Curator Brings Cutting-Edge Vision


When Elizabeth Neilson Armstrong peered down Marcel Duchamp's 1917 presentation of a urinal as art, titled, "Fountain," she had no idea the Dada philosophy would have such an influence on her career.

The work was meant to knock art off its pedestal, to connect it to daily life. That theory was radical in the early 1900s and remains inspirational to Armstrong today.

Armstrong, who recently was named chief curator at the Orange County Museum of Art, thrives on transition. And, like Duchamp, she believes in evolution.

"I'm passionate about Marcel Duchamp because he represents a huge change in the way we think about art," said Armstrong, 48. "He showed art to be a broader part of our daily lives instead of [keeping it] in an ivory tower."

That belief led Armstrong to produce 1993's "In the Spirit of Fluxus," an in-depth exhibition of the "everything-is-art" movement of the 1960s. The show, which won the International Assn. of Art Critics Award in 1995, was organized at the Minneapolis-based Walker Art Center, where Armstrong was a curator from 1983-96.

Partly because of Armstrong's efforts, the Walker Art Center is home to the largest public collection of Fluxus art in the United States, said Joan Rothfuss, curator of visual arts at the Walker.

Armstrong left the Walker in 1996 to become senior curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, and spent five years at its La Jolla site. She curated last year's acclaimed "Ultrabaroque: Aspects of Post-Latin American Art," a large-scale group exhibition with a 200-page English-Spanish catalog.

"Ultrabaroque" is "quite simply the most ambitious and compelling show presented by the museum in many years," Times art critic Christopher Knight said at the time.

"Fluxus" and "Ultrabaroque" display Armstrong's prowess for producing complex shows in innovative ways, critics and colleagues said.

'She Has the Capacity to Challenge'

"She has the capacity to challenge the [Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles], the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and UCLA/Armand Hammer in terms of doing first-rate contemporary art programs," said Paul Schimmel, MOCA's chief curator and Armstrong's predecessor at the Newport Beach museum.

Schimmel, who has known Armstrong since the mid-1980s when the two collaborated on an exhibition, calls her a visionary. He was impressed by her dedication to artists and her sense of humor.

"She is the most distinguished, qualified, professional and internationally known chief curator that the Orange County museum has hired," he said.

Her appointment to OCMA was viewed as unusual because it places a high-profile, veteran curator at the head of a relatively young institution, museum watchers said. Critics contend the museum had lost its luster--in its heyday in the '80s as the Newport Harbor Art Museum, it had earned national accolades for cutting-edge, scholarly, contemporary art shows. OCMA was created through the bitterly disputed merger of the Newport Harbor and the Laguna Art Museum, which later split off.

Armstrong might be the one to lift OCMA's profile to new heights, said Hugh M. Davies, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, for whom she worked.

"The leadership Armstrong will bring to the institution is sorely needed there. OCMA is putting itself back on track to produce strong exhibitions, catalogs and traveling shows. The art has to come first, and by hiring a curator of her caliber, the museum has done a very smart thing," Davies said.

The first signs of Armstrong's handiwork may be viewed in summer 2002 during the museum's Biennial Show. She has tentative plans to broaden the exhibit's focus beyond California art. She's also planning a small-group exhibition featuring young and emerging international artists in winter 2002.

"The thing about an exhibition is that it takes a long time to do. If you're not passionate about it, you're going to be bored," Armstrong said.

The UC Berkeley graduate has little opportunity for boredom between her new job, mothering two children, attending art events and visiting studios.

"I'm interested in connecting with art and artists who reflect cultural change and trends," Armstrong said. "The 'Ultrabaroque' show is significant in the kind of thinking I've been into in the last few years. It's reflective of the hybrid culture and hybrid lives we live. 'Hybrid' is a good reference to the way these young artists work. They're painters, sculptors, photographers, but they also play in a band or write."

Making Art Accessible to New Audiences

All of Armstrong's shows have a strong intellectual underpinning and a personal touch, Davies said. When she first arrived at La Jolla, she hit the ground running, making the rounds of galleries and artists' studios.

Her admirers say she has the ability to make art accessible to new audiences. It's rooted in her knack for infusing Duchamp's principles of keeping art down to earth.

For "Fluxus," she filled the museum with the sounds of clicks and clacks, random barking, snorts and hollers because she felt it fit the theme. For "Ultrabaroque," she decided to forego the usual stuffy panel of scholars and presented artists in a talk-show format.

The effect of Armstrong's work is an invigorating, off-beat museum trip--one that Duchamp might thoroughly enjoy.

"He was aware we have to constantly break our habits and tastes and keep an openness to change," Armstrong said. "I'm interested in that kind of evolution. I don't want to become stagnant."

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