Venturing beyond the frame of photography Curator seeks handle on L.A.

Special to The Times

This is the first in a series of occasional articles observing newly arrived cultural figures as they seek to get the lay of the land in Southern California.

WHEN I met up with Charlotte Cotton one winter Saturday, I found her in what would seem a very unlikely place for the head of the photography department at a major encyclopedic museum: the basement of the decidedly un-encyclopedic (that is, small, funky and idiosyncratic) Echo Park art space Machine Project, among folding chairs, computer equipment and a recently acquired collection of carnivorous plants. She was concluding a meeting with the organization’s director, Mark Allen, about a project she hoped to involve him in, relating not to photography but digital music.

Cotton, who began at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art last June after several years in New York and more than a decade in London (she was raised in the the rural Cotswolds), is the picture of a bright, ambitious young curator: 36 years old, inquisitive, stylish and strikingly intelligent, with a broad, scholarly vocabulary and the sort of opinions that put one at odds with one’s more traditional peers. She is the first to permanently fill the photo curator post at the museum since the death of Robert Sobieszek in 2005, and although she clearly holds her predecessor in high esteem, she comes from a different generation -- one that takes photography’s full integration in contemporary art practice for granted -- and has little interest in limiting her efforts to what she frequently refers to as the “photo ghetto.”


She speaks less of prints, therefore, than of projects, commissions, discussions, publications, websites, musical events, film programs and cross-disciplinary collaboration. Indeed, though steeped in the history and theory of photography, she seems most excited looking beyond the boundaries of her field -- as her presence at Machine Project would seem to attest.

Allen is characteristically genial. He loads Cotton with Machine Project documentation, plays video footage of an exhibition they’d been discussing (an installation by Brian Crabtree and Kelli Cain involving a room full of amplified egg-tapping robots) and promises to take her invitation into consideration. Sensing, perhaps, a note of ambivalence, she hastens to assure him of the sincerity of her interest.

“I’m sorry if it sounded like I wanted you to do the entertainment,” she says. “I hope it’s more than that.”

“Oh, it’s fine,” he replies. “It’s just that you understand my concern about these things. Because people are often like, ‘Oh, you guys do wacky stuff, come do wacky stuff for us!’ And it has to make sense for us or else, you know, it doesn’t make sense for us.”

Like many of L.A.’s recently transplanted curators and art professionals -- and there have been quite a few of late: for example, Gary Garrels and Ali Subotnick at the Hammer -- Cotton has been managing a demanding schedule of these sorts of meetings since her arrival. She’s also been juggling studio visits, gallery openings, dinners and other events, in the struggle to get a handle on the city’s sprawling art scene while simultaneously establishing her presence within the museum.

The latter, while not without its challenges, has been a relatively familiar process, and is now more or less complete. Last fall saw the launch of several pivotal pet projects, including a series of panel discussions and a photography-oriented website (at, as well as the publication of a snazzy poster outlining the department’s ambitious program.


Impressive credentials

FINDING her way around the city, however, as any new resident could attest, has taken a bit more patience. “In a way, the LACMA part is so much easier because you can be very strategic about what you need to know,” she says. “Comprehending the scope of artistic practice and the infrastructure outside of the museum is just much slower than that.”

The first curator hired by Michael Govan since he took over at LACMA in 2006, Cotton came to the job with impressive credentials, including 12 years at the helm of a photo collection five times the size of LACMA’s, at an institution -- the Victoria and Albert Museum -- that underwent a transformation of its own in the course of her tenure. She was taking a break from the museum world at the time this job came up, working at a photo agency in New York, but hadn’t considered the cross-Atlantic move permanent.

Govan, however, was persuasive.

“He’s very good at making you terribly excited about something that hasn’t quite happened yet,” she says over tea in her kitchen.

“So I asked him why he went from fabulous Dia to Los Angeles, and he said, ‘You know, it’s an encyclopedic museum,’ which is my background at the Victoria and Albert Museum -- I’ve always loved that pluralism. And then he said it’s the last rethink of a museum -- he said in the world, I think, but definitely in America -- and I just thought: God, I want to be a part of that! You know, that’s really exciting, that’s enough to move country.”

She’d been to L.A. a few times before, but never for more than a brief vacation. When she arrived with the prospect of moving, her impressions were less than rosy.

“I came out here a couple of times in the spring to meet people in the museum and had a horrid time because I didn’t rent a car, so I was getting taxis around, and just thinking I can’t do this, I can’t live here.” She’s now got a Mini Cooper and a spare but handsomely appointed Mid-Wilshire town house.

Her experience of the gallery scene has been largely congenial.

“I haven’t had much to do with the scary top end, like Regen Projects and Blum & Poe,” she says, laughing, when I ask for her take. “Personally, I love that grand dame-y element -- Margo Leavin is charming and lovely and fun. [Mary Leigh] Cherry and [Philip] Martin have been very nice. Christopher Grimes has been fantastic from the off actually -- really kind and generous and thoughtful.” She also mentions Bergamot Station gallerist Theresa Luisotti, a longtime friend and early advocate of Cotton’s move to L.A.

“It’s a good moment, I think. It’s not too commercialized. Practice is still very independent from both institutions and galleries but there’s enough of an infrastructure to feel like it’s a critical mass.”

She sees Los Angeles, she says, as a “port town”: constantly in flux and therefore perpetually open to new things; less “sophisticated,” by common perception, than New York and Paris, but largely indifferent to the distinction; with a strong working-class presence and, as a result, “less snobbery about what it is to make things.” She compares it to Osaka, Rotterdam or Hamburg.

“It’s not about art and an elite, exactly,” she says. “It’s in-your-face, the fact that there are lots of reasons to be here and there are lots of things happening and it is unlikely in this city that you are going to be the Oedipal character who gets lifted out of obscurity and placed amongst princes.”

With the foundation of her curatorial program now set, and the initial round of introductions -- artists who want to show her their work, galleries who want to show her their artists -- behind her, she’s begun to be more proactive, seeking out artists with whom she senses a particular affinity. She mentions recent visits with James Welling, Amir Zaki and John Divola. Machine Project is another example.

“A couple people had said to me, ‘You know, you would really like what they do,’ ” she says, explaining how the meeting came about over lunch at the coffee shop next door to Machine Project. “And I do. I get it. This felt like the first conversation of hopefully many. It was a bit crass, going in and saying I’ve got this particular event on this particular subject, can you imagine doing anything around that? He was very gracious about that not being the best approach.

“But I hope it will lead to him coming [to LACMA] at some point and just thinking around the question of what would be meaningful on that campus.”

This, then, is the slow part: feeling each connection out, winning trust, forging relationships, gradually exploring possibilities.

She admits that she still feels “very foreign” in L.A., and that continually compensating for all the little differences -- pop culture references that she misses, local hierarchies she’s still negotiating -- can be draining.

“On days when you get tired or you feel sick or you feel really homesick,” she says, “then you can feel like it’s a place that might not ever really get you. Particularly on a day where you spend four hours in a car -- then really you can feel very dislocated.”

It can also, however, be liberating. She compares her time here to a period she spent in Japan, which was awkward, she says -- “I felt like this stick insect in a world of ants, I felt like a different species” -- but also one of the happiest times in her life.

“It means that every experience is a surprise if you’re open to it,” she says. “It’s a really lovely feeling.”