A MUSEUM colleague once offered contemporary-art curator Kathy Halbreich condolences for having to work with living artists. Ms. Halbreich recoiled in shock, then said, ``But dear, that's the pleasure!'' In her two-year tenure at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Ms. Halbreich, who inaugurated that museum's contemporary program, did much to dispel the notion that a museum of fine arts precludes contemporary art. She has consistently taken pleasure in dealing not only with living artists but also the kind of living, breathing, ``unvarnished'' art that reflects the immediacy of life itself. While at the MFA and in the 10 years prior that she served as director of Massachusetts Institute of Technology's List Visual Arts Center, Halbreich has been fervent about her belief that art and artists of the moment have much to tell us, and passionate about helping more people pay attention.
Underwritten by this almost missionary zeal, her programming and exhibitions have cumulatively garnered art-world attention and led to a dazzling coup - her recent appointment as director of the progressive, internationally known Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
In March, Halbreich will succeed the Walker's Martin Friedman, who after 29 years as director is credited with shaping the edifice, style, and spirit of that world-class modern arts institution. What Halbreich will step into at the Walker, then, is a catapult leap from the start-up situation and sometime academic attitudes she encountered at the MFA, an encyclopedic museum more commonly known for its historical collection.
The Walker, conversely, has a fine collection of art since the 1960s, a budgeted, aggressive acquisition plan solely for postwar art, and over 50,000 square feet of streamlined exhibition space. It is an institution where she foresees ``no difficulty in introducing new ideas about what an art object or experience can be.'' Halbreich cites the ``interdisciplinary nature of the place,'' and says, ``it really is a model for all of us in the field of contemporary and modern art, and Martin Friedman has been a leader in the field for decades. I don't think there are any limitations there, at least not definitional ones. Its future can be as dynamic as we can conceive of it being.''
Her only hesitation is the obvious one. ``How do you follow a model? How do you shape it into something that's your own? After much looking and thinking and listening. But I also think we are all victims as well as heroes of our age, and we are most engaged by those things that we grow up with. Martin and I are of different generations and I will bring my own set of passions and prejudices to bear. My hope is that we would continue and even strengthen the international focus of the museum and begin to think about acquiring more ephemeral things like film and video and performing arts.''
Halbreich has had plenty of experience with international projects. Shortly before her move to the MFA, she was one of four curators from New York and Japan who organized ``Against Nature: Contemporary Japanese Art,'' a traveling exhibiton of recent work that defied Western expectations of Eastern stereotype. Two other recent exhibitions, the ``1988 Carnegie International'' in Pittsburgh, and ``Culture and Commentary: An Eighties Perspective,'' organized for the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., were also international in scope and helped define her art world profile.
Halbreich says she is proudest of less-heralded exhibitions that she and MFA associate contemporary curator Trevor Fairbrother put together, particularly small topical shows addressing current issues such as ``Reproduction,'' about repeating imagery and new technology in fine art, and most recently ``Figuring the Body,'' a response to the Mapplethorpe controversy. These quickly organized, small-budget shows reflect the ``intellectual overlapping of interests'' that she and Fairbrother enjoyed, got the MFA's contemporary programming off to a strong beginning, and set the tone for future shows to delve into critical local and universal concerns. They also relied heavily on the MFA collections of both contemporary and historical art - putting viewer assumptions about the past into a present-day context - and democratically mixed local and nationally known artists.
This kind of integrative, thoughtful programming also demonstrates Halbreich's philosophy that bigger isn't necessarily better for either museums or viewers. ``I think to some extent we museum professionals have done a disservice by addicting people to the blockbuster and making those events the only time people come to the museum,'' she says, ``meaning that permanent collections are underutilized and unappreciated as a resource. Smaller shows can be the `R&D,' the blood of the institution.''
Her fresh approach attracts new audiences. The viewership of Boston's MFA, the majority of which was ``coming to see Monet,'' was often unsuspecting - to Halbreich's delight. At the Walker, she will be dealing mainly with the already converted, but even there she sees an unserved constituency. The new Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, a recent collaboration between the Walker and the city, is a steadily popular ``walk-in'' attraction. Many who wander through it, though, never go into the museum itself. In typical Halbreich style, she is thinking of casual newspaper handouts to lure them in.
Her empathy for both live audiences and living artists enables her to recognize what limits discourse between the two. She is the antithesis of the curator as detached art historian, spouting strings of precedent as validation. ``I don't think I intimidate people when I line missing relationship to it and my understanding of it, and I'm not afraid to say I don't understand it entirely. Experience with art is first-hand, basically. I encourage people to let their minds wander and not want the answers before they've asked the questions. If we learn from artists, as I think we must, it's the questions that are often the most satisfying.''
She says she once told Alan Shestack, director of the MFA (and the source, she indicates, of much spiritual commitment for her programming there) that if she could stand in the museum's galleries every day she might convince more people, if not to like current art, at least to take it more seriously. ``The truth of the matter is we are terrified of our feelings and that's why people struggle so bitterly with contemporary art. The Mapplethorpe brouhaha had a lot to do with our lack of tolerance for another way of being.''
The current buzzword for that idea is ``multicultural,'' perhaps the arts issue for the '90s. Museums are increasingly addressing it, in programming, viewership, and staff. Halbreich, now one of the few women to head such a high-profile arts institution, is herself evidence of this and calls appointing her ``incredibly courageous'' on the part of the Walker's board.
``It almost says more about the institution than it does about me. There have been times when I was not as conscious of putting together programs that represented the spectrum, whether gender or color, and those are my regrets. It is something I have become more aware of in the last 10 years.'' Regrets, however, give one a chance to rephrase the question and refine the effort. Fear of failing, Halbreich says, is ``less terrifying than the idea of not trying.''
``We have no hindsight on our present life. There's no way to turn it into instant art; we have to accept it, grapple with it, as experience. There's the sense that contemporary art is unvarnished truth - alive and smelly and outlandish - but that's just life! Life can be involved with the celestial, but it also may be involved with the demonic or the dark.
``What museums are all about, at least museums that deal with the contemporary experience, is helping people to struggle with and tolerate life's ambiguity, and all of our cultural institutions, from art museums to symphony halls, need an injection of the present. It's an enormous project - I'm not sure people come to museums knowing they are going to be exposed to life.''