When a curator takes a new museum post, his eye and hand are not immediately visible. After all, museums schedule exhibitions years in advance, and it takes time to get to know the permanent collection and the community. The High Museum of Art’s new photography curator, however, is off to a running start.
Before Brett Abbott officially joined the staff on April 1, he had already installed an exhibition (“Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century”), worked with a local artist (Chip Simone) and acquired a work of art (Vik Muniz’s 2009 “Leda and the Swan, after Leonardo da Vinci,” already hanging in the Skyway). By the time I met with him in the Colony Square Starbucks two weeks into his new job, he had made gallery rounds and met many of the key players in the local photography community.
Abbott, 33, exudes enthusiasm. He expressed delight in the cohesive spirit of the curatorial team and the short walk from the Midtown apartment he shares with wife Anissa, an investigator for the U. S. Department of Labor, to the museum. But the energetic Californian — who has spent his career at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, where he worked with an outstanding photography collection and enjoyed the freedom and resources to pursue major projects — saw more in this career move than a shorter commute and a congenial work environment.
“Leaving the Getty was a difficult decision,” he said, “but I was convinced that this position would allow me to grow in a way that I couldn’t do [there]. I think the High’s collection has a solid base and huge potential, and I can have an impact shaping it. That’s why I came.”
Simply put: he wanted the opportunity to run the show. He said that determining the direction of the collection is his first priority. Though it’s too soon to be definitive in that regard, he indicated that it would not be an abrupt departure from the course established by Julian Cox, his predecessor and another Getty alum. He had high praise for Cox’s acquisition of a group of photos documenting the history of the civil rights movement.
“What Julian did was great,” Abbott said. “He found a topic that had support and made the acquisitions and an exhibition in tandem. I’d like to continue that strategy, though it may be a new theme.“
Socially engaged documentary photography happens to be one of Abbott’s special interests. He won the 2010 Lucie Award for Curator/Exhibition of the Year for his exhibition “Engaged Observers: Documentary Photography Since the Sixties,” the Getty’s highest-attended photography exhibition to date, and its related publication. The project was a critical survey of nine photographers who work in book-length series: Leonard Freed (“Black in White America”), Philip Jones Griffiths (“Vietnam Inc.”), W. Eugene Smith (“Minamata”), Susan Meiselas (“Nicaragua: June 1978-July 1979”), Mary Ellen Mark (“Streetwise”), Larry Towell (“The Mennonites”), Sebastiao Salgado (“Migrations”), Lauren Greenfield (“Girl Culture”) and James Nachtwey (“The Sacrifice”).
Abbott is keenly involved with American modernism. He received the Lucie in 2007 for “Edward Weston: Enduring Vision.” He found a creative approach to the task of producing new scholarship about a canonical artist by replacing a conventional catalog with the first-time publication of “Edward Weston’s Book of Nudes,” based on the original 1953 mock-up, which is in the Getty’s collection. Abbott’s final show at the Getty, “A Revolutionary Project: Cuba From Walker Evans to Now,” will open May 17.
Although he is more interested in photography than in work by contemporary artists who use the medium, he recognizes the importance of the latter genre and will work with Michael Rooks, the High’s curator of modern and contemporary art, to see that it is represented in the collection. Abbott also stated his commitment to continuing Cox’s involvement with the community and showing local artists. First up: “The Resonant Image: Photographs by Chip Simone,” a Cox-initiated project that will open June 17. To shape and lay out the show, Abbott spent two days with Simone examining the work of 10 years spread out on the long table in the resource library.
The photographer was impressed. “We had long conversations about the intentions of the show,” Simone said. “Brett asked thoughtful questions and listened closely. He found things in the work I hadn’t seen. He seemed to have a strong connection to the bedrock of American photographic history and a sense for the purely visual.
“Brett is young, full of hope and ambition. I’m looking forward to seeing what he does.”
Photo on home page: Phillip Jones Griffiths, “Vietnam, 1967.” Gelatin silver print. © The Philip Jones Griffiths Foundation / Magnum Photos. Photo courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.