Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Britt Salvesen Joins LACMA

With Charlotte Cotton's departure to join the National Media Museum in the UK (here), the Photography department at LACMA was suddenly headless. Last week, LACMA announced that Britt Salvesen, currently the director and chief curator of the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona in Tuscon (here), will be taking over in October.

While the CCP is clearly one of the top photography institutions in the world (both in terms of collections and exhibitions), the lure of the large stage of Los Angeles must clearly have played a role in Salvesen's choice. What is perhaps most surprising is that she is taking over not only the Photographs department, but also Prints and Drawings.

LACMA has gone out of its way to say that the two departments will not be merged, but this seems like an exercise in creative spin. Given that both of the existing curators of the two departments have left, and are being replaced by a single person, even if the departments are run as parallel stand alone units (separate staffs and budgets etc.), each department is now receiving only half as much top level curatorial attention as it once was (i.e. there are now two empty boxes in the org chart with one filled box above).

LACMA also has said that Salvesen will focus first on building storage and classroom space for the two departments to make the collections more accessible. While this is of course part of the job of curator, it's a little troubling to hear that the details of construction/facilities/media will be her primary job out of the gate. She has curated some terrific exhibits over the years, including Callahan, Friedlander, Winogrand and others, as well as the upcoming restaging of New Topographics, so it's a shame she has to split her time and can't devote more of her attention to building up a sustained, world class photography program at LACMA. (Of course, in the short run, all the exhibits for the next year or so are already locked in, so what is really at issue is the longer term trajectory of the program.)

So while Salvesen is an excellent hire, it's sad to see that an institution as important in the American art world as LACMA can't seem to afford a full time department head for photography. That said, a new hire is always a time for fresh ideas and optimism, so we'll reserve our judgment until we see the results on the ground.

Other coverage: LA Times (here), Artdaily (here)

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