State of the Arts 2011
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Curator carousel: As Kristina Van Dyke exits, Josef Helfenstein explains why the Menil is such a good training ground

Curator carousel: As Kristina Van Dyke exits, Josef Helfenstein explains why the Menil is such a good training ground

In less than six years as the curator of collections and research at the Menil Collection, Kristina Van Dyke rapidly reenvisioned how the Houston museum presents its non-Western art collection and its connection with the institution's iconic cadre of 20th-century art. Now the curator is bidding adieu to her post in Houston as she takes on the role of director at St. Louis' Pulitzer Foundation in November.

While at the Menil, Van Dyke co-managed the curatorial department, supervised the exhibition department, archives and library and initiated scholarly research and projects on the museum's collection of 17,000 objects. She also worked closely with the development department to raise funds for research and exhibitions and acted as Menil liaison with the Byzantine Fresco Chapel Foundation.

CultureMap spoke with Menil director Joself Helfenstein to discuss Van Dyke's curatorial acumen, the non-Western art collection's resonance with the diverse Houston community and how the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts is endeavoring to emulate the Menil.

CultureMap: Can you speak to your original desire to find a non-Western art expert and scholar when you arrived at the Menil Collection?

Josef Helfenstein: When I came here, the plan was to hire another curator with a specialty in modern and contemporary art. I decided not to go forward with that, and I'm so glad, because we would have had a very one-sided staff. We never before had someone competent in African art.

It just seemed an obvious lack, a kind of gap, in terms of what we had on staff. This was sort of a broad collection and we had only people whose fields were either contemporary or modern Western art. Therefore, I felt rather strongly that we needed to broaden our competence, which is why I hired Kristina, of course.

That remains unchanged. I would love to find again someone who has a passion and expertise about these parts of the collection. Kristina did so beautifully. She was someone with the passion for the dialogue these pieces can create with the better published parts of the collection.

 I'm proud that our people are going to great institutions. I want to give young people a great opportunity. If they do extraordinary work, then they'll move on and go to bigger institutions. It's a good thing for the field, and it's a good thing for us philosophically as an institution to do.

 CM: What drew you to Kristina during the selection process?

JH: She was the least experienced of the three candidates we interviewed. Honestly, it was my trust — it's kind of an intuitive decision in the end. She's extremely smart. She had not finished her PhD yet on representation in the oral cultures of Mali, which we discussed. She seemed the most hungry and promising, perhaps also because of her young age but also her intelligence. The other candidates were intelligent too, of course. This was the right fit and moment for her. It was her first job, and she was my first hire. I knew we'd gain somebody really passionate who would jump right in. And she did of course.

Choosing a curator involves a combination of requirements. You have to have somebody with intellectual, scholarly and managerial talents. You want to build a team, so the chemistry has to be right. All of that worked in Kristina's case. There's no recipe really.

CM: Do you believe that the Menil Collection's special holdings in non-Western art speaks to Houston's own diversity?

JH: It speaks to the global situation anywhere in the world. We're much closer to one another, both ethnically and in terms of travel opportunities. The planet is getting smaller and we really have to take care of it and study it. I think it's a really obvious responsibility we have.

With regards to Houston, the answer is completely yes. The most fascinating aspect of the city for me is exactly its diversity. We need to always connect with that. It's a huge potential I want to tap into.

CM: In terms of national and international collections of non-Western art, where does the Menil Collection stand?

JH: I think that as Kristina's publication of the African collection proved, our African collection is fascinating, although eclectic and not comprehensive. There are big gaps and holes, but in terms of idiosyncrasy, it is world class. The same is true for our Oceanic art, as seen in the current exhibition of art from Lake Sentani.

We would never claim that our non-Western collections are at the level of the Met, but they're significant and aesthetically strong and culturally fascinating. For me, they really add to the rich fabric that this museum has and the sort of potential dialogue, references and inspirations that are created between these different cultures in a building that really works well in that regard.

CM: What does the future hold for the museum's African art collection? Will you pursue a curator with strengths in other areas of non-Western art, such as Oceania?

JH: I will be every open: We're not done with examining our African collection. Kristina will continue to do projects. She is currently in France for a mini-sabatical at the MFAH Dora Maar Residence.

There are still two major exhibitions she'll continue to do here over a year and a half — one in collaboration, I hope, with the Pulitzer Foundation. The fact is that our African collection is deeper and bigger than the Oceanic, and is such an inspirator for what happens in Western art — cubism and surrealism and so on. Honestly, we won't rush with this. We'll think about it this fall and come up with a timetable for finding a successor.

CM: Former Menil curators Susan Davidson and Franklin Sirmans left the museum to land high-ranking positions at the Guggenheim and Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Do you perceive the Menil as a breeding ground for up-and-coming curators?

JH: That seems to be the case. I'm proud that our people are going to great institutions. I want to give young people a great opportunity. If they do extraordinary work, then they'll move on and go to bigger institutions. It's a good thing for the field, and it's a good thing for us philosophically as an institution to do.

I also think it has to do perhaps with the Menil exhibition program. We're considered to have a good reputation nationally and internationally; people watch what we're doing. For me, most importantly, I want our curators to be successful, to have the best opportunities they can have. It will mean most often that at some point they will leave. It's like losing your children. You're happy about it as long as they're going to the best place that advances their career. When Kristina told me she was leaving, my first question to her was, "Are you happy about this opportunity?" She said "Yes," and so I support her all the way.

CM: To what extent are the Menil Collection and Pulitzer Foundation like-minded organizations?

JH: We are kind of unique institutions. We're not just museums of contemporary art, or big encyclopedic museums of modern art. The Pulitzer is much smaller. What I find stunning about it is the marriage in their beautiful Tadao Ando-designed building and a high quality collection, very much like what we have here with our Piano building.

But there's perhaps a more philosophical connection that I believe both the Pulitzer and the Menil share in that we're not trying to do what all the other museums do. I think we're trying to do more challenging semantic projects. We're commited to more scholarly endeavors. It's hard to raise the money to do these things, but it's important.

So, yes, there's a great similarity between these two institutions. I gave the Pulitzer board a tour of our museum a few years ago, and afterward they said that the Menil is what they dream of becoming. And here we are.

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Kristina Van Dyke
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Courtney Sarofim , Josef Helfenstein , Gwen Goffe Photo by Monica Rhodes