July 14, 2005
Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson, the Aspen Art Museum’s new executive director, landed with a major splash at her last job. In her first months as the Phyllis Wattis Matrix Curator at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum, Jacobson scheduled shows by two little-known artists, American Doug Aitken and Iranian Shirin Neshat. But by the time the two had their respective Berkeley exhibitions – the first one-person museum shows in the United States for each – Aitken and Neshat had become prominent names in contemporary art. Between planning and opening their exhibits, Aitken and Neshat had earned top prizes at the 1999 Venice Biennale. (Jacobson would curate a show by the third prize winner, Cai Guo-Qiang, later in her stint at Berkeley.)The quick acclaim at the Berkeley Art Museum had enhanced significance because of the shoes Jacobson had to fill. Her predecessor, Larry Rinder, had gone from Berkeley to Los Angeles’ California College of the Arts, to found the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art. Rinder would later become curator of contemporary art at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art.”I had huge shoes to fill. When I got to Berkeley, he had many, many, many fans,” said the 37-year-old Jacobson last week, in her sixth day as successor to Dean Sobel, the highly regarded Aspen Art Museum director who left his position last winter. “So it’s good that I had some early success.”Jacobson’s promising start did more than establish her in the Bay Area. It also launched what has become her niche as a curator: locating and exposing emerging talent. Since the shows by Aitken and Neshat, Jacobson has continued to introduce artists by giving them museum exhibitions at a relatively early stage in their careers. An artist in the recent Venice Biennale, Australian Ricky Swallow, had his first solo museum show curated by Jacobson; another, Germany’s Thomas Scheibitz, had his first American museum exhibit curated by her. For the first few months of her directorship in Aspen, Jacobson has to shuttle back to California to help open three shows she had arranged – all three are debut one-person U.S. museum exhibits for the respective artists.
“It’s probably the primary thing for which I’m known – finding people before other people are paying attention to them,” said Jacobson, who is living in Snowmass Village with her husband Christopher, a green builder, and their two young children. “I’ve had an uncanny knack for finding artists who then go on to win prizes at international biennales, get on the cover of big art magazines and go on to great careers.”On a recent flight from San Francisco, Jacobson’s husband was reading a Fortune magazine story about the decision-making process of the successful. The article gave her a chance to think about what has been behind her own decisions. What she came up with is that it is art that surprises, even confuses her on first viewing that ends up in the exhibits she arranges.”I try to find artists who are really unique and special, something that surprises me. Something I haven’t seen before. Something that speaks to me on an abstract or esoteric level, something I can’t put in words,” she said. “It’s that initial introduction to the work, the work that stays with me. Sometimes I see work that I’m not even sure I like, but I can’t get it out of my head. Sometimes I’ve done exhibits with artists just so I can spend a year looking at their work, to figure out what’s happening.”Jacobson, as a museum curator, sees her job not as discovering artists. Any artist even being considered for a solo museum exhibition has already hit a certain level of recognition. “For better or worse, once art is shown in an art museum, it’s in the history books; they’re sanctioned,” said Jacobson. “The artists I show will be artists for their entire career.”Instead, she sees her work in the bigger picture of tracking artistic movements. “I like to say I predict trends rather than reflect them,” said Jacobson, who constantly prowls galleries and group exhibitions, reads art magazines, and questions other artists in search of rising talent.
Though her duty is not to discover artists, Jacobson delights in finding different ways to look at the people with whom she works. During her time in Australia, in 1999, for example, Jacobson engaged in her typical quizzing of dealers, curators and artists to see what was on their minds. The name that came up repeatedly was Ricky Swallow, then 24. When she finally visited Swallow’s studio, she was impressed with the sculptural work that had gained so much attention – but was even more interested in the pile of drawings that no one had mentioned. Jacobson curated an installation of 100 of Swallow’s drawings, which till then had been a private pursuit.”That’s an example of taking the pulse of a wide swath of people and then finding something personal and untapped in his work,” she said.Writing about art is a favorite aspect of Jacobson’s job, and once again, she finds benefits there in working with less-established artists. “When you’re working with artists who have only been in group shows, there’s little scholarly discourse, or it’s all written from the same vantage point,” she said. “I really like being able to expand the discourse around an artists’ work.”One aspect of her niche that Jacobson downplays is the hipness factor in introducing what may be the next big thing. She looks for something deeper in art than the thrill of being the first one there.”With art, there is the power of transformation, getting people to see things differently – Israel-Palestine relations, how we treat our kids, our role with regard to the environment,” she said. “Art can give us access to the sublime and there are very few things in life that allow people to step outside themselves, set outside of the everyday. It’s not about [being hip] at all.”Making those experiences of art accessible, however, is a primary focus. A New York native raised in Palo Alto, Jacobson was exposed to the art world by her paternal grandmother, a collector who took Jacobson along on her art-related travels. On summer break from her freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania, Jacobson looked through a phone book to find an interesting job; nothing caught her eye more than the galleries. She got a job at Palo Alto’s Smith Andersen, and when the gallery director was fired two weeks later, not to be replaced, Jacobson found herself to be a teenager in a position of prominence. She sold a Robert Motherwell piece, visited the studio of abstract expressionist painter Sam Francis – “And I was hooked,” said Jacobson, who earned her bachelor’s degree in European history and a master’s from New York’s Hunter College in art history.
Jacobson is intent on hooking others by bringing art into the community. She started earlier this month by putting an Aspen Art Museum float, designed by Katie Grinnan, in Aspen’s Fourth of July parade. The float, featuring the band Cacophonous Sarcophagus, won the prize for most outrageous. Even more outrageous is a planned community event for Presidents Day weekend, the details of which she cannot divulge just yet.”Some people think contemporary art is weird or incomprehensible or just not for them,” she noted. “One strategy is to do programming that they think has wide appeal. That’s not my approach.”I believe artists of our generation have important things to say about our society. I want to bring art to the people through creative ideas. You do a float. You make the art accessible not by just saying people should like it, but by coming up with creative strategies.”Jacobson’s plans for the Aspen Art Museum – an institution she says was put on the radar screen by Sobel and is “primed for greatness” – includes her preferred creative strategy. Of the handful of exhibits she has planned, several are the first-ever or first U.S. museum shows for the artist.The first Aspen show curated by Jacobson, scheduled for December, features British-born Simon Evan in his solo museum show debut. The work includes slogans – “kind of manifestos for the 21st century,” said Jacobson – on Scotch tape and liquid paper.Mexico City’s Pedro Reyes will have his first one-person museum show in the States next summer, a work that Jacobson hopes will be outdoors on the museum grounds. Also in the plans are the first artist residency, with Venezuela’s Javier Téllez, who is going to make a Western film to be screened next August; and a pair of group shows: Having New Eyes, with various emerging artists focusing on the subject of eyes (the title is taken from Baudelaire); and one dealing with notions of God.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org