Old Europe has not said its last word. Frenchman Quentin Bajac, appointed chief curator of photography at MoMA in 2013, is full of ambition for this exceptional museum.
“MoMA is writing one history of photography among others. It is writing with the strength of its incomparable past and convictions, but which can also be contradicted by other histories written by other institutions.”
It was against this backdrop of increasingly close competition that Frenchman Quentin Bajac, 50, took over in 2013 as chief curator of photography at the renowned Museum of Modern Art in New York.
The mission of the former director of the Pompidou photography department is nothing if not stimulating, at a time when the New York photography scene is going through upheavals that make his task harder and his choices more relevant and daring. For it would seem that word has gone round Manhattan to expand and to offer visitors more extensive collections. Across the board, everyone is writing the history of photography with unprecedented means. MoMA itself with its expansion, including the tower designed by Jean Nouvel that will provide the museum with 30 percent more space; the Whitney Museum, which has found a new look in the Meatpacking district, leaving its Madison Avenue stronghold where the MET is developing its modern and contemporary department; the Guggenheim; the New Museum and the International Center of Photography. Not to mention the highly influential galleries with their museum-like capacity.
The choice of a Frenchmen reflects MoMA director Glenn Lowry's desire to embrace other cultures, in a museum that has traditionally featured a strong American identity. Currently, four of the seven chiefs of the museum's curatorial departments are European. Bajac's priorities are perfectly in line with this dynamic. “The collection is the soul of the museum. We need to keep building it, with priority given to the 20th and 21st centuries, to find a balance between American and non-American artists, to open up to Europe, Latin America and Africa. We have a research group working very actively on Eastern Europe at the moment. And we are looking to Asia again. I also hope to bring in French artists like Luc Delahaye.”
The exhibitions are following suit. “We are broadening our scope to include other world regions, with all the interesting layers this brings in terms of hybridization and migration. We are moving towards highly multidisciplinary, chronological shows, as well as including more women artists.” Bajac knows how to set the pace. With the New Photography exhibition series celebrating its 30th anniversary in November, this year’s edition promises a more international flavour, and will present photography in all its different forms.
Another focus of the new chief is the museum's publishing strategy. “It must be intensified. Books and photography have always gone well together. And I think that sometimes a book is more appropriate than an exhibition.” This doesn't mean he is ill-disposed to digital media. “One of my first objectives is to put the entire collection online.”
Bajac is happy to share the next episode in a history of photography with the readers of Culture Mix, by Pluris, by recommending the work of three photographers. “Three women born in the 1960s, with very different approaches, but all grounded in the documentary photography tradition, recast through a conceptual approach: Katy Grannan, An-My Lê and Collier Schorr.” The Frenchman at MoMA is writing exciting pages indeed.
Article published in the autumn issue of Emile and produced by Pluris, the online culture magazine.
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