Directorial Darling: The Whitney Museum’s Shamim Momin

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Physically, the Whitney museum is in a state of flux-the Altria branch recently closed its doors in midtown, but the institution is preparing to open its doors at the Renzo Piano-designed expansion at New York’s High Line. Currently, though, the museum is basking in the art world limelight with the success of the Biennial Whitney 2008 show. Expanding the show to the historic Seventh Regiment Armory building, this year’s biennial-considered the most important survey of contemporary American art in the United States-takes the bar one rung higher. Haute Living sits down with Shamim Momin, associate curator at the Whitney Museum, to talk about her involvement with the Altria space, the current state of the art market, and the long-awaited Whitney Biennial 2008.

 Being able to shape the entire program and to work with artists on commissioned projects has been immeasurably valuable for me.

After 25 years on 42nd and Park Avenue, the Whitney at Altria branch shut its doors in January. Can you explain a bit about the Altria branch’s mission and your involvement with the space?

Presenting commissioned exhibitions and projects by contemporary artists, the Whitney at Altria occupied an entirely unique niche within both the New York art world and the broader public. As a free exhibition space that functioned both under the aegis of the Whitney Museum and maintained its own autonomous identity, it had great programmatic freedom and ability to present exciting new work while simultaneously maintaining the qualitative rigor of a major museum. Through these exhibitions, an annual performance series (similarly presenting commissioned or debut work in dance, theater, and music), and innovative public programming, we supported progressive, cutting-edge projects by contemporary artists, many of whom have become major art world figures over the years. I have been director and curator of the space since fall of 2000.

Did the last show at the Altria branch, “Undone”-with pieces by artists Tom Holmes, Tony Matelli, Eileen Quinlan, and Heather Rowe-have any direct reference to the closing of the space?

It did, though it wasn’t intended to be excessively transparent. More importantly, the idea came about from discussions with Howie Chen, who has worked there with me for years, about a prevalence of certain gestures within contemporary art-toward a kind of deconstruction of form, an interest in absence as deliberate choice (thus allowing for it to function as content), and a querying of definitive parameters of specific media. It’s always most interesting to me when a show can function on many levels like that, since clearly the selection of that particular type of work does also resonate with the closure of the space as well.

What is the future for the Altria branch (if there is a future)?

The building itself has been sold, so there won’t be a Whitney presence there in any physical way hereforth. However, more conceptually, I do hope that Whitney will continue its commitment to supporting emerging artists in this particular way-commissioning projects and producing them for and with the artists-whether at the current Breuer building or, with even more emphatic presence, in the new museum opening downtown in upcoming years.

How has your involvement with the Altria branch affected your curatorial perspective?

One of the greatest aspects of the branch space was the opportunity to develop my own curatorial voice in a focused way. Being able to shape the entire program and to work with artists on commissioned projects has been immeasurably valuable for me. Additionally, it provided what, for me, was a perfect balance of relative autonomy as the director of the space-overseeing the budget, staff, all the programming, operations, etc.-while being a part of a department within the larger institution. Curating exhibitions uptown had a different kind of process and impact.

What projects that you’re working on have stemmed from or been influenced by your work with the Altria branch?

I would say it’s the way of working that was the most significant influence. Working on commissioned projects with artists is a very different type of curatorial practice than selecting a discrete piece already extant and shaping it into a show. When I invite an artist to work with the space, particularly the main sculpture court, there might be a general set of compelling ideas or seeds of a specific project we’ve discussed by then but there is no final product at that time. The privilege-and what has taught me what art is and how it exists-has been being part of the development of the exhibition from start to finish. It’s obviously different with each artist, but in the best of worlds, that dialogue-whether about conceptual, practical, logistical, or contextual ideas/issues-helps shape the thinking and the work in a way that benefits the show overall. That “project-based” practice seems ever more prevalent in contemporary art making. In fact, it’s a significant aspect of the upcoming biennial, and so it has been extremely important to me to have involvement with it for so long.

You’re a young-but very experienced-woman with a very revered title. Obviously a lot of that has to do with being intelligent, sharp, and motivated. Can you tell me a little bit about your curatorial upbringing and what led you to work at the Whitney?

I’ve been able to do a lot of things at this point that I might not have expected yet, but I’ve been working at the Whitney for about 12 years now. I switched from a science major to art history my senior year of high school and chose my college specifically for the art history department. When I came back from Paris after my junior year, I petitioned the director of the museum to let me work with her, which she did. I learned what curatorial work really was through that experience and that I wanted to pursue it. My first year after college, I was in the Whitney ISP program. My first staff position at the Whitney was what would be my assistant now! All along, the critical thing beyond the obvious (working hard, commitment, etc.) has been my very supportive and thoughtful mentors. Given the lack of specific career paths within the art world (one of its very best qualities, I should add), having strong, supportive examples is really important in shaping your own practice.

With so many factors affecting the art market-art fairs, auctions, unexpected interest in art from various countries, and new collectors-some argue that the art market bubble may burst. What is your take on this? In what direction do you see the art market moving?

I suspect that, like any industry, the art market will be significantly affected by what appears an inevitable upcoming recession. However, I think that the art market has become so vastly dispersed and broad, not to mention it remains one of the largest unregulated markets functioning in the world economy, that I suspect it won’t happen with the same kind of singular smackdown as has previously occurred. It’s quite possible that while one area slips, another shores up, and the overall summation remains much the same, even if on a slightly lower level.

As far as the art market and art world are concerned, what areas do you think are desperately lacking (in resources, education, money, or other areas) and/or areas that haven’t been touched on at all?

So many it often makes me quite sad. The area that’s most pressing to me-for obvious reasons-is the discrepancy between the money a collector will comfortably shell out for a work by a newer, untested artist and the money they so reluctantly give to support that same artist in an institution. Philanthropy right now is difficult. There is so much more participation in the art world, which is wonderful, but there is so much less time and space to cultivate a true sense of what supporting art and artists can be-seeing that support as a long-term strategy, mutually beneficial to all involved, as well as conceptually and intellectually sound.

For those who are looking to start buying art, what, from a curatorial standpoint, is the best beginning when starting what will become a collection of works?

Curatorially, I’ll say what I always say: The very best place to start buying is not buying. Start by looking. A solid collection that brings you stimulation, pleasure, and satisfaction in the long run can only be shaped with as much interaction with art overall as possible. I suggest going to shows-there are so many galleries and museums that one intense day in New York, for example, could give you a very broad swatch of what’s out there.

The countdown to the opening of the 2008 Whitney biennial began months ago with the announcement of the 81 artists chosen to participate. While the art world has been anticipating this event for the last few months (and perhaps, more generally, since the close of the last biennial in 2006), how long ago did you and your co-curator Henriette Huldisch start planning for it?

Henriette and I started researching and working on it exclusively about a year ago-a pretty intense schedule for an all-museum show. We always like to make the point that we aren’t starting from a blank slate; we are contemporary curators and this is what we do-look at as much as possible and try to assess what we feel is most interesting and important about contemporary practice. If you were to stop any contemporary curator on the street, they could probably come up with a pretty good biennial just from that experience, though it obviously gets shaped, refined, changed, etc., quite significantly as you focus on it as an actual show. Above all, the ideas must come from the artists’ work, and not be applied to it.

After the biennial, what’s next on your plate (other than a vacation)?

Honestly, when I’m working on anything at this intense point, and the biennial ever more so, I really see and think nothing else. It’s in part what is so amazing about the experience-it’s so total, and then suddenly it comes into being.

Whitney Biennial 2008, March 6 through June 1.

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