When world-famous museum curator John Elderfield announced he would be taking a job at Gagosian, the art world — and art press — was aflutter with speculation. What, exactly, would he be doing? How much are they paying him? What does this development mean for the ever-evolving relationship between megagalleries and museums?
“I knew some people would find it unexpected,” Elderfield said in a recent interview with Art + Auction. Now that the dust has settled, the retired chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art is offering a bit more insight into his new life in the commercial gallery world: Elderfield, who began work at Gagosian this month, will be organizing museum-style shows in the same vein as the gallery’s historic Picasso exhibition series. Though he is still fine-tuning the details, the art historian said he is interested in pursuing “not just monographic shows but thematic exhibitions, something the gallery hasn’t done or hasn’t done much.” He noted that there are several “thematic shows I would have liked to do if I had stayed at MoMA, but time ran out and you can’t do everything.”
As for the origin of his swanky new gig, Elderfield credits Bob Dylan for bringing him together with Larry Gagosian. “I have known Larry Gagosian over the years, but we became particularly friendly during the Bob Dylan project,” he said, referring to his interview with the singer-turned-painter for the catalogue to the gallery’s 2011 exhibition of Dylan’s work. “I am a big Bob Dyan fan,” Elderfield said, “and we [Larry and I] go to concerts together.”
Asked about the difference between working for a museum and a gallery, Elderfield stressed the lack of bureaucracy. “It’s different from MoMA, where we have exhibition meetings, we ponder, we have a budget,” he said, adding that with seven different curatorial departments vying for space, the museum must consider much more than the quality of a proposal before agreeing to an exhibition. “I’m also going to be intrigued to see whether lenders feel differently about lending to different kinds of institutions.”
At Gagosian, Elderfield hopes to further stretch the boundaries of what a gallery can do. “Everyone sort of understands that some commercial galleries are able and willing to take on serious projects in a way that produces excellent exhibitions on the same level of ambition as many museums,” he said. He imagines that in the future, Gagosian might be able to collaborate with local universities — or even museums (a proposal that may ruffle some feathers).
Though Elderfield currently serves as a consultant to the online art search engine Art.sy and advises one very lucky couple on their art collection (he won’t say who), he doesn’t plan to take on too much additional work. “I want to get established at the gallery and get a sense of how many projects of real interest there are to do. And knowing Larry, there are going to be lots of them.”
— With additional reporting by James Chad Hanna. A modified version of this story appeared in the May 2011 issue of Art + Auction.