An Interview with Chief Curator Kathryn Kanjo

Kathryn Kanjo returned to the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in 2010 as Chief Curator and Head of Curatorial after nearly two decades across the country as curator and director in museums including Portland Art Museum and University Art Museum at the University of California Santa Barbara, as well as the artist residency program Artpace in San Antonio where she helped turn the formerly private foundation into a public charity that went on to feature over 70 on-site specific works by artists.

This August, I met with Kanjo to discuss the San Diego art scene, her advice for emerging artists, and the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.

Kathryn Kanjo

Robin Tung: You’ve been a curator at Portland Art Museum, Artpace San Antonio, and I read that your first curatorial appointment was here at Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.

Kathryn Kanjo: I had been a curator at this museum in the early 1990s. With curatorial work you move to places to have a different size institution, collection, or a different place in the ranking. So I went to Portland, which was a general museum, but I was their contemporary art curator. Then I went to Artpace, which is a residency program in San Antonio, Texas, and that’s where I had the most experiences working with both emerging and established artists to create new projects.

RT: How would you describe the art scene in San Diego having seen art culture in so many different cities, states, and coasts?

KK: Art scenes are bolstered by both individuals and institutions. Obviously it’s about the individual artist living in a place but that place might be more or less accommodating to them [depending] on if it has a contemporary art museum, commercial gallery scene, or if it’s bolstered by universities. I think here in San Diego, the many universities from Point Loma to UCSD matter to the artist and I think why I’m happy to be here is because this institution matters. This institution’s been commissioning art since the early 1970s. We can be a primary patron to living artists and we’re also a repository of the tried and true. We’re the keepers of the art historical flame. I think San Diego is rich for that, for having particularly the graduate program at UCSD. It keeps seasoned artists here, it brings younger artists through.

The San Diego community is interesting with how many artist-run organizations there are, including Double Break and Space 4 Art. That’s when a community is interesting, I think, when you have that kind of artistic energy from the very grassroots level to the very established and academic levels. You need a healthy ecosystem.  San Diego also benefits from its proximity to L.A., and of course, there’s energy from Tijuana, too.

Doug Wheeler, DW 68 VEN MCASD 11, 2011. White UV neon light. Museum purchase, Elizabeth W. Russell Foundation and Louise R. and Robert S. Harper Funds. Photo by Doug Gates.

RT: What are some of your favorite pieces that have come through the Museum?

KK: The Phenomenal exhibition, which was fantastic for two things: it was a historical exhibition, and we were able to feature so many environments from artists like James Turrell and Doug Wheeler, but we also used that as an excuse to commission new work. And I was really pleased to be a part of commissioning Spencer Finch to create his overhead installation in the Axline Court. It was this minimal yellow disc that hovered overhead and filtered the bright white La Jolla sun that would come through the skylight and yellow sculpture, and it would create the warm quality of light that one finds in Rome. It’s scientific and poetic. We were able to bring Spencer Finch in and give him the opportunity to react to our space and to the history of light and space, so that was very satisfying.

I was very happy to come to this institution with its many types of architecture and do this kind of matchmaking again. I did it with Spencer Finch in La Jolla. And with Isaac Julien’s massive installtion to this beautiful baggage building—there was a bit of architecture for him to react to, but also just enough space to accommodate him.

Spencer Finch, Rome Pantheon, Noon, June 14, 2011. Scrim, aluminum, color effect filter. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Pablo Mason.

RT: You’ve curated work by Claes Oldenberg, James Turrell, and Robert Irwin among many other great artists. You’ve seen a vast number of artwork at this point. What attracts you? Is there a definitive thing that tends to be exciting?

KK: Many things can attract me to new art, and sometimes the thing that attracts you is that it doesn’t attract you, and that you’re put off by it, or that it’s something new and you haven’t seen it before, or that you don’t get it.  And that’s probably much more intriguing and provocative than seeing the familiar same old thing. As a contemporary art curator you look to be startled out of your complacency. There is a lot of stuff out there and there are a lot of art worlds, and you try to narrow your field while still keeping an open mind. So you try to look in the right places.

I love the idea that we tell the history of ourselves through this material stuff that we leave behind and I like the soulfulness of art rather than utilitarian objects. One piece isn’t going to tell you that this artist is it. Things play out over time.  And I want to see that an artist continues and ultimately can become influential.

RT: What do you love about being a contemporary curator?

KK:  The thing that drew me to contemporary art was realizing that I could be part of it, so rather than this passive observation, and conferring an opinion from a finite set of information, you could be in the mix. I’m not an artist, but I can be in the mix with artists. I can hear what they’re thinking about as well as see what they’re making. That’s exciting. There’s something authentic about it. You don’t have to be a curator or an artist, but you can come in and just look at this art because it’s of our culture and of our time period. We should be hardwired for it because it’s being fueled by all the content that we live with day to day.

Downtown Images: Downtown Jacobs and Copley Buildings. Photo by David Heald

RT: What advice would you give to emerging artists who are trying to get noticed?

KK: Sometimes regionalism is seen as a pejorative, like it’s not speaking broadly enough. But art starts in a place, in a region. I think artists should be mindful of where they are, and who they are with and exploit that, if you will. So even when you’re in school, know who your teachers are and what they’re doing, and try to see if there’s a community that comes out of your fellow students or studio mates. Build you your own community and be actively part of your place. Participate and know what those resources are.

[Have] realistic expectations. And this is cynical, but it’s not that I’m going to get an email or package from an artist and suddenly go “aha!” I’m a museum curator already burdened by all these institutional things so I’m more inclined to look for my introductions in galleries, graduate schools, and local artist-run spaces. That’s why I think you need to participate and be active.

RT: Who would you like to bring to the Museum in the next year?

KK: I like to work with artists and the space, and try to find something that works well with the history of the place, or the physicality of the architecture, so I’d love to work with Wangechi Mutu, an African artist based in New York. She takes on mythic themes through her large-scale and site-specific installations. So I’m excited to see if she can come to San Diego and create something special for our space.

RT: What can we expect in the next year at Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego?

KK: The show to watch for younger artists is being done by my colleague Jill Dawsey and it’s called Approximately Infinite Universe. The title is from a Yoko Ono album. It’s going to be a dynamic group show that is coming out of a reaction of so many artists thinking about alternative universes and time/space travel. That’s going to be exciting because group shows help give a sense of the common pulse and what people might be interested in.

Approximately Infinite Universe will include work by Simone Leigh and Saya Woolfalk among others, and is scheduled to open next year at Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.