Stepping into the role of modern and contemporary Curator for the High Museum is no small task. Michael Rooks comes to Atlanta with an extensive career in the museum world and a huge amount of enthusiasm for the task at hand. Rooks’ background includes a long line of impressive curatorial gigs: The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA), the Contemporary Museum Honolulu, and the Honolulu Academy of Arts. He took a moment out of his schedule to sit and tell me a bit about what to expect from his future at the High Museum.
Susannah Darrow: Now that you are at the helm of modern and contemporary art for Atlanta’s major museum, what kind of challenges do you see as a curator generally and for Atlanta specifically?
Michael Rooks: I think my role as a contemporary and modern curator is really where the challenges lie because the High is a general museum. So, the context within which we present new artists is vastly different from a contemporary museum. The audience is much broader, and, because this is the largest art museum in the Southeast, we are mandated to serve a much broader constituency and many more of them.
I know there’s some criticism leveled at the High for being too populist and doing shows like the Louvre and our forthcoming MoMA projects. But, from my point of view as a curator, the most gratifying part of my job is to see the audience respond to an exhibition–whether they come with knowledge and experience or if it’s their first time seeing an artist and experiencing contemporary art. It’s neither dumbing down an exhibition nor making it too obscure, but people without the experience need a way in. There has to be some invitation. There has to be a certain amount of generosity, and I find often this is not the case in the presentation of contemporary art. That’s why a general audience is often intimidated by it. They feel it’s elitist. There is no invitation.
I’ve always felt in my job as a curator, that it’s not just for us—meaning you and me and the people who read Art Papers or Burnaway—but for the people who live in the city, who live in this region, who are interested in things like the cars we have currently on view. That kind of generosity is what I’ve tried to make my work about.
I feel like we lose sight sometimes because we have specific interests and we hang out with the same crowd and all of the sudden you become insulated by this world and forget there’s this whole universe around us. It’s reflected in a lot of art writing that uses jargon and catchphrases. Why not use plain English? There’s a way of expressing complex ideas without using language so obscure that even curators are scratching their heads.
SD: In the last few years the High Museum in Atlanta has been perceived as disconnected from the arts community. Do you have any plans for how the museum might reengage with the arts community and reenergize their interest in the programming at the museum?
MR: That’s a priority for me. Coming into the job, it’s something we discussed a lot before I accepted the position, was asked of me by the museum, and is important to my colleagues. For the ecology of our local community, Atlanta artists need to feel that they have some stake in the museum; that we are programming with their interests in mind as well as a broader audience; and that we are listening to them.
One thing that drives a healthy program is civic pride. We have really good artists in this city and should pay attention to what they are doing. Other people are, so why shouldn’t we? That’s one thing that maybe hasn’t been reflected in the programming–not to be critical of what’s happened in the past. Everyone has had the best intentions; it’s just that we’re all overworked. A lot of times other priorities tend to dominate. Everyone understands that artists here are really important, but it’s hard to make it meaningfully reflected. There are other opportunities to include local artists, like exhibiting their work in a group context. We might include Georgia artists alongside artists from Berlin, Paris, or elsewhere. My colleagues and I are trying our best to find ways to show Georgia artists in the exhibitions we’re organizing. It’s become a priority.
SD: Are there any artists in particular that you are interested in showcasing?
MR: An exhibition that I had been developing for a number of years but have put on the back burner is a survey of work by Al Taylor, who was from Springfield, Missouri and who died in 1999. He was overlooked in the US for most of his life. I started developing this idea seven years ago, and in the interim, his estate is now represented by David Zwirner Gallery in New York. That has kind of put him on the map, but he’s someone I’m really interested in picking back up. He made work that still resonates with a lot of young artists.
I listen to artists before I listen to anyone else whether it’s something I read in a magazine or whatever. I trust my eyes and I trust artists because it’s their enthusiasm that I really plug into.
We have great things in our collection. I’m really looking forward to reinstalling it. We have an awesome Bechtel painting. I’d love to install it in the gallery alongside a Mangold–to create a juxtaposition that’s unexpected and helps construct a text. The exhibition as an unfolding text is how I approach my work, as opposed to approaching it from a canonical, historical point-of-view where you go from ‘A’ to ‘B’ to ‘C.’ I’ve been trying to get a good feel for what’s in the collection, and I plan to do these rotations in the gallery in a way that shakes it up and sparks curiosity. People who go into a gallery knowing what to expect, as well as the uninitiated, may see this Bechtel painting next to some “strange” minimal thing and think, “Why is this here?” They find themselves engaged, instead of staring at two white paintings beside each other and wondering, “Why am I here?”
Exhibitions for me are really experiential, so I believe that 50 percent of an exhibition is installation. You can have a room full of Rauschenbergs and Johnses, but if they are installed insensitively, they are going to lose the potential to communicate in a way that transcends their object-ness and the fact of their being. It’s one of my soapboxes – installation is so important, and again it is about being generous. It’s about providing a way in for people. I think that’s important for any museum to inspire and rouse its audience. If unconcerned about our daily lives and about the art of now, museums will become these dustbins that are less and less relevant because of the way they hold and share this information. Otherwise, it’s just about “come look at the treasures we’ve amassed,” instead of inviting an audience to question what art means to them and what it means in terms of living today.
SD: Are there any artists you have your eye on to add to the permanent collection?
MR: I do! I still haven’t finished drafting a formal plan. The collection of course has some core strengths; we have a number of important works by Ellsworth Kelly, Gerhardt Richter, and Chuck Close, in addition to Color Field paintings and canvases of the late 60s and early 70s in general. What I’d like to do is target key works by mid-to-late-career international artists who are in the canon while helping to shape a new canon with work by others such as Al Taylor. It’s difficult and takes a lot of resources to make those kinds of acquisitions. They must be balanced by works by emerging artists and works that are relevant to other focuses of the collection.
My priorities right now are to build on works by African American artists, look at acquiring a few large important works by international artists, and bring the collection into the twenty-first century by looking at younger artists working here and elsewhere.