker family worked. We were almost like members of a mission-driven cult. We all knew the mission of the institution, and we knew that there was enormous freedom in interpreting it. But we also knew that it wasn’t about developing our careers; it was about helping to realize this vision. We were all
standing on the same plane, heading in the same direction, and that created an incredibly fertile ground for artists, who knew we were there to serve them. And it created an enormously engaging platform for our audience, who had the luxury of running up against some of the greatest thinkers of our time.

Do you think that is what Glenn Lowry wants you to bring to MoMA? There’s certainly a changing of the guard taking place there. Kynaston McShine [chief curator at large], John Elderfield [chief curator of painting and sculpture], and Alanna Heiss [director of P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center] will all be retiring in the next couple of years. Do you think that their time has passed?

Kynaston is one of my oldest friends and colleagues. What he has done for the collection is startling. I’ve learned an enormous amount from John over the years, and when we talk about forces for good in contemporary art, it would be hard not to put Alanna at the top of that list. If those folks retire in the next couple of years or so, Glenn and I will be absolutely dependent on their history in many respects.

I look forward to working with the team that’s in place at MoMA. I really need to understand what the people there dream of and haven’t been able to realize, or haven’t dared to dream of yet. My job is to help rethink the historical strengths of the institution and use them to map out a more aggressively contemporary future.

Will MoMA’s program begin to reflect your enthusiasm for the interdisciplinary?

I honestly think that was one of the reasons why Glenn was interested in bringing me into the institution. I don’t know the kind of conversations that go on at MoMA, but the kind of conversations that go on at the Walker across film, visual arts, and performing arts are the conversations of the future. It doesn’t mean you have to leave anything behind; it just brings more to the foreground.

The other thing is that it’s not just the artistic disciplines that have to be at the table. The education department has to be there as well. I think it’s safe to say that MoMA has the greatest collection of 20th-century art in the world. The challenge is to perpetuate the kind of adventure that characterized its early history. I look forward to examining Alfred Barr’s legacy more closely—talk about a multidisciplinary institution! It was all there at the beginning. I don’t think that what we’re talking about is radical; it’s just about a more robust commitment to cross-disciplinary conversations.

How do you see the relationship between MoMA and P.S.1 changing?

I really want to sit down with Alanna, who’s a gigantic leader in our field. There’s a lot to be learned from what she’s done in the areas of architecture and moving pictures. Eventually I think my job will entail creating more and better conversations between P.S.1 and the curators at MoMA and fortifying both institutions. They really benefit from each other.

The most remarkable thing about your coming to MoMA is that you left the Walker without any idea of what you would do next.

Absolutely. I was looking at my life at age 58 and realized I had a couple of choices. One was to stay at the Walker for the rest of my life, which seemed like a very long time. The other was to jump into the unknown, which seemed scary. But one of the things I’ve learned from artists is to embrace fear and let it take you someplace good.

When Glenn called me, I wasn’t even prepared to talk to him at first, because I was sorting through a lot of alternative ideas about what I should be or could be. I honestly wasn’t even sure whether I would stay in the field, because I knew I no longer wanted to be a museum director. But this job turned out to be exactly, precisely what thrills me. I hope that Glenn gets the credit that he deserves for being as open and generous as he has been with me. I don’t think there’s another museum director in the country who could have done what he did.

How quickly do you think we’ll see the Halbreich effect at MoMA?

I hope that people understand that change is evolutionary, not revolutionary, and that whatever change is needed—and I don’t know what is yet—will take us time to discover. Everybody’s expectations are a little scary.

"Making the Modern More Contemporary" comes to ARTINFO from the winter 2008 issue of Museums magazine.