AGO goes to the U.S. for its new top cu­ra­tor

U.K.-born ar­rival says gallery will stick with changes be­gan by out­spo­ken An­drew Hunter


The Art Gallery of On­tario ended a year­long va­cancy for its top cu­ra­to­rial po­si­tion Thurs­day, nam­ing Bri­tish-born Ju­lian Cox as chief cu­ra­tor.

“I wasn’t quick out of the gate,” said the AGO’s CEO and di­rec­tor Stephan Jost, re­gard­ing the time frame within which Cox was cho­sen. Jost, who took over as di­rec­tor in the spring of 2016, in­ten­tion­ally put off the search for six months. Be­ing new, “I wanted to get to know the cu­ra­tors we had, to make sure we hired the right per­son,” he said. “We have a huge di­ver­sity of ap­proaches at the AGO and I wanted to be sure we had the right fit.”

As chief cu­ra­tor, Cox as­sumes over­sight of all of the gallery’s ex­hi­bi­tions and con­tent. His pre­de­ces­sor, Stephanie Smith, left the gallery in Oc­to­ber 2016.

Cox, who is com­ing from the Fine Arts Mu­seum of San Fran­cisco, where he has been chief cu­ra­tor since 2010, ar­rives with some exposure to the AGO and to Toronto. In the late ’90s, while at the Getty Mu­seum in Los An­ge­les, he co-or­ga­nized pho­tog­ra­phy ex­hi­bi­tions pre­sented here from renowned artists Man Ray and Ju­lia Mar­garet Cameron.

But Cox is quick to ac­knowl­edge that much has changed since his ini­tial ex­pe­ri­ences here, and the so­cial shifts in the city and coun­try both were po­tent fac­tors in his pur­su­ing the job here.

“Ob­vi­ously, there’s a great deal for me to learn,” he said. “A high pri­or­ity for me will be to get in­volved, to talk to the right peo­ple, to get out there in the com­mu­nity and sen­si­tize my­self to the specifics of those dis­cus­sions. That’s some­thing that re­ally com­pels me and excites me.”

Re­cently, the AGO has been work­ing to ad­dress some of those shifts, in 2016 ap­point­ing Wanda Nanibush its first as­so­ci­ate cu­ra­tor of Cana­dian and In­dige­nous art. Then, just last week, the mu­seum re­named its Cana­dian art depart­ment the Depart­ment of Cana­dian and In­dige­nous Art, to be led equally by Nanibush, who was pro­moted to cu­ra­tor of In­dige­nous art, and Ge­or­giana Uhlyarik, who was el­e­vated from as­so­ci­ate cu­ra­tor to cu­ra­tor of Cana­dian art.

The move, to make an ex­plicit equiv­a­lency between In­dige­nous and Cana­dian cul­ture, was among the en­tic­ing el­e­ments of the po­si­tion, Cox said.

“That is a sig­nal of the kind of com- mit­ment the in­sti­tu­tion has, go­ing for­ward,” Cox said. “And ob­vi­ously it will be my re­spon­si­bil­ity to re­ally make that hap­pen for the in­sti­tu­tion, and re­ally sup­port the work that the cu­ra­tors in that depart­ment do. And for me to learn di­rectly from them, which is a great op­por­tu­nity.”

Cox, whose own ex­per­tise is in pho­tog­ra­phy, has a his­tory of work­ing at the in­ter­sec­tion of art and so­cial jus­tice. While at the High Mu­seum in At­lanta, Cox cre­ated an ex­hi­bi­tion of pho­to­graphs from the Civil Rights move­ment in the United States that he de­scribed as “the sin­gle most re­ward­ing pas­sage of my ca­reer.”

At the same time, Cox ar­rives in a pe­riod of rein­ven­tion that has seen a high-pro­file de­par­ture. An­drew Hunter, the mu­seum’s for­mer top cu­ra­tor of Cana­dian art, re­signed at the end of Septem­ber, voic­ing con­cerns in a Toronto Star es­say about the mu­seum’s com­mit­ment to a di­ver­sity of voices. He specif­i­cally raised a con­cern that the chief cu­ra­tor po­si­tion, not yet named by the time of his de­par­ture, would not be held by a Cana­dian. (Co­in­ci­den­tally, the Art Gallery of Guelph an­nounced this week it had hired Hunter as its se­nior cu­ra­tor.)

His fi­nal ex­hi­bi­tion, Ev­ery. Now. Then: Re­fram­ing Na­tion­hood is seen as a tri­umph of in­clu­siv­ity for its cross-cul­tural con­tent and de­vo­tion to the lo­cal fab­ric of the city it­self. Cox, who toured the ex­hi­bi­tion with Hunter be­fore his de­par­ture, called the show a shin­ing ex­am­ple of “what cu­ra­tors can do if they’re re­ally at­ten­tive to their en­vi­ron­ment. They can be shapers of the cul­ture, and the di­a­logue around im­por­tant is­sues.”

Cox al­layed some of Hunter’s con­cerns, say­ing that the gallery, on his watch, would re­main com­mit­ted to the cul­tural shifts raised in Ev­ery. Now. Then. “Most of the great mu­se­ums in North Amer­ica are put to­gether usu­ally through a med­ley of ma­jor pri­vate col­lec­tions that are then put into the pub­lic sphere, and you build a nar­ra­tive around them.”

Ev­ery. Now. Then “is a coun­ter­point to that nar­ra­tive — a very bold, strik­ing coun­ter­point. It’s some­thing that’s there to be reck­oned with and to be dealt with on an on­go­ing ba­sis. It’s not a one-shot deal. And that will be the re­spon­si­bil­ity of the in­sti­tu­tion and its cu­ra­to­rial team to de­liver upon go­ing for­ward.”

Ju­lian Cox, a Brit by way of San Fran­cisco, is the Art Gallery of On­tario’s new chief cu­ra­tor.

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