Left: Michael Rooks. Photo: High Museum of Art. Right: Andrew Dietz. Photo: A. Dietz.
by Andrew Dietz
Michael Rooks is the recently appointed Wieland Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art. Rooks previously held curator positions at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, The Contemporary Museum Honolulu, and at the Honolulu Academy of Arts. Most recently, Rooks served as Chief Curator and Director of Exhibitions and Artist Relations at Haunch of Venison, a contemporary art gallery in New York. Rooks received both a Master of Arts degree in modern art history, theory and criticism (1995) and Bachelor of Fine Arts degree (1988) from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Dietz: Atlanta has never been known as much of a contemporary art town…or any kind of art town, for that matter. Why on earth are you coming to Atlanta?
Rooks: I was just departing my previous position at Haunch of Venison where I served as Director of Artist Relations and I realized that I missed playing a role in a mission driven organization rather than a commercial one. That’s where I really belong and the High Museum was at the top of the list of mission-driven arts organizations. Jeffrey Grove, who had been the High’s head of contemporary art, had just taken a job in Dallas. So, there was an opening and a search underway led by the recruiting firm, Phillips Oppenheim. I know Jeffrey very well and it seemed like a fit.
Dietz: Have you spent much time in the South?
Rooks: I visited Atlanta three years ago for a conference of art curators but prior I had not been to the city. I had spent some time, though, in Memphis and Nashville in 2007 when I was invited to be curator for the “Perspectives” exhibition at Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. The Brooks had me juror a group of artists from within a 300-mile radius of Memphis who had submitted their work online for consideration. Then I hopped in a car and drove around the South doing studio visits within a ten-day period to make the second round of cuts. So that was a brief but deep dip into the Southern art world.
Dietz: In 1917, H. L. Mencken called the South the “Sahara of the Bozart.” He said, “for all its size and all its wealth and all the ‘progress’ it babbles of, it is almost as sterile, artistically, intellectually, culturally, as the Sahara Desert.” He called Georgia the “worst of the south.” While we’ve come a long way, there may still be particular nuances of the South which makes dealing in art matters different here than elsewhere. For one thing, it seems that many Atlantans – at least – carry something of an arts inferiority complex. What do you feel is unique about southern sensibilities which impacts how Atlanta and the South respond to contemporary art?
Rooks: How artists perceive themselves and their surroundings has an impact on how they approach their studio practices. Chicago is known as the “second city” and, it too, has always been trying to prove itself in the art world. So, sometimes in markets like that, you get a lot of art that looks like it’s trying too hard and a tendency to overreact to a feeling of being outside the “main” action. On the other hand, you can also see wonderful things that are specific to artists working outside the primary centers of art production and dissemination. Regionalism – I don’t mean that in a derogatory way - is a good thing because who we are and the earnestness about one’s background and community can provide a powerful influence. I’ve always been brought up to feel pride about where I come from, though it was just a small rural farm town outside of Chicago. [Interviewer’s note: Rooks is from Ottawa, IL, a town of about 18,000 located an hour and a half Southwest of Chicago. It is best known as the site of the first Lincoln-Douglas senatorial debate held in Ottawa's historic Washington Square on August 21, 1858.]
Because of where I grew up, I think I bring something different to an art conversation or group dynamic that you otherwise wouldn’t have with a group of people born and bred in Manhattan or Berlin. So, I really encourage that with young artists: not to put blinders on towards the universal world of art making, but also to respect where you are from and who you are. When you do that, it starts to click for an artist. When an artist can shake insecurities and let go of the kinds of expectations you have of yourself as an artist, then you can make work that’s truly genuine. Once an artist is at peace with being outside of the art world’s centers, there is a lot of great art being made.
Dietz: Now, let’s move on to a simpler subject: What’s art, what isn’t and who has the right to say?
Rooks: Ha! That’s simpler? Art is something that has relevance to living today and to our lives and is generally relevant to contemporaneity. Real art is generated from a train of thought that takes a different route than most of us do. It is a way of thinking outside of conventional wisdom and beyond typical ways of looking at things. Art making today comes in many forms and doesn’t necessarily need to be created by a lone individual; it can be created collectively. It could be an idea or a set of actions put in place by others even without their knowledge that they’re participating. Art is a broad area of philosophical inquiry and nearly all art is valid if it makes a contribution and expands our horizons and helps all of us grow- including the already well-informed.
Dietz: What will you do to transform the Atlanta audience’s interest in contemporary art?
