Gary Garrels :: The Accidental Curator

  • by Robert Nesti, EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor
  • Tuesday February 17, 2009
Share this Post:

Approachable, articulate and immensely knowledgeable, SFMOMA Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture Gary Garrels has a prescient gift for spotting talented, emerging artists who've gone on to become major figures in contemporary art. Glenn Ligon, Kara Walker and Robert Gober are among those he nurtured early on. A long way from the Iowa farm where he grew up, though farming's devotional, 24/7 work ethic has been more of an influence than one might think, Garrels had embarked on a doctorate in sociology at Princeton when he made a right turn that led to sojourns at prominent art institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Last fall, after three years at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, he returned to SFMOMA.

During his previous tenure here (1993-2000), he organized exhibitions of Sol LeWitt, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, and Robert Rauschenberg, among others; and, in 1997, spearheaded the controversial, groundbreaking show Inside Out: New Chinese Art, years before young Chinese artists became the art market's hottest commodity. Currently, he's putting finishing touches on the rooftop sculpture garden, which opens in May with a dozen important works, planning the museum's 75th anniversary celebration in 2010 and envisioning a Richard Serra drawing retrospective slated for 2011.

Being a curator is a demanding, itinerant business, and Garrels keeps his bags packed; staying up to speed and on the hunt requires regular trips to New York, LA, Europe, South America and China. Who knows? The next great artist could be found in the gallery down the street or halfway around the globe. Recently, Garrels took time out to reflect on life and art.

Sura Wood: How did you find your way into your profession?

Gary Garrels: Luck and pluck. I had gotten interested in contemporary art when I was in graduate school and just happened to get a part-time clerical job at MIT's contemporary gallery, where I became an assistant to Kathy Halbreich, one of the great curators of our time. I was very lucky to have her as my mentor. Then I went back and got a masters degree in art history. So I started with Pollock and Rothko, and worked my way back to Titian and Bernini.

Why did you gravitate towards curatorial work?

I have no idea. I never thought about it as a career. I totally fell into it, which, I have to say, has become increasingly difficult to do. Thirty years ago, the field wasn't as intensely competitive as it is now. I think I'm probably one of the last people to sneak through the door.

The accidental curator?

Yes, I really think that's true. I don't think it could happen today.

What skills do you need to be good at your job?

A focused, disciplined ability to look at objects. A good visual memory is important, as is the ability to think in terms of comparisons, but there's no substitute for experience. It's like an athlete or a musician; the more you practice and hone your skills, the better you are. You're in almost Olympic training, just looking, looking and looking at things. You also need an open, intellectual approach, a curiosity about the ideas, the information and kinds of experiences that underlie the work. So it's both what you see and how that leads to asking a series of questions.

What's involved in putting a show together?

I really think about a show as a series of encounters. I think about the space, the sequence, and how one sees an object and then the next object in relationship to it. You build in a structure of associations and experiences. The work of art doesn't exist in isolation; it's always in a conversation. The kind of conversations you provoke or encourage by the way things are hung together is crucial. Then, at least half the job is political negotiation.

Was it easier to persuade lenders when you were at NY MOMA?

The status of MOMA made the Brice Marden [show] possible, but SFMOMA also has huge respect. We're doing a show in 2011 that's bringing together the collections of Gertrude, Michael and Sara Stein. It's an idea I had 10 years ago when I left the museum, and it's finally being realized in collaboration with the Metropolitan in New York and La Reunion des Musees in Paris, who are about as esteemed colleagues as you can have in the museum world

How do you recognize an outstanding talent?

I've looked at contemporary art intensely for over 30 years, and probably visit 200 galleries every month. So when I see something that stands out and really distinguishes itself, by the way the artist works, the subject matter, the formal work, the cluster of ideas that the work focuses on, it's riveting.

What do you do to relax?

I bought a house here with a garden, and I have all kinds of aspirations. I like jazz and chamber music and there's the occasional walk on the beach, but I'm always going to a museum or gallery. The thing about art and this world is that there's constantly new information, new experiences, new questions, constant variety and learning. It's something that I know I will never exhaust.

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].