Museum Mover and Shaker

Untested artists catch Walter Hopps Award winner Adam Szymczyk's curatorial eye

Untested artists catch Walter Hopps Award winner Adam Szymczyk's curatorial eye

News_Adam Szymczyk - photo by Hildegard Spielhofer
Adam Szymczyk Photo by Hildegard Spielhofer

Menil Collection founding director Walter Hopps set a precedent for curatorial standards not simply in Houston, but the world over. As a tribute to his legacy, the museum founded the Walter Hopps Curatorial Achievement Award in 2001 to recognize curators in their early to mid-careers who have made significant contributions to the field of contemporary art.

Adam Szymczyk, director and chief curator of Kunsthalle Basel in Basel, Switzerland, has been selected as this year's recipient by a panel that included Iwona Blazwick, director of London's Whitechapel Gallery (who recently lectured at the Glassell School), Donna De Salvo, chief curator of the Whitney Museum of American Art and former senior curator at Tate Modern and Hamza Walker, director of education and associate curator of the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago (and the 2005 recipient of the Hopps Award).

Szymczyk caught the eye of the committee for the attention he pays to largely "untested" artists.

"Becoming established in the art world can be intimidating," he told CultureMap during an overseas phone interview from Switzerland, "which is why I work with young artists without previous exhibitions. But it's not entirely about age — there are 70-year-old artists who are equally untested.

The curator's role is to change the focus of attention and spark the public's curiosity."

Recent exhibitions he has organized include Micol Assaêl: Chizhevsky Lessons (2007), Danh Vo: Where the Lions Are (2009) and Moyra Davey: Speaker Receiver (2010). Those artists' names may come across as foreign, but Szymczyk has made it his life's work to expose such unknown talent.

For 2011, he has his wide-open eye set on American painter Rebecca H. Quaytman, who currently has a show at SFMoMA and an upcoming exhibition at the Neuberger Museum of Art in upstate New York, but has yet to be seen by European audiences.

Born in Piotrków Trybunalski, Poland in 1970, Szymczyk studied art history at the University of Warsaw, and in 2008 co-curated with Elena Filipovic the fifth Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art under the title When Things Cast No Shadow. The all-star curator also contributes to such influential journals as Parkett, Frieze, Flash Art, Fluid, Kunstbulletin and Spike.
"I was first exposed to the work of Walter Hopps reading an interview in a compilation by Hans Ulrich Obrist, which was published right before his death," he said. "His interview opened the book of discussions with curators, which was indicative of how he set a standard for museums in the late 20th century."
In conjunction with the award, Szymczyk will present a public lecture at the Menil on May 17.
"I think the nicest part of the award is getting to come to Houston," he said. "I'm trying to compile a presentation that will be interesting to the audience by presenting examples of curators I respect."
Szymczyk says he is considering bringing a cadre of friends and trustees from Kunsthalle Basel to explore contemporary art in Texas.
"I'd love to rent a vehicle and go on a car journey," he said, adding, "Coming from Europe, when I got notice from the Menil, it made me ask what's out there. In this profession, it sometimes feels as though one has little geographical impact, even with globalization. It's very uplifting."
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