Fancy art-world types chimed in when Seattle Art Museum announced a few weeks ago that it was hiring Catharina Manchanda to become its new curator of modern and contemporary art. Robert Storr, dean of the prestigious Yale School of Art and an international curator and writer who worked with Manchanda on two exhibitions of Gerhard Richter at the Museum of Modern Art, raved in a press statement: “She has that rare mix of qualities required of a curator charged with operating in the new international art scene: intellectual seriousness, aesthetic open-mindedness combined with a discerning critical mind, and singular skill at working with artists. The Seattle Art Museum is very lucky… She has everything it takes to make things happen.”
I first met Manchanda at Western Bridge, when both of us were navigating Martin Creed’s installation involving a small dog and a large dog, hanging out in a gallery. She was easygoing but direct in that German kind of way—she’s originally from Stuttgart. Eric Fredericksen, Western Bridge’s director, says he’s happy SAM hired her. (She begins August 17.) The museum’s big donors are modern-art lovers; SAM has no real acquisitions budget for contemporary art, and the museum might have reverted to hiring a modernist with scant contemporary art experience. Manchanda’s last position was as senior curator of exhibitions at the adventurous Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, and she’s worked with many living artists, from the titanic figure Richter to South African performance/photographer Robin Rhode to Harry Shearer, the television voice-over star/video artist. “For SAM to hire someone who has done a lot of work with young artists is great for me, for people who care about the new,” Fredericksen said. Before the Wexner, Manchanda curated at MoMA, the Guggenheim in New York, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Kemper Art Museum in St. Louis. MoMA photography curator Roxana Marcoci describes Manchanda’s career as a “track record of innovative exhibitions.” Other bona fides: She has a BA in art history, English, and German from the University of Stuttgart; an MA in art history from the University of Delaware; and a PhD in art history from the City University of New York, where she wrote her dissertation on 1960s and ’70s German photography. She’s been living in Seattle, where she moved with her husband and two children, for a year.
What’s your sense of Seattle art?
I get the sense that everyone wants things to grow and move forward. Whether you’re talking to artists or institutions, there is no complacency whatsoever.
What do you love in SAM’s collection?
On the top of my list is Robert Morris’s Box with the Sound of Its Own Making. I almost wanted to sit down in front of it.
Why didn’t you ask for a chair? You’re about to have that power!
Well, it’s not exactly recommended… I always thought it was much rougher. It’s so finely made. And an artist like Robert Colescott, who’s in the collection—he should be so much better known.
What was your take on the imprisonment of Ai Weiwei? Should museums protest such things?
Ai Weiwei is such a phenomenally important artist, it was deeply unsettling to see that whole process unfold; it was one of those times that art and politics clash directly, and that’s so rare—I think it was Marcuse who said that whatever happens in the art world is completely without consequence in every other way in the world. But with someone like Ai Weiwei, he has done tremendous things for China and for contemporary Chinese art, and that has put him at great peril in his own country, and I just hope that…well, I can’t say anything about the situation because none of us is really privy to what is truly going on.
What are some shows that have meant the most to you, shaped your thinking?
I have been looking at art for a long, long time, but just in the last few years there were some highlights. There was WACK! [Art and the Feminist Revolution]. I don’t know if you caught Roxana Marcoci’s show on photography and sculpture [The Original Copy: Photography of Sculpture, 1839 to Today]. Helen Molesworth has done fabulous shows; so has Hamza Walker, Ingrid Schaffner. In a general sense, I greatly admire people who try to move the conversation forward. It’s one of those really rewarding exercises to go through—to feel that you are in a new dialogue with your public.
Were you ever an artist?
No, I never dabbled as an artist, although there was a time when I was considering a career as an artist. I decided it would be too hard to have to sustain myself just on my wits—but I did consider it. Maybe that’s the reason I feel especially close to artists who are working today, and the way they try to challenge us.
What’s the art that got you into this in the first place?
It’s rather hard to pinpoint. I grew up in a medieval city with Gothic architecture all around me. My mother was really interested in art and would take me to see shows of German expressionism, Kandinsky… I would just say that I have a voracious appetite for all in all periods. My husband is from India; we visit India every couple of years or so. You just have to see and read culture on all different levels. It’s a history that’s in the making…
My biggest mantra is going to be diverse programming. You can never just sit back and be happy with what you have. You want to seek out new ideas and new points of connection, whether it’s around the city, colleagues in different parts of the country or the world, speaking to younger audiences, reengaging historical issues—and that can also happen across departments in the museum.
You definitely sound like a collaborator. Do you think of yourself that way?
Well, wait and see.