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Contemporary Art Museum hires curator who wants to know what St. Louisans think

A recent show at the Contemporary Art Museum
Provided by the Contemporary Art Museum
A recent show at the Contemporary Art Museum

The Contemporary Art Museum has hired a chief curator.

Wassan Al-Khudhairi, a curator of modern and contemporary art at the Birmingham Museum of Art, joins CAM in August.

Al-Khudhairi, whose work places a priority on interactions with local audiences, replaces Jeffrey Uslip, who resigned late last year amid controversy over a solo exhibition by artist Kelley Walker.

Many in St. Louis found Walker’s “Direct Drive” show demeaning to African-Americans because of its use of images that feature black people. The museum also was roundly criticized for its response to the outcry over the work of Walker, who is white.

Al-Khudhairi has worked as co-artistic director at the Gwangju Biennale Foundation in South Korea. She’s also the founding director of Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Qatar.

At CAM, she plans to focus on St. Louis and draw inspiration from the city and its residents for her curatorial decisions.

“I’m really informed by the context of where I’m working and the context of the institution,” Al-Khudhari said. “It’s the kind of work that requires me being there, getting to know the community, getting to know the institution, and really try to find through the relationships with the community and the institution the right programs that make sense for CAM St. Louis.”

Lisa Melandri, CAM’s executive director, said that Al-Khudhairi’s curatorial decisions to draw parallels between global concerns and local issues give museum visitors a lot to look forward to.  

“There's this extraordinary balance between understanding the true global landscape of contemporary art, but looking at [through] local lens and looking at a regional sensibility and context for work and being able to create that balance between that sort of micro and macro level,” Melandri said. 

Besides getting to know St. Louis, Al-Khudhairi said one of her first goals will be meeting local artists in all disciplines, and their priorities. For her, community involvement and relationships between creative artists in St. Louis and the museum are integral to her curatorial approach.

CAM's new Chief Curator Wassan Al-Khudhairi.
Credit Provided by CAM
CAM's new Chief Curator Wassan Al-Khudhairi.

“My goal in a lot of my projects is to present programs and exhibitions that feel relevant to current conversations that people are having,” she said. “So how can contemporary art play a role in helping us understand the world that we live in today, either by sort of affirming ideas that we have or challenging us to think about things in new ways." 

When asked about the controversy surrounding Walker’s exhibit, Al-Khudhairi said the experience is a catalyst for museums and administrators as a whole — not just CAM — to ask some foundational questions.

Among them: “What is the role of our institution? What are the kinds of things that we are responsible for? How do we create programs and exhibitions that are the kinds of things that our audiences want to see and want to engage with.”

Melandri said each curator is unique n and not tied to the personality and decisions of one's predecessors.

“I think the role exists outside of who the personality is and I don’t think it’s a question of adding or bringing something that somebody else didn’t [have],” she said.  

Al-Khudhairi’s recent exhibit “Third Space / shifting conversations about contemporary art” in Birmingham attempted to address some of those questions.  The show combined work by artists from the U.S. South and artists from the Global South (Africa, Asia and Latin America) to highlight how concepts of “the south” and contemporary art overlap and are entwined across cultures.

Follow Willis on Twitter: @WillisRArnold