Last week the Chicago MCA’s Elizabeth Smith announced she would resign her post as chief curator at the end of the month, explaining that ten years in the position was long enough and it was time to move on. Fair enough. Curators are increasingly expected to be peripatetic nowadays, which suits our globalized art world and helps keep an institution’s perspective fresh and forward-thinking — but it also makes it hard for curators to maintain longstanding ties with local artists.
On a personal note, when I was an assistant curator in Los Angeles, I worked for the museum that co-organized Smith’s Lee Bontecou exhibition. At that time I was utterly taken by the romantic ideal that Smith’s relationship with Bontecou represented for me, and I still am. Smith pursued Bontecou for years before being given access to the reclusive artist’s work. When Smith was still a curator at MOCA in L.A., she organized a small Bontecou survey without any participation from the artist (though she tried repeatedly to get in touch with Bontecou). Bontecou eventually came to see the show, and wrote Smith a letter afterwards saying how much she liked it.
Over the years Smith developed a strong relationship with Bontecou, eventually gaining access to the treasure trove of work that the artist had kept mostly private after exiting the art world (or the New York art world, at any rate) in the early 70s. It’s no surprise, then, that Smith cites her 2004 Bontecou retrospective as a professional and personal highlight.
There are lots of different ways one can “be” a curator, but to me, Smith’s dogged pursuit of an artist who didn’t always want to be pursued, but knew she had to be, for the sake of art history if nothing else–represents a pinnacle of what the profession can accomplish. Smith’s low-key, artist-centric style of curating may be somewhat less in fashion nowadays, but I admire it tremendously. To me, she’s a model of how a curator can built strong ties and a relationship of trust over many years with artists whose work they believe in. Here’s wishing Ms. Smith the best of luck in her upcoming endeavors–I can’t wait to see what she cooks up next.