One of the big questions in the museum world in recent months was where would Kathy Halbreich go after announcing last March that she would step down as director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Now we know and it’s a big next step — into the newly created position of associate director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
(This comes just a few months after William Griswold left his job as director of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts to become head of the Morgan Library & Museum, also in Manhattan. Look soon for Garrison Keillor to take over at the Met and Jesse “the Body” Ventura at the Guggenheim.)
The Halbreich hire is fascinating, because she brings her peerless credentials as a guide to new art to MoMA, a place that does incomparable historical surveys and late-career retrospectives — next up, Martin Puryear — but hasn’t offered the shock of the new in a very long time.
Over the past several years I’ve chosen the artists and architects for the annual Time 100 issue devoted to the most influential people in the world. (Are they really the most influential? Hey, it’s just a list. Go make your own.) The choices reflect my own enthusiasms but also a good faith attempt on my part to identify people whose work has resonated widely with other artists. For the last two years the artists I chose — Kiki Smith and Kara Walker — just happen to have been people who were also getting the big mid-career retrospective treatment from Halbreich’s museum in the same year. Likewise a few years ago when I picked Bruce Nauman. His big retrospective ten years earlier had been organized by Halbreich herself.
Granted, Smith, Walker and Nauman are all sizeable names. You don’t need Halbreich to find your way to them now. But her real importance has been in tracking down talent when it’s still emerging. And according to today’s New York Times story on her hire, she also plans to comb through MoMA’s permanent collection. “I have a feeling,” she told the Times. “There is more breadth there than we have seen.” Translation: the story of Modernism that MoMA has safeguarded for decades is not the only one.
The next sound you hear will be the tectonic plates of art history shifting.