These curators have organized groundbreaking surveys and forward-looking biennials, with art initiatives intended to spur on creative thinking.
This list collects 5 curators who are shaping the art world today. Based on several continents and focusing on a number of different topics, they have helped make art history more inclusive and, in many cases, transformed biennials and institutions with which they have been involved.
With an eye for spotting emerging talent and a passion for celebrating the work of under-recognized artists, Naomi Beckwith has held curatorial positions at some of the top art institutions in the United States, including the Studio Museum in Harlem, where she was associate curator from 2007 to 2011; the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, where she was curator from 2011 until her promotion to senior curator in 2018; and now the Guggenheim Museum in New York, where she was named deputy director and chief curator in 2021.
Her curatorial credits include a 2010 solo show of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye at the Studio Museum, as well as a 2018 traveling Howardena Pindell survey that debuted at the MCA Chicago and traveled to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond and Brandeis University’s Rose Art Museum in Waltham, Massachusetts.
When Cornelia Butler curated “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles in 2007, her goal was to effectively upturn all the ways we talked about art by women from the ’60s and ’70s. With 120 artists included, the show, which later traveled to MoMA PS1 in New York, went far beyond the canon and pulled out a number of figures who are now considered giants—Barbara Hammer, a famed lesbian experimental filmmaker; Judith F. Baca, the Chicana muralist; Howardena Pindell, whose paintings synthesized politics and abstraction; and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, a writer and artist born in South Korea and based in New York, among them. As Butler recalled in 2021, the show “interrogated white feminism” at a time when doing so was rare for major museum exhibitions.
Since 2013, Butler has worked as chief curator at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. Her curatorial credits have included retrospectives for Adrian Piper, Lygia Clark or Lari Pittman.
The director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. since 2014, Melissa Chiu has played a crucial role in the field of Asian contemporary art throughout her career. One of her early pursuits was the establishment of Gallery 4A in Sydney (now the 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art) with a group of Asian Australian artists, filmmakers, performers, and other creatives. Chiu served as the founding director of that institution.
In 2001, she was appointed at curator of Asian contemporary art at the Asia Society in New York, one of the first positions of its kind anywhere in the United States. During her tenure at the helm of the Hirshhorn, the museum has presented the blockbuster 2017 exhibition “Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors,” among other notable shows.
A typical Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev show comes with an epic topic—the connection between trauma and war, say, or the role that salt water plays in the global economy. (These were the guiding principles behind her editions of Documenta in 2012 and the Istanbul Biennial in 2015, respectively.) Because Christov-Bakargiev’s focuses are often so grand, her exhibitions should collapse under their own weight. That they do not accounts for their success—and why they have acted as a model for others working on major biennials.
Christov-Bakargiev got her start in Italy, and then gained an international following as senior curator at the P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in New York, where in 2000 she oversaw the first edition of “Greater New York,” a recurring exhibition that is now closely watched.
Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, got her start as an intern at the museum she would one day lead. She then worked as a curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art beginning in 1988. While there she was a member of the curatorial team that organized in the famous 1993 Whitney Biennial, which only recently has been reassessed for the groundbreaking art it presented, and also mounted the acclaimed exhibition “Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art,” which featured work by artists like Fred Wilson, David Hammons, Lyle Ashton Harris, Adrian Piper, and Lorna Simpson that looked at the ways in which Black men were represented—and usually stereotyped—in mainstream media.
In 2000, Lowery Stokes Sims, who had just been named director of the Studio Museum, asked Golden to join her at the institution as deputy director for exhibitions and programs. Then in 2005, Golden became its director and chief curators.