Rooks: Audience is really important to me. That’s the point of being in a mission driven place; we’re there to expand the horizons of our audience and bring as many people along with us as possible. We were able to do that when I was in Hawaii and it was great to see how people responded to new things. People are generally hungry for knowledge but timid about the institutions which are perceived to be elitist – especially when they come packaged in big glittering gorgeous buildings. My background is … well, to put it plainly, we were poor. When you start to become a participant in this art world, which has its own hierarchy and is so enmeshed in social fabric of a city, you’ve got to come to terms with feeling comfortable as an outsider. What’s important is a hunger for learning and growing. I feel that audiences, regardless of socio economic situation, more often than not don’t think when they wake up that they’re going to look at art today. Our job is to reach as many people as possible and at same time we can’t diminish the quality and intellectual rigor of our work by doing that. The two goals aren’t mutually exclusive. To have a big platform allows you to bring to the stage all the things you know and want to ask the public. That lets you raise everyone’s boat. I’ve learned a lot by watching the audience and listening. I try not to come with the arrogance that I have the gospel and that I’ll hand it down to everyone and you’d better listen or you’ll be culturally destitute. Sharing knowledge is important, but it is also important to listen to audience response and recalibrate based on that. It is a great accomplishment if you can inspire one kid to go home and log in online to an art website or go buy an art book or take an art class or have their parents look at or think about something differently.
Dietz: The High Museum outsourced much of its art exhibitions over the past several years to the Louvre; now it seems to be doing the same with contemporary art by landing a deal with the Museum of Modern Art. How do you see this?
Rooks: The MOMA partnership will be a priority for the first six months I’m at the High and for a number of years to follow. I think that “outsourcing” is the wrong term. Partnership is a better word. This is an alliance with a sister institution to get works here that you can’t otherwise. The art that we will have access to … you can’t usually borrow these things from other institutions. This partnership is important because it lets us bring important works to Atlanta that our audience couldn’t get to see without visiting New York. It lets us whet their appetite for modern art and to see incredible masterworks that may never travel again.. Part of the reason I decided to join the High Museum was because of these alliances. I think they’re quite impressive and very generous. You could be cynical about it and see the arrangement as the museum trying to co-opt the brand of MOMA but I see it differently. I view it as a great offering for the larger regional community. It may make opening doors to new audiences easier and it lets us tell the story of modernism, which is important for people to have a sense of before they can appreciate contemporary art.
Dietz: How will your success be measured? After a year on the job, how will you know whether this has been a great move or a smoking hole in the ground?
Rooks: I want to get to know people in the Atlanta art world and reach out to friends nearby in Tennessee and Alabama and explore what’s possible in order to create a critical mass of support for Contemporary Art. This is an area where I’ll be especially judged: on building relationships that bring people along as modern and contemporary art participants, supporters, and enlarge the circle.
Dietz: What relationships do you most need to cultivate to succeed in your new role?
Rooks: Artists and collectors. The two go hand in hand. I know there are a great deal of very good artists in the city plus smart and important art collectors who have developed a clear collecting focus and are active and engaged. So many people I know have friends who live in Atlanta and there’s already been an outpouring of people offering contacts for me to meet in Atlanta, Savannah, Athens. I’ve already taken that list of people and “facebooked” as many as I could to get that network going.
Dietz: If you could add just one piece of art to the High Museum’s contemporary collection what would it be?
Rooks: I don’t know the High’s collection that well yet beyond what’s on view. I will be digging into that as soon as I arrive in Atlanta. Generally, we would want to continue to make acquisitions of important works … whatever that means … serious works by mid-career and late-career artists. But that presents a financial burden because that kind of work is expensive so we need to be targeted. We will need a focused strategy to go after these things – through gifts or through a “hui” as we say in Hawaii. Hui means a group of people who we would gather together to buy a big art piece. We also need an aggressive strategy for seeking young artists who are serious and have a track record. We need to look into the crystal ball and get a sense for who is going to be important including artists from the region. I may do part two of the road trip I had done around Memphis to meet people. I was so impressed with what I saw during that trip and … I don’t want to sound like I didn’t expect this – but I was blown away by so many artists that I met during that trip. I just didn’t know them before and thought “these are artists I should know about.” I would like to see us include regional artists in our acquisition strategy and make them feel like they’re participants in the High just as we need to participate in their world outside the museum.
Dietz: Last question…What are your aspirations in the art world? What do you most want to see happen?
Rooks: I’m a supporter of the underdog. I like to look at artists who have not been given their due--those who haven’t been part of the fashionable set and who have fallen off the radar screen. I like to find them – working with those artists or their estates - and bring their work back to life or reintroduce an artist who has been out of the limelight. I go a little bit against the grain when it comes to the art market. When the art world is so market driven, it is not very enlightening for anyone. It is just hard to tell what it all means when you see museum shows by artists who were just yesterday in diapers and all of a sudden they are in the world’s biggest museums because the market says they’re the hottest thing, so get in line. While I may not make a lot of friends among art dealers because of it, I like to go against that conventional market driven wisdom.
Andrew Dietz is an entrepreneur as well as the author of The Last Folk Hero: A Story of Race and Art, Power and Profit.