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The CultureMap Interview

New senior curator Valerie Cassel Oliver looks to add more edge to CAMH

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Photo by Eric Hester Courtesy of Contemporary Arts Museum Houston
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Lauren Kalman's "Hard Wear, (Tongue Gilding)" appeared in the exhibition "Hand+Made: The Performative Impulse in Art and Craft" Courtesy of the artist
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CAMH director Bill Arning Photo by Jenny Antill
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Outgoing senior curator Toby Kamps Photo by Anton Henning
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"American Classics" by Elizabeth Axtman; 2005 video, 4 mins. Courtesy of http://www.fluentcollab.org
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Fluxus artist Benjamin Patterson Benjamin Patterson Courtesy of Jude Ross

Valerie Cassel Oliver is the latest card to be drawn in the Museum District's curatorial shuffle. Replacing outgoing Contemporary Arts Museum senior curator Toby Kamps (as he prepares to take a post at the Menil Collection), Cassel Oliver will be expanding on her pursuits at the CAMH since she began there as an associate curator in 2000. She assumed the position of full curator in 2006.

The appointments of the already Houston-based Kamps and native Houstonian Cassel Oliver by their respective institutions represents an aberrant trend for contemporary and modern art museums, which tend to recruit from across the globe to ensure diversity in ideas. But the presence of qualified practitioners in Houston speaks to the city's wealth of competent curators who are able to compete with and outshine art world luminaries — enough so to catch the attention of ArtForum.

Cassel Oliver embodies the dynamic new breed of Houston art figure. As a curator, she draws upon knowledge gained from graduate studies in art history at Howard University, but also has the singular hindsight of having witnessed the evolution of the appreciation of contemporary art in Houston.

"I was born in the early 60s, and coming of age in the '70s and '90s, the CAMH was that oasis where you found these progressive ideas," she explains. "You saw art that was really about pushing the envelope."

However, Cassel Oliver isn't one to be labeled the prodigal daughter of the Houston art scene. After her academic stint in Washington, D.C., she worked as a program specialist at the National Endowment for the Arts from 1988 to 1995, after which she directed the Visiting Artists Program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for five years. In 2000, she was a co-curator of the Whitney Biennial — a hallmark role of international art world prestige.

"It's really quite awesome to be working with the CAMH," Cassel Oliver tells CultureMap. "To come back here to work at the institution that sparked that seed of contemporary art appreciation has been very fulfilling.

"Over the years, the community has grown to encompass some extraordinary talent," she observes of the Houston contemporary art arena. "The art community is no small feat — particularly the Core Residency Program. Through both the University of Houston and Rice's new Ph.D. program in art history, we really have attracted so many wonderful people."

She has also observed the realization of a diversified arts community: "TSU has always been a very viable institution, and with Project Row Houses, you can see how the city has just continued to grow exponentially. It's been a cultural boom."

Once  Cassel Oliver landed back in Houston, she mounted a series of acclaimed exhibitions, with such highlights as her 2003 debut, Splat Boom Pow! The Influence of Cartoons in Contemporary Art and Cinema Remixed & Reloaded: Black Women Artists and the Moving Image Since 1970. The latter show was nominated for an award in the digital media, video, or film category by the United States section of the International Art Critics Association. Evidence of her high esteem also includes a 2006 Getty Curatorial Research Fellowship and serving as a 2009 fellow at the Center for Curatorial Leadership.

When she assumes her role as senior curator on Oct. 1, Cassel Oliver will be further collaborating with the museum's director, recent arrival Bill Arning. Audiences will witness the caliber of what's to come in her exhibition for the fall season, a retrospective on the work of Fluxus artist Benjamin Patterson, opening Nov. 6. The past 20 years of the career of San Antonio-born artist Donald Moffett will be the focus of a survey exhibition pegged for November 2011.

It appears that solo exhibitions of this variety are Cassel Oliver's forte; she's organized the first United States solo shows for Ghada Amer, Su-en Wong, Demetrius Oliver, Robert Pruitt, Xaviera Simmons and Jennifer West (the latter is on view at the CAMH through Sept. 26).

Beyond curating, she will be taking a larger role in "crafting the vision" of the museum, particularly differentiating its program from its Museum District neighbors. "I think we are all in accord that given the fact that our sister institutions, across the street and the Menil, are looking to expand programming to the art of our time," she explains, admitting, "We're no longer the only game in town for contemporary art."

She elaborates, "We're always seeking to remain relevant and push the envelope to differentiate ourselves. Look at the type of programming we're doing differently — engaging the public, having more varied events — really looking to vitalize the space with action and activity."

It's Cassel Oliver's intention to produce more exhibitions that explore all media, including sound and video to "capture the essence of what we are since the museum was founded in 1948 — why there is a plural in 'arts' instead of 'art.' " For instance, in her 2007 exhibition, Black Light/White Noise, she surveyed light and sound works created by two generations of black artists.

When asked how her curatorial technique has evolved in her time at CAMH, she states, "My time here has really given me an opportunity to hone in on and have a stronger acumen on artists working with unusual materials.

"Those things haven't changed — it has just sharpened," she adds.

With the celebrated Toby Kamps as her predecessor, Arning believes that the new senior curator will boost the museum's stature "to get to the next level as a globally-recognized contemporary arts institution." Cassel Oliver has lofty goals for the museum's future, but in her conversation with CultureMap, she emphasized her enthusiasm for the most imminent exhibitions.

"I think the upcoming fall season is very dynamic," she says, "We have the Patterson exhibition that looks 50 years back at the only African American artist involved in the Fluxus constellation of artists."

That show fits in well with her colleague's pursuits. She reveals, "Bill has been working on an exhibition of experimental filmmaker Stan Vanderbeek, who is also connected with Fluxus. It's going to be a very interesting exhibition with which we are collaborating with MIT."

Cassel Oliver's also anticipating a February 2011 exhibition on London collaborative artists John Wood and Paul Harrison. That exhibition will allow Houston audiences to discover the humor-laden short films by the duo, and serve as a final adieu to curator Kamps. Answers to Questions: John Wood & Paul Harrison highlights the inventive play behind all art — a fitting transitional exhibition to hit Houston's art scene, where curators aren't afraid to roll the dice.

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