Art Gallery of Ontario names new top curator
The Art Gallery of Ontario ended a year-long vacancy for its top curatorial position Thursday, naming British-born Julian Cox as its chief curator.
“I wasn’t quick out of the gate,” said the AGO’s CEO and director Stephan Jost, regarding the timeframe within which Cox was chosen. Jost, who took over as director in the spring of 2016, intentionally put off the search for six months. Being new, “I wanted to get to know the curators we had, to make sure we hired the right person,” he said. “We have a huge diversity of approaches at the AGO and I wanted to be sure we had the right fit.”
As chief curator, Cox assumes oversight of all of the gallery’s exhibitions and content. His predecessor, Stephanie Smith, left the gallery in October 2016. She had been in the position only two years.
Cox, who is coming from the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, where he has been chief curator since 2010, arrives with some exposure to the AGO and to Toronto. In the late 1990s, while at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, he co-organized photography exhibitions presented here from renowned artists Man Ray and Julia Margaret Cameron.
But Cox is quick to acknowledge that much has changed since his initial experiences here, and the social shifts in the city and country both were potent factors in his pursuing the job here.
“Obviously, there’s a great deal for me to learn,” he said. “A high priority for me will be to get involved, to talk to the right people, to get out there in the community and sensitize myself to the specifics of those discussions. That’s something that really compels me and excites me.”
Recently, the AGO has been working to address some of those shifts, in 2016 appointing Wanda Nanibush its first-ever associate curator of Canadian and Indigenous art. Then, just last week, the museum renamed its Canadian art department the Department of Canadian and Indigenous Art, to be led equally by Nanibush, who was promoted to curator of Indigenous art, and Georgiana Uhlyarik, who was elevated from associate curator to curator of Canadian art.
The move, to make an explicit equivalency between Indigenous and Canadian culture, was among the enticing elements of the position, Cox said.
“That is a signal of the kind of commitment the institution has, going forward,” Cox said. “And obviously it will be my responsibility to really make that happen for the institution, and really support the work that the curators in that department do. And for me to learn directly from them, which is a great opportunity.”
Cox, whose own expertise is in photography, has a history of working at the intersection of art and social justice. While at the High Museum in Atlanta, Cox created an exhibition of photographs from the Civil Rights movement in the United States that he described as “the single most rewarding passage of my career.”
At the same time, Cox arrives in a period of reinvention that has seen a high-profile departure. Andrew Hunter, the museum’s former top curator of Canadian art, resigned at the end of September, voicing concerns in a Toronto Star essay about the museum’s commitment to a diversity of voices. He specifically raised a concern that the chief curator position, not yet named by the time of his departure, would not be held by a Canadian. (Coincidentally, the Art Gallery of Guelph announced this week it had hired Hunter as its senior curator.)
His final exhibition, Every. Now. Then: Reframing Nationhood is seen as a triumph of inclusivity for its cross-cultural content and devotion to the local fabric of the city itself. Cox, who toured the exhibition with Hunter before his departure, called the show a shining example of “what curators can do if they’re really attentive to their environment. They can be shapers of the culture, and the dialogue around important issues.”
Cox allayed some of Hunter’s concerns, saying that the gallery, on his watch, would remain committed to the cultural shifts raised in Every. Now. Then. “Most of the great museums in North America are put together usually through a medley of major private collections that are then put into the public sphere, and you build a narrative around them,” Cox said.
Every. Now. Then “is a counterpoint to that narrative — a very bold, striking counterpoint. It’s something that’s there to be reckoned with and to be dealt with on an ongoing basis. It’s not a one-shot deal. And that will be the responsibility of the institution and its curatorial team to deliver upon going forward.”