Richard Flood lives in an outrageous art bubble. He has experienced the innards of that sparkling, gated art world that we all attempt to glimpse by attending lectures and stalking high-end art institutions. After a lifetime of incredible career breaks, he is now part of a team of curators at the top of their game at the New Museum in New York. Their shows shift the paradigm of practice in a town already full of infamous artists and art museums. On Saturday morning, January 16, the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center hosted a talk with Flood.
Since its opening of a new designer building in the Bowery two years ago, the New Museum has reestablished itself as an influential risk-taker by producing shows like Unmonumental, After Nature, and Younger Than Jesus. Their progamming challenges the curators in the establishment who’ve become comfortable in their white castles, guilty perhaps of capitulating to a more gentrified, tourism-oriented Manhattan of the 21st century. After listening to his many funny anecdotes, what struck me was Flood’s lack of formality, his wit, and his openness to change. This is a guy who embodies the creative ethic and the spirit of capitalism that made New York a fine art center in the first place. His social acumen and willingness to take wild left turns, hold strong opinions, and unabashedly love and appreciate artists has led to a refreshing kind of success.
Flood started in art education. In Philadelphia in the ’70s, he noticed how students struggled with abstraction and discovered that creative writing was a way to loosen up the literalness of their imaginations. Writing became a focus. He published a magazine called Arts Exchange for a few years with friends, while writing occasionally for Artforum. At some point his publication folded, however, and Flood found himself unemployed. After making some phone calls, he landed himself the director position at Barbara Gladstone Gallery. The new job meant a move back to New York, which put him fatefully at the apex of the art scene. As a result, Flood developed long-lasting friendships with greats like the anomalous Mathew Barney (who had recently emerged from graduate school at Yale), Paul Thek (when Thek’s neurosis posed some difficulties during a big installation at the Whitney Museum), and Richard Prince (when Prince was completing his first batch of joke paintings). At some point during the course of Flood’s storytelling—as the remarkable kismets repeat themselves continuously, hilariously—it’s clear that Flood isn’t just lucky. He’s gifted, particularly at navigating powerful social networks, managing big egos, and seizing rare opportunities.
Flood’s most infamous career move, however, was to leave the New York art Mecca and accept a position as chief curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, which he lovingly refers to as “the prairie.” The Walker Museum was “nowhere.” Flood joked, “Everyone who knew about it, and admired it, had never actually been there.” The locals were nonplussed. Admitting that his personal life had been stuck in a slump (he was dealing with the death of his parents among other things), Flood says that he needed to start over somewhere else. But it was a change that, yet again, placed him in the right place at the right time. Instead of feeling discouraged, Flood saw it as a chance to “play fast and loose.” In fact, he found this position “incredibly liberating.” As a result, Flood set a high bar for curation and made a name for the Walker by recruiting a dream team of curators and taking advantage of his numerous out-of-town connections. He featured artists like Sigmar Polke and Robert Gober. Through ambitious shows like Brilliant! New Art From London and Zero to Infinity: Arte Povera 1962-1972 (with Frances Morris at the Tate Modern), Flood drew particular attention to important contemporary art movements.
But Flood soon felt the need to return home. Once again he found a stellar job opportunity back in New York. This time it was at the New Museum, where the curatorial team is a “more brittle group of people” than the wild bunch from Flood’s formative days at the Walker. But these days, Flood is still the maverick. There has been stimulating controversy over an upcoming New Museum show that might include a potential conflict of interest. A trustee of the New Museum owns an astounding collection, and Flood believes it should be shown despite the obvious insider arrangement. Flood says he’s tired of all these invisible museums. Collectors buy the best works, and then they disappear from view. Not afraid, he says, “These works should be shown!”
Flood is audacious, but seemingly not a dictator. His process prominently values the culture and practice of artists, with consideration for the top of the power mountain and also for the scruffy diamonds beginning to shine at the bottom. For instance, he says that the New Museum stays in touch with 125 alternative spaces worldwide. He jokes that he feels conspicuous at airports having to write “curator” on that readmission slip. Imagine the attendees saying, “What the hell is that?” Flood says he needs to reinvent the title to something more accurate, such as manager of art, manager of artists.
The Atlanta Contemporary Art Center’s Artist Survival Skills series continues with two guest lectures this Saturday, January 30: Jackie Battenfield, from 10-11AM, and David Humphrey, from 11AM-12Noon.