Having served as a top curator at the Museum of Modern Art for over a decade, and having been called “the vital link between the museum world and academia” in New York magazine’s “The Most Influential in Art” list, Dean of Yale Art School Richard Storr now has another feather to add to his cap of artistic accomplishments.
This year, Storr led the Venice Biennale — one of the world’s most renowned art festivals — as its first-ever American curator.
The Biennale, founded in 1895, boasts a long-standing history as one of the world’s most prestigious cultural events. Hosted biannually in Venice, Italy, the Biennale brings together international exhibitions in art, architecture, cinema, dance, music and theatre.
The dean resumed his post at the University this school year, having left last semester to devote his attention to planning the event in Italy. As the first American and fourth-ever non-Italian invited to the position of curator for the event, Storr said he took on the responsibility in hopes of opening up the festival to the world around it. He has tried to build links between the foreign event planners and local artists in the Venice area.
“The profile [of the Biennale] is that it’s closed and imperious,” he said. “It’s become an insular and ingrown bureaucracy.”
Part of this process, Storr said, involved challenging commonly held misconceptions about Americans, and “making an issue of my American-ness.”
The concept of this year’s Biennale — encapsulated in its title, “Think with the senses — feel with the mind: art in the present tense” — challenges the dichotomy between those who view art purely for its aesthetic value, and those who seek its deeper meaning.
“I wanted to address the division between people who look at art for pleasure and those who view it as a tool for analysis and social critique,” Storr said. “Many people immediately start speaking in terms of these crude contradictions. I wanted to say this is a ridiculous dichotomy.”
Indeed, Storr’s North American presence and goal of internationalizing the Biennale was not without result: The exhibition was the most diverse ever, with a record-breaking 76 foreign countries joining the event this year. Participating nations hailed from all five continents — five from Europe, 20 from Latin America, 17 from Asia, two from North America, and one each from Australia and Africa — and included several debut appearances, including Azerbaijan, Lebanon, Mexico, Moldova and Tadzhikistan.
“[The event’s concept] is the result of the vision which [Storr] has conveyed beyond the frontiers of international art, looking not only towards rapidly evolving artistic languages, but also towards personalities, countries and emerging trends from all five continents,” Davide Croff, president of the Biennale, said during his speech at the event.
Storr’s international approach to curating the Biennale is one that equally drives his outlook at Yale. The dean plans to increase the representation of foreign art and artists in New Haven, as well as to establish connections with art centers around the globe.
“The Biennale has taught me — and curating at the Modern has taught me — that the U.S. has focused too much on its art and that American art scene has focused too much on New York,” he said. “We need to go out and look for energy of other art centers. The art scene is polycentric.”
Storr said he is already raising money to draw exhibitions from around the country and the globe, but that it will take time to build up enough funding. He also hopes to attract an even more international student population.
“Even though he has not been here that long, one thing he has brought with him is a shift towards the international arena and outside of the studio arena,” said Samuel Messer, Yale Art School associate dean. “The Biennale was structured around [the concept of] the artist in relation to the world, being involved in your own time. Robert’s approach reflects that art-making is moving outside the studio; more than ever, artists are going out into the world to make art.”
To that end, one of the Art School’s newest projects is its participation in a new arts institution in Abu Dhabi. The initiative, a collaboration between Yale’s arts schools and the government of the United Arab Emirates, may be completed as early as September 2008.
The school also plans to move into a recently completed sculpture building on Edgewood Avenue that will host a new art gallery. Storr said the building will help diversify New Haven’s art scene, increasing the number and variety of art exhibitions available to art students in the city, as well as giving them the opportunity to understand the process of putting together an exhibition. Storr himself has been the curator of multiple exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art and other museums around the country.
Despite Storr’s penchant for travel, faculty members and students alike attested to the his dedication to work on his home turf.
Peter Halley, director of graduate studies in painting and printmaking, said Storr values interaction with the Art School community. He teaches the undergraduate course “Introduction to Drawing,” regularly attends faculty group critiques on painting, and even conducts an individual tutorial with an art school student.
“It’s really an impressive load for the dean,” Halley said. “He wants to be involved with teaching. He’s really been eager to throw himself into the community.”
Storr said he values the intimacy of the Art School community, and wants to keep enrollment at its current level to maintain this tight-knit environment.
Jason Mones ART ’08, a second-year student in the Painting and Printmaking division, said he has not heard a single student express displeasure with Storr’s approach.
“I think it has to do with his respect for art, his optimism and his viewpoint on art,” Mones said. “Especially nowadays, there’s this question about where to push art, but I think he’s someone who believes in investigating your personal obsessions and interests.”
Storr’s personal investment in art is easy to understand: He himself is a celebrated painter. His paintings have been included in exhibitions at the Betty Cunningham Gallery, the Andre Zarre Gallery, the Jack Tilton Gallery, the New York Studio School, the Nelson Atkins Museum and the MoMA.
“He’s open to the students and interested in communicating with them,” Alexis Knowlton ART ’08 said. “He relates as an artist to the students.”
Monez said he remembers walking down the hallway with a painting when Storr asked him what he was carrying — and being pleasantly surprised at the dean’s response.
“I just remember making up something I thought sounded intellectual,” Monez said. “Historically, there’s this idea that art has to make a statement. But he just replied, ‘It’s just a nice painting.’”