After more than a year-long search, the Hammer Museum has hired Connie Butler, currently the chief curator of drawings at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, as its chief curator.
She is leaving that position by July 1 in order to assume her L.A. post mid-month.
Around the same time, Aram Moshayedi, 31, known for his work with the alternative art spaces REDCAT and LAX Art, will join the museum as a curator in a newly created position.
Butler, 50, is a well-known and well-liked figure in the art world, admired for championing artists who are not art-market darlings — and sometimes unfamiliar even to avid museum-goers.
She made her name in L.A. as a curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art from 1996 to 2006, organizing exhibitions like "WACK!," a groundbreaking survey of feminist art. Upon her departure for New York, art critic Doug Harvey called her the “most authentically intellectual curatorial voice” at MOCA.
Her new job as chief curator involves shaping Hammer programs and exhibitions and helping to build its cutting-edge collection, which counts drawings as a primary focus.
“She is an incredibly talented and seasoned curator,” said Hammer Museum Director Ann Philbin, who is announcing the hire to her board and staff today. “She has a deep scholarship in contemporary and modern art and a very strong appetite for the new, and that’s a combination that suits us well.”
Philbin said “Connie decided to move her family back to L.A. before we even interviewed her for this position, so the stars really aligned.”
Butler called Philbin a “very dynamic director” and L.A. “a great art city with a very international and global community of artists and lively institutions.”
“I also think the curatorial landscape right now in Los Angeles is in transition — with the changes at MOCA, the relatively new team at L.A. County Museum and Dan Cameron at Orange County — and I look forward to being a part of that,” Butler said.
Philbin has overseen three different chief curators in the last 10 years. The most recent person to hold the job was Douglas Fogle, who lasted less than two years. Before that, the chief curator was Gary Garrels, who stayed at the museum about three years.
(In a slightly dizzying, small-world sort of parallel, Garrels was chief drawings curator at MoMA in New York until 2005, and his leaving for the Hammer paved the way for Butler’s move to New York the following year. He is now senior curator of paintings and drawings at SFMOMA.)
Last fall Times art critic Christopher Knight called the Hammer’s chief curator position “something of a revolving door.”
Philbin said in response: “I don't think [the curatorial changes] have been a negative thing for our institution. We are a mid-sized institution that can attract world-class talent, but I don't expect we will always keep them forever. If I want to have a curator like Gary Garrels for three years for a particular reason like building a collection, I consider myself lucky.”
But this time is different, Philbin said. She has removed some of the administrative duties from the chief curator position, which used to also carry the title of deputy director.
“It is a feasible job and now we've figured out a way it could be even better. And I didn't necessarily expect long-term commitments in the past, but this time I was looking for that — and Connie and I had that conversation,” Philbin said.
One new project that will come under Butler’s purview is the Hammer’s winning proposal for the LA2050 competition, which awarded $100,000 grants to 10 organizations that serve the L.A. area in fields like arts and culture, education and housing.
Last week the Hammer received one of the grants for a proposal to rejuvenate its neighborhood, Westwood, by temporarily populating its empty storefronts with the help of local artists, artisans, musicians and more. “Westwood has become a very sad place, and we hope to breathe some life back into it,” said Philbin.
Butler will also co-curate the Hammer's “Made in L.A.” biennial along with Michael Ned Holte, a project she initially signed on to do while still at MoMA.
Butler spent the early '90s in New York, working at one point as a curator for Artists Space (then in Tribeca), where she first met Philbin, who was then leading the Drawing Center nearby in SoHo.
Butler joined the Museum of Contemporary Art in L.A. as an assistant curator in 1996, and worked her way up to full curator by 2001. Over that period she curated shows on Amy Adler, Jessica Bronson, Lewis Baltz, Kay Rosen and Eric Wesley, and co-curated exhibitions onenigmatic land artist Robert Smithson and absurdist video artist Rodney Graham.
Her most ambitious show, "WACK!," included the work of 119 artists from 21 countries, and received strong reviews in L.A., where it opened, and New York, where it traveled.
In the drawings department at MoMA, she organized permanent collection shows as well as the mid-career survey of the Dutch-based, South African-born painter Marlene Dumas in 2008 and the MoMA version of a show of Polish sculptor Alina Szapocznikow that also ran at the Hammer in 2012.
Butler is currently working on another big show for MoMA — the late Brazilian artist Lygia Clark’s first North American retrospective. “I’m co-curating it with Luis Perez-Oramas, MoMa’s curator of Latin American art, and it’s a great project that is really close to my heart. We’ve finished the research and are developing the installation and program for it.”
She said she will continue to work on that show as needed from her new position, before it opens at MoMA in May 2014.
Any chance it will come to the Hammer? “We actually haven’t discussed it. It’s a big show and a costly show, so I don’t know,” she said. “But I have a not-small list of projects that I really look forward to bringing to my colleagues there and hopefully gaining their support.”
[For the record 8:42 p.m. May 22: Butler co-curated the Kay Rosen show, which ran at both MOCA and Otis College of Art and Design, with Terry R. Myers.]Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times