Public Art Fund, the New York–based arts organization that stages various public art installations across the city, has appointed Allison Glenn, one of the country’s leading curators, as senior curator. Glenn will start in her new role on May 16, replacing Daniel S. Palmer, who was named chief curator of the SCAD Museum of Art earlier this year.
“There is something about the opportunity to directly connect artists and ideas to audiences and publics,” Glenn said in an interview about her appointment. “There’s an immediacy that public art brings to the discourse. Oftentimes with museums and institutions, there are a lot of barriers to entry. The idea of working in public space hopefully breaks down some of those barriers to entry. For me, it brings the conversation to a more equitable discourse.”
Glenn is best known for her critically acclaimed 2021 exhibition “Promise, Witness, Remembrance” for the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky, that brought together the work of 23 artists to honor the life of Breonna Taylor, who was from Louisville. In planning the exhibition, which came together in just a few months, Glenn worked closely with Taylor’s family and assembled local and national committees to advise on the exhibition.
“I’ve always been the kind of person who likes a lot of feedback in the work that I’m doing,” Glenn said. “That kind of collaborative engagement and close listening made the exhibition stronger. There were many voices in the room raising issues that not one decision was made in a silo. It’s my hope and intention to work in that same way at Public Art Fund.”
Artist Rashid Johnson recalled Glenn calling him for advice when she was planning the show; they both end discussing “activist concerns and the manifestations of the frustrations and disappointments that we were witnessing” in the country and the world at the time.
“There was an expectation to some degree of a more didactic approach to satisfy an audience at times like that, almost depressurize situation to some degree or make something that is legible and accessible and more easily digestible,” he said.
“Throughout the course of our conversation, Alison was able to make clear to me that those weren’t her exact goals, nor should they have been. When you’re dealing with complicated issues from a curatorial position, especially in real time, you have to be willing to take certain chances, and some of those chances are not going to necessarily, you know, provide us with a significant amount of comfort.”
Helping Artists Realize ‘Dream Projects’
A co-curator of the forthcoming Counterpublic 2023 triennial in St. Louis, Glenn held previous curatorial appointments as senior curator and director of public art at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston briefly last year and as associate curator at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, from 2018 to 2021.
At Crystal Bridges she focused on shaping its outdoor sculpture program across the museum’s 120-acre campus, curating “Color Field” and co-curating “State of the Art 2020,” as well as working with artists, like Johnson, Odili Donald Odita, and Hank Willis Thomas on commissions.
In developing his commission for Crystal Bridges, a living greenhouse titled The Bruising: For Jules, The Bird, Jack and Leni (2021), Johnson said that throughout the process he found Glenn to be “a great facilitator,” adding, “She’s a person who an artist can can feel comfortable being honest with. Sometimes a curator’s job is a challenge us, and sometimes the job is to hear us. I think that she does a good job of hearing the artists and putting us in a position to fulfill whatever it is our ideas and concerns are.”
The completion of Johnson’s work was delayed by the pandemic, which in turn changed the project.
“In the middle of working through it, my ideas and my sense of what it was evolved and continued to grow,” he said. For him, a curator like Glenn is one who is “nimble enough and capable enough to take the journey with an artist, and that journey isn’t always necessarily a straight line.”
In all of her curatorial work Glenn has said her goal is to help artists realize “dream projects” in the city and to “connect them closely, with intention, to different communities.”
“In working with artists, I think my best experiences in collaboration comes with a really open and honest dialogue, and that takes time,” Glenn said. “It’s important for me to get to know an artist and for them to get to know me because these projects are so grand in scale and there’s so much at risk.”
Nicholas Baume, Public Art Fund’s artistic and executive director, pointed to her curatorial work at both Crystal Bridges and with Counterpublic, as showing her impact across “a number of different critical areas.
“Her work distinguishes her in the field as one the curatorial voices of her generation,” Baume said.
For Baume, Glenn’s work on “Promise, Witness, Remembrance,” came from “a place of both deep engagement with the contemporary moment and tremendous scholarship and research and relationships with the artists.”
“All of those things wrapped up together in one curatorial practice is such an extraordinary synergy for Public Art Fund,” he said.
Glenn agreed, mentioning a recent conversation she had with Baume, in which he said that when viewers enter museums or galleries, they are consenting to seeing art but that isn’t necessarily the case when they encounter public art.
“That took me in a whole different direction,” she said. “When working in public space, there will be all of these other questions that I will need to consistently think about consent, in terms of how often people will engage with works that they see, whether or not they wanted to. It’s a whole different space to understand.”