The Fine Arts Museums’ Contemporary Curator Claudia Schmuckli Cultivates the Future

The Fine Arts Museums’ Contemporary Curator Claudia Schmuckli Cultivates the Future

Claudia Schmuckli joined the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF) in September 2016 as the institution’s first Curator-in-Charge of Contemporary Art and Programming. A native of Switzerland, Germany, Schmuckli was most recently Director and Chief Curator of the Blaffer Art Museum at the University of Houston, where her projects included exhibitions on Chantal Ackerman, Amy Sillman and Leonardo Drew.  In her first year at FAMSF, she has brought new work by international artists including Urs Fischer and Sarah Lucas to the Bay Area; here, Schmuckli provides insight into her vision, program and forthcoming projects.

When FAMSF Director Max Hollein invited you to consider a curatorial post in San Francisco, what were your initial thoughts?

I felt that the situation was brimming with potential. The local art ecology was thriving in the wake of SFMOMA’s completion, the development of Minnesota Street Project and the opening of several new galleries. I knew the Fine Arts Museums would be able to undertake a thought-provoking and critically relevant program by building on the histories and identities of the de Young and the Legion. It was an exciting prospect that I was only too happy to embrace!

What have been the primary concerns of your curatorial practice?

Creating meaningful connections between the specific cultural contexts in which I am institutionally embedded and the developments in artistic practices around the world. The diverse nature of the collections at the Fine Arts Museums offers an ideal opportunity to explore and examine an encyclopedic museum’s potential to generate discourse around contemporary art: On the one hand, to present work by living artists in dialogue with historical objects, and on the other, to give voice to alternate, often marginalized histories alongside the master narrative of Western art with which many of us grew up. 

The Fine Arts Museums’ Contemporary Curator Claudia Schmuckli Cultivates the Future

Putting new works in dialogue with the history or archives of the collections—inviting Urs Fischer and Sarah Lucas to create work that responds to the Legion’s Rodin holdings, for example—has created a beautiful art historical through-line.

Thank you. Yes, one of the rewarding consequences of working in this fashion is the ability to encourage a contextual reading and to dispel misconceptions about contemporary art being created in a historical vacuum. We can make visible artists’ engagement with different traditions, as well as lineages of medium, materiality, iconography and ideology. We can also draw attention to the social, political, and economic conditions that underlie the creation of artworks both old and new. Many repeat visitors to the Legion have commented on how the presence of Fischer’s and Lucas’s work in the collection galleries has prompted them to look afresh at works of art they thought they knew.   

The Fine Arts Museums’ Contemporary Curator Claudia Schmuckli Cultivates the Future

You've commissioned a new project from pioneering San Francisco-based film and performance artist Lynne Hershman Leeson that will debut in October. Can you share a bit about that work?

It’s a project that revolves around ideas of authenticity and identity. It is called VertiGhost and is composed of a film, objects and a web component that connect the stories of two paintings associated with the Fine Arts Museums.

Which artists will highlight the contemporary exhibit program this year?

We have a busy couple of years ahead with exhibitions by Julian Schnabel, Pipilotti Rist and Alexandre Singh at the Legion of Honor and Tarek Atui, Matt Mullican and Haegue Yang at the de Young, with many more projects in the works.     

A version of this article appeared in the October 2017 issue of SFC&G (San Francisco Cottages & Gardens) with the headline: One Cool Move.