"A museum is not just a collection of objects, or a series of programs, but a spirit, energy and force"

24 February 2023

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Clara Kim. Chief Curator & Director of Curatorial Affairs, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, USA

Interview with Clara Kim, CIMAM Board member, and Chief Curator & Director of Curatorial Affairs, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles for Tendencias del Mercado del Arte, Spain. Published on February 2023.

Which were your first memorable experiences with Museums?

Answer: My first full time job working at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in the late 1990s was my first memorable experience with Museums. It was foundational for me, as it has been for generations of contemporary art curators. The Walker is a special place for an aspiring curator – an institution with deep civic roots, within a generous philanthropic community, and a program driven by artistic excellence and risk-taking. It represented to me all that a museum can and should be—one that is civic-minded, artistically adventurous, deeply engaged in its community, while being internationally influential. A museum is not just a collection of objects, or a series of programs, but a spirit, energy and force. My early years at the Walker, which at the time was led by the indomitable team of Kathy Halbreich and Richard Flood, left an indelible mark on my career path, as were the friendships formed with fellow curators.

You have been involved in the contemporary museum field for 25 years. How have you seen contemporary art world evolving since then? Which have been the notable changes?

Answer: Most of the time change happens incrementally, including at museums and cultural organizations – slow, methodical however aspirational. In other instances, it takes huge leaps and bounds. I think we are witnessing the latter right now where everything is being questioned – the ethics of funding, the representation of women and people of color in collections and programs, the interrogation of who are audiences are, as well as the very foundation of art history as a discipline. Moreover, the pandemic has made us keenly aware of our vulnerabilities as humans, as communities, as institutions. How we reckon with social, racial and environmental justice issues that are now rattling the core of our society will define the future of museums and its continued relevance.

You have been senior curator of international art at Tate Modern and you helped to expand the museum’s permanent collection. What kinds of trends and ideas have dominated your practice as a curator?

Answer: I had a broad remit at Tate Modern, where I was responsible for the research, interpretation and acquisition of art from Africa, Asia and Middle East. Working with curatorial colleagues, our work involved not only identifying important figures, themes and movements that developed in the non-western world, but in doing so radically redefine the contours, epistemologies and historiographies of modern and contemporary art. It necessitated unlearning certain modalities and narrativizing of art history, and consciously adopting different perspectival shifts and modes of criticality. During my time at the Tate, the post-colonial and the transnational were important mechanisms and tools for re-thinking, re-writing and re-narrating art history – one that challenged the dominance of a Western canon and the desire to simultaneously hold multiple origin points and cultural contexts. I suppose if there is a trend or idea that has dominated my practice as a curator, it is the ability to unhinge myself from my own Western academic training and the willingness to see things from different points of view and cultural contexts.

Can you talk about exhibitions, projects, or commissions you have undertaken that have stood out in your mind, and why?

Answer: Working with Steve McQueen on his survey at Tate Modern in 2020 was an incredibly gratifying experience for me. To be in the company of one of the greatest living artists and filmmakers of our time is an absolute pleasure. He is a visionary who is as tough and rigorous as he is generous and passionate. The best part of working with an artist is being in proximity to dynamic forcefields of energy. During the planning of the show, Steve premiered his feature film Widows and was working on his limited series Small Axe for BBC, while also making a powerful art film about Grenfell Tower. He has a restless mind that, while effortlessly navigating the worlds of film and art, reminds us of the power of visual language, relentlessly pushing it to its poetic and physical limits.

You are interested in “post-colonial and transnational art histories that re-chart and re-map narratives of art”. Could you elaborate on this? How these issues are reflected, for example, through the LA MoCA programming?

Answer: See above response to question #3. As to how the post-colonial and transnational perspective informs my work at LA MOCA, one way will be to create readings of post-war art from the perspective of California and from the Pacific. Histories of the transatlantic have been written about extensively and theorized, yet the transpacific is much lesser known. There are centuries of histories of trade, migration and influence between civilizations, nations and cultures of the Pacific Rim. Here, I think about the Spanish galleons which traded directly from Mexico to Philippines, or the Asian migrant laborers who worked on the sugarcane fields in the Caribbean and pineapple plantations in Hawaii, not to mention that California was once part of Mexico. There are layers and layers of cultural interpolation, diasporic experience and socio-political realities to be mined here. Of particular interest to me, especially given that MOCA Geffen is located in Little Tokyo, is the generations of Japanese American artists such as Ruth Asawa who lived through the internment camps and how their art served as a form of survival, resistance and inspiration. These histories are what make up the DNA of the diversity in California today. I see these as starting points to read post-war art histories, as well as contemporary art, from a fundamentally California or transpacific perspective.

What makes the art scene in Los Angeles unique and different compared to other art centers?

Answer: Like the vast sprawl that characterizes the geography of Los Angeles, the art scene in LA is diverse, pluralistic, and polyphonic. What undergirds it and holds it together are the artists who have made this city their home from Ed Ruscha who came out from Oklahoma in the 1950s and settled in Venice to Mark Bradford – an LA native– whose practice is deeply rooted in South LA where his studio and his foundation space Art + Practice are located. It is a city that is infinitely undefinable -- changing, expanding, morphing and developing. Galleries come and go; spaces open and close; museums expand and contract, but it is the artists who form the matrix that keeps this city endlessly exciting and alluring.

What do you predict will be the most significant developments in art in the next few years, and why?

Answer: Efforts by the museum sector to address climate change and sustainability will come to be an important development in how we function, operate and evolve as cultural organizations. How far we go and how effective we are, however, can only be measured by a wholesale and radical rethinking about the interconnectedness between the local, regional and international, as well as the intersection of social, economic and racial justice with environmental justice.