MCA Picks New Chief Curator
The Museum of Contemporary Art's new chief curator is Michael Darling of the Seattle Art Museum (SAM). Darling, SAM's Jon and Mary Shirley Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, starts July 12. He succeeds Elizabeth A. T. Smith, who resigned as the MCA's James W. Aldorf Chief Curator at the end of August 2009.
Reached by phone, Darling says he was happy at SAM, where he's worked since 2006, and "not looking for a job" when he "got a call out of the blue" in January from MCA director Madeleine Grynsztejn. But "it was such an intriguing idea that I wanted to follow up with her," he adds. "I’ve always held the MCA in high esteem as one of the very best contemporary museums in the country." Once he moves here, Darling hopes "to do the kinds of shows that other museums around the country aren’t doing. Especially in terms of solo artists’ shows…[to] get behind artists early in their careers and give them their first big museum shows, which is something the MCA has, historically, really been known for."
The curator has experience with such initiatives, having founded the SAM Next contemporary art series in 2008, which has highlighted Turner Prize nominee Enrico David and Seattle-based artist Heide Hinrichs. Darling seems familiar with the obstacles that emerging artists face if they're not in New York or Los Angeles. "That’s definitely been a challenge for artists in Seattle for a long time," he says. "They might be well known here, but breaking out nationally is more difficult. Something I would like to do is have the MCA and its curators, in particular, be boosters for Chicago artists. Help to identify the brightest lights. Give them shows at the museum. Bring their work to the attention of other curators, art dealers."
Before joining SAM, Darling was an associate curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Los Angeles, where in 2001 he co-curated "The Architecture of R.M. Schindler"—with Elizabeth A. T. Smith, who'd moved to the MCA from MOCA. When I asked if he intends to continue Smith's emphasis on architecture and design at the MCA, he replied, "That’s something that we have not talked about concretely. I know it’s something that’s been part of the diet of the MCA in recent years. I know it’s something that tends to be really popular with the public; we found that at MOCA. But I have not been as active in that field as I used to be. I still do follow it and I’m interested in it, so I think if we wanted to go in that direction, I could offer some guidance in that area." (Darling has a Ph.D in art and architectural history from U.C. Santa Barbara.)
Though I only spoke with Darling for a few minutes, he comes off as a remarkably nice person, so I hope he and the MCA prove to be a good fit. His 2009 SAM exhibition "Target Practice: Painting Under Attack 1949–1978" certainly impressed local critics, and his new show "Kurt," which brings together works by Rodney Graham, Elizabeth Peyton and other artists responding to Kurt Cobain, seems unstuffy but substantial. "It just seems like there’s not as much risk-taking on the part of a lot of museums right now," Darling told me. "I’d love for the MCA to be in that position."