The Whitney Museum

Lawrence Rinder on curating and the Whitney BIennial
Lawrence Rinder

An interview by Dana Sunshine of, with curator Lawrence Rinder, Anne & Joel Ehrenkranz Curator of Contemporary Art, at the Whitney Museum in New York.

What drew you to curatorial work? Do the same things that drew you still hold you?

LR: I started out in museum education at MOMA [Museum of Modern Art] and that was extremely rewarding. I enjoyed dealing directly with people and talking to them about art and finding out what made people from various backgrounds enjoy art. But at the MOMA, as at many museums, the education department is not valued very highly. There were funny things that would go on.

For instance, on Wednesdays the museum is closed, and the education department would go into the empty galleries to study the work. At a certain point the chief curator decided only he could be in the galleries—he didn't want people disturbing him while he meditated on Picasso or whatever. It became pretty obvious to me that curators had more power and authority and latitude, and I guess I wanted to be empowered. The curators also had more contact with the objects and the artists, and traditionally less contact with the general public, but it didn't seem that it had to be that way. I realized it's a lot easier to be a curator interested in education than an educator interested in curating.

Speaking of power--as Chief Curator of the 2002 Biennial you must have to negotiate a lot of politicking. What's that like?

LR: Power is a dirty word--let's say I have the responsibility to select artists and art works and decide how they're installed, to articulate relationships and, by doing that, to create contexts and negotiate meanings. It's a big responsibility to artists and to society. Now more than ever people are looking to art for solace or wisdom. It's a difficult job.

How do you find the artists for the biennial?

LR: I've been finding art for the past twenty years; I'm always looking at art. When I see new work in a gallery I have a body of information I rely on--I compare it to work I've seen before, either by that artist or by others--so I'm able to have some perspective on what is fresh and of the moment. I go to galleries and museums and artist studios, and in the final stage of research I focus primarily on artist's studios because I like to have direct contact with the artists. I traveled all over the country looking at work--I went to 27 states.

What is it that you look for when you look at art?

LR: I'm particularly interested in work that feels compelling and urgent, not only that it was compelling and urgent for the artist to make, but that it is compelling and urgent to be seen in our contemporary moment. It's a gut feeling. It's the same thing that tells politicians what to say, fashion designers what color people will like next season--a way of reading the culture. It's not just visual information; it takes place in a social and political and economic context. So it requires for me--not for every curator--to be aware of the world we live in.

In the past year you made a huge transition: from being the founding director of the Exhibition Institute at the California College of Arts and Crafts, in Oakland to a curator of contemporary art at the Whitney. Can you speak a bit about this transition, especially in terms of the East coast versus West coast art world, and working for a major New York museum versus a university-museum?

LR: There are surprisingly few differences. Curating is curating. You look, you feel, you read, and then you create constellations of objects and images. Then there's all the mechanics of putting it together: getting the loans, writing the essays, publishing, doing publicity, having openings--it's pretty much the same process no matter where you are. I also brought over 2/3 of my California staff, so that's another reason it feels the same.

Is there an attempt to represent various theoretical contexts with the Biennial exhibition?

LR: Not really. I'm not that big on theory. I'm not an anti-intellectual, but I find that visual art is it's own discourse and I have to be master of that discourse. In order to do that I have to focus my time there and I have to learn the language of visual art, which I think is a parallel language to the language of words and text. There is theory in art, I believe there are critical dimensions to visual practice, and I am interested in that, but I'm not interested in being up to date in what's being written in October and then finding work that's commensurate with those ideas. Frankly I just don't have the time. But I do believe nevertheless that similar issues are being dealt with visually and textually.

We have to ask: How would you characterize contemporary American art?

LR: I'd hesitate to characterize it in general terms, because everything you could possibly imagine is being made right now, from impressionist paintings to digital net mapping devices. At the same time, I think there are some interesting tendencies or clusters of enthusiasm. I'm not a believer in social mysticism, but one does see similar things happening among artists who have never met each other or live in different parts of the country. There's a renewed interest in physical material, in non-mediated relationships to the world--whether through physical objects, performative activity, or handmade work.

What do you see as the greatest challenges for new artists?

LR: The biggest challenge right now is probably the evaporation of the art market, which looks like it will happen. Young artists who thought a few months ago that they could exist sooner rather than later as professional artists will probably have to wait a few more years to do that, but that shouldn't be an impediment to creativity or art-making. Quite a lot of artists who make extraordinary work do it in addition to another job or do it outside the market system entirely. I don't think the health of the American art market will sink or swim depending on the economy, but it will have an impact on young artists.

What advice would you give to someone interested in curatorial work?

LR: They should do it. The best way to learn how to be a curator is to curate and to look at lots and lots of work. Academic programs in curating are good for some people but should be approached only when you have a very heavy sense of your own purpose and passions. The programs should be used to hone skills, but when they're used to create curators they can become precisely academic and that's a danger. They weren't around when I was coming in to the field--it was a last guild profession, the only way to become a curator was to do an internship with a curator, so everything you learned was learned on the job. I would have benefited in courses in curatorial history--we did a lot of reinventing the wheel--but there's a danger of over-academicization and fetishization of the profession.

What do you mean by "fetishization"?

LR: It didn't used to be that you'd see on an artist's resume who was the curator of an exhibition. Now it's almost more important than the title or where the exhibition happened.

What advice would you give to artists?

LR: Live someplace cheap, and believe in yourself and do your work.

So you don't feel all artists should live in New York?

LR: People living in smaller places have a better chance of being seen by someone like me than those in New York. If you're a top artist in Cleveland we'll probably find you. New York by far has the highest concentration of artists and so many are good--there's the advantage of resources and connections, but there's also tremendous competition.

In my travels I really did find exciting communities in cities outside the mainstream. One single, energetic person can galvanize a community and create a cultural moment. There are such great opportunities outside New York. This city can be poisonous for young artists--it's so focused on sales and prestige, and it's so expensive. Providence, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Miami, Houston--if I were a young artist I'd run to one of those cities. Though it probably is good to spend some time in New York so you're not intimidated by it, because it will remain the center of the art world.

Lawrence Rinder, Anne & Joel Ehrenkranz Curator of Contemporary Art at the Whitney Museum of American Art, is currently the Chief Curator of the Whitney Biennial 2002 -- arguably the most important event for defining contemporary art, and introducing new artists to the national stage, in America. Before joining the Whitney in the spring of 2000, Rinder was founding director of the Exhibition Institute at the California College of Arts and Crafts and, previous to that, curator for 20th-century art and MATRIX curator at the Berkeley Art Museum. After receiving a B.A. from Reed College and an M.A. in art history from Hunter College, Rinder was from 1983 to 1986 educational consultant at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Rinder has organized exhibitions of artists including Louise Bourgeois, Cindy Sherman, Yoko Ono, Theresa Kyung Cha, Dennis Oppenheim, and Andrea Fraser; in March of 2001 he curated “Bitstreams,” one of the first major museum exhibitions of net art.

The interview was conducted by Dana Sunshine of

This article was originally created for It appears on NYFA Interactive courtesy of the Abigail Rebecca Cohen Library.

It appears on CAR courtesy of New York Foundation for the Arts, New York, NY.

Published by CAR_admin on Wed, 04/09/2008 - 12:04pm
Updated on Mon, 12/16/2013 - 3:08pm