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Vol. LXIV, No. 29
Wednesday, July 21, 2010
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Baum Appointed PU Art Museum’s First Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art

Dilshanie Perera

The first person to occupy this newly created position, Kelly Baum has been appointed the Princeton University Art Museum’s Haskell Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art.

Ms. Baum had been the Locks Curatorial Fellow for Contemporary Art at the museum since December 2007. Hired three years ago to “launch the program in contemporary art at Princeton,” she knew the fellowship was a term position.

Six months ago, having raised funds for an endowed curator in modern and contemporary art, the museum announced the availability of the position and began a nation-wide search. “I threw my hat into the ring then,” Ms. Baum remarked, she said that being the internal candidate for the position was “exciting and nerve-wracking.”

The Haskell Curatorship was endowed by Princeton alumnus and art collector Preston H. Haskell III, a member of the Class of 1960. Recently appointed the chair of the Princeton University Art Museum’s Advisory Council, having served on the body since 1990, he was also a member of the University’s Board of Trustees from 1996 to 2000, and 2002 to 2006.

Ms. Baum described the purview of her new position as having expanded to include modern art made after 1945, in addition to contemporary works. Her previous training and study includes 20th-century art as a whole as well.

While a fellow, Ms. Baum worked in a curatorial capacity, acquiring work for the museum’s collection, organizing shows with other curators on staff, developing the international artist-in-residency program at the museum, and co-teaching a University course.

Her new position will allow for a targeted effort in building the museum’s collection in modern art through gifts and acquisitions, as well as putting together innovative shows, in addition to writing, outreach, and teaching.

A major exhibition curated by Ms. Baum entitled “Nobody’s Property: Art, Land, Space, 2000-2010” is scheduled to debut this fall. “The exhibition was as inspired by art that I was seeing that I admired and found compelling, moving, and smart, as it was by events I was reading about in the papers,” she admitted.

Over the past three years, Ms. Baum paid particular attention to the recurrence in the news of stories about changes and crises pertaining to land and space, whether they were environmental disasters, or debates over ownership and possession of property, or new phenomena, like “agro-imperialism.”

The exhibition itself includes work by nine contemporary artists from the United States, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and the Middle East, ranging from the “poetic and associative” to “performance and intervention,” Ms. Baum said. “I think of these artists as representing a new generation of land and environmental artists.”

Such themes are ever-present. “It’s hard to escape. Every mistake we make, every advance we pursue, in all of these, land and space are implicated,” Ms. Baum observed, adding that what artists have to say about such relationships and phenomena can be “incredibly illuminating.”

Contemporary art poses its own challenges of collecting, particularly since work made today “hasn’t yet congealed into a discipline or a cannon,” Ms. Baum noted. She makes a point to look at a lot of art, do studio visits with artists, travel to New York once a week, and fly overseas and to Los Angeles in addition to doing extensive reading about the field. “You have to think about how a work of art will persist into the future. Will it continue to affect and speak to people beyond its own moment?”

With respect to acquiring contemporary art for a major institution, Ms. Baum said that “it is really important to take risks, and not just collect what appears on the cover of ArtForum.”

Ms. Baum is most interested in work that “tests the boundaries and possibilities of art itself,” and artists who “remake art anew every time they put a sculpture or video out into the world.” She characterized the Princeton University Art Museum as an ideal establishment for risk-taking through collecting and showcasing “groundbreaking and compelling art.”

“We are certainly not shy about work that is provocative and challenging,” she said.

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