From London to LACMA
Charlotte Cotton, a British photography curator and writer who plunged into edgy contemporary projects after 12 years of curatorial work at the venerable Victoria & Albert Museum in London, has been appointed department head and curator of photography at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
She will join the museum’s staff June 1, succeeding the late Robert A. Sobieszek and interim department head Tim B. Wride.
“Charlotte’s career bridges the traditional and the contemporary. That is her real strength,” said LACMA Director Michael Govan. “At the Victoria & Albert, she dealt with a collection of some 30,000 photographs that has great 19th century and early 20th century material, so she had a real grounding in a big museum collection and historic work. Then she gave it up to experiment and learn more about photography in the contemporary world. She has had huge experience, and she has taken risks. That’s a good combination.”
Cotton, 36, who was born in the Cotswolds in England, studied photography at the University of Sussex in Brighton. She was a curator of photographs at the Victoria & Albert from 1993 to 2004, organizing many exhibitions of historic and contemporary photographs and writing extensively. After leaving the museum, she became head of programming at the Photographers’ Gallery, the only publicly funded gallery in London devoted to photography.
In 2005 Cotton moved to New York, where she organized a cultural program for Art + Commerce, an agency that represents many leading photographers; taught at colleges and universities in the area; and continued to write about photography. Her books include “The Photograph as Contemporary Art,” part of Thames & Hudson’s World of Art series.
At LACMA, Cotton will return to museum work, taking charge of a department that was founded in 1984 and has an eclectic collection of about 6,000 photographs. They include historic works, but most of the images were made after 1940. Pockets of strength include large holdings of Edward Weston’s photographs and Los Angeles Pictorialism, made from 1918 to 1947, and the Audrey and Sydney Irmas collection of photographic self-portraits.
“What we don’t have is all the greatest hits of modern photography as dictated by the Museum of Modern Art,” Govan said, “or depth in 19th century photography. But Robert Sobieszek left an interesting legacy. It’s quirky, but in a good way.”
Reached by telephone at her home in New York, Cotton said she is looking forward to working with a collection that is “young, forward-thinking” and has “a liberated attitude.”
“At the Victoria & Albert, your thinking is governed by precedents that have been set,” she said. “Michael Govan has dynamic plans for the museum in Los Angeles. It feels like a place for photography to move forward with the same level of ambition he has for the museum.”
Cotton’s appointment may come as a surprise to the art community because, as Govan puts it, “she is not on the traditional list of American curators who move from museum to museum.”
She was recommended by “a small circle of people who have an international outlook, including Wride,” he said.
“Charlotte is articulate and thoughtful, young and sensitive,” Govan said. “She has a lot of her career ahead of her. Part of my interest in her is curiosity about what she would do with all that. When I met with her, it was clear that she had a real passion not just to be in a major museum, but to be in Los Angeles. That in itself seemed like such a right fit. It wasn’t just the museum; it was that Los Angeles was such a fantastic place to explore questions of photography’s changing role.”