Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Peter Galassi to leave MoMA

NEW YORK— In a major shakeup of the museum world, Peter Galassi, the longtime chief curator of the Museum of Modern Art's photography department, has suddenly retired, leaving a gaping vacancy for a keeper of that institution's world-class holdings.
Galassi, at 60 a prolific writer and noted scholar of the medium, organized or co-organized more than 40 exhibitions at MoMA, where he began as a curatorial intern in 1974, including "Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort" in 1991, a survey of Andreas Gursky in 2001, a Lee Friedlander exhibition in 2005, a Jeff Wall show in 2007, and "Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century" in 2010.
He was named director of that department in 1991 at the age of 40, after ten years as associate director, taking over the reins long held by John Szarkowski, another bright beacon in the photography world. In fact, Galassi is only the fourth curator to hold that director post since the department was formed in 1940 by Beaumont Newhall. Edward Steichen, meanwhile, lorded over the department from 1947 to 1962, the year Szarkowski's stewardship began.
Galassi was part of the museum's vanishing old guard, cultivated by former MoMA director Richard Oldenburg before Glenn Lowry took over the Modern's direction in 1995. It is unclear why Galassi retired, though officially he is on sabbatical until the end of June, according to a statement released by the museum.
"Over the course of his long career at the Museum of Modern Art," Lowry said in announcing the retirement, "Peter Galassi has applied passion, commitment, and exemplary scholarship to further our understanding of photography as an art form that is central to modern and contemporary art." Lowry also lauded Galassi for leading "the growth and transformation" of the museum's photography collection, which had more or less languished during Szarkowski's tenure, a golden period when masterpieces were more widely available, and at prices which were scant fractions of today's values.
In terms of photography holdings, MoMA is among the top four museums in the world. Its only rivals are the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Getty, and the Victoria & Albert. Galassi enhanced its standing further through such acquisitions as the purchase of Cindy Sherman's entire "Untitled Film Stills" series, for which the museum payed a reported $1 million in 1995 — a current market day steal for the 69 prints from the photographer's collection. The curator also beefed up the museum's Modernist holdings with a sweeping, multimillion dollar acquisition of some 300 photographs in 2001 dating from the 1920s and 30s from German collector Thomas Walther.
"While he kept MoMA completely in the loop with what was going on in contemporary photography," said Peter Cohen, a New York-based photography collector who recently gave the museum a large group of vernacular snapshots. "At the same time he made substantial progress in filling gaps in MoMA’s collection."
Efforts to reach Galassi for comment were unsuccessful, though the curator sent out a private email blast to friends and colleagues in the field on Friday, with the subject line "Leaving MoMA."
"I've had a fabulous time at MoMA, and I've always felt enormously lucky to work here," Galassi said in his casual cyberfarewell. "As the wise men said, though, the graveyards are filled with indispensable people. Before I get there, I want to make room for ambitious writing projects that have been taking shape in my head for a long time but which have quite properly taken back seat to projects that I felt were more important for the museum."
MoMA will begin a talent search for a new chief curator in the coming months, according to a spokesperson who affirmed that no one from the photography department would be appointed as a fill-in chief curator.

ARTINFO May 3, Photo by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders.

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