Curator Judith Tannenbaum Reflects on Radical Shifts in Life, Career, and Art

By Purnell T. Cropper | February 10, 2014

One of the most accomplished curators in the country didn’t even know what a curator was when she was in college. Years later, she found herself working at the most prominent art school in the U.S. in an endowed curator position created just for her.

Judith Tannenbaum, now an adjunct curator at Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), rose to national prominence during her time at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in Philadelphia. However, she admitted to the audience of Arcadia University’s 2014 Student Biennial Lecture that the road to her tenure as RISD’s first-ever Richard Brown Baker Curator of Contemporary Art began after a few false starts.

Tannenbaum started her Jan. 29 lecture by praising the students who submitted artwork to the 2014 Student Biennial Juried Exhibition, for which she was guest juror. Then she prefaced her talk, “Radical Shifts: 1960s to present,” with her story.

“‘Radical Shifts’ as the title is kind of an underlying issue, but my talk is kind of personal in a way,” revealed Tannenbaum, before presenting a visual timeline of works and artists she has interacted with in a career spanning nearly 40 years.

For junior graphic design major Brittni Albright ’15, Tannenbaum’s account of her ascent was eye-opening. “I’ve been to numerous museums and seen many exhibits without ever knowing or even thinking about what a curator actually does,” said Albright. “To hear how she prepares for shows and how she got her start in the profession was really neat.”

A native of New York City who grew up in New Jersey, Tannenbaum graduated from Rutgers Douglass College with a bachelor’s degree in English but began to explore other career options after working in a couple of jobs she didn’t enjoy. Traveling to Europe led her to discover her true passion—art—and after graduating from Hunter College CUNY with a master’s degree in art history, she volunteered at the Guggenheim Museum while working part-time in non-arts jobs to support herself. “It might have seemed impractical when I started out, but I think it’s really important to follow your path,” she explained. “There are ways to do it, so I encourage you to just keep that in mind as you’re making choices.”

During the presentation, Tannenbaum shared images and insights from shows she had curated and pieces she had helped RISD Museum acquire. As she displayed iconic works by Andy Warhol, Donald Judd, and Alice Neel to more recent pieces by international artists Yinka Shonibare, Tony Capellán, and Carey Young, Tannenbaum discussed shifts that have always taken place in the art world.

“The history of art is never as monolithic as it is presented later on. Often things get written in and out of history. You can learn from the things that are in fashion as well as things that get out of fashion and then are rediscovered again,” said Tannenbaum, closing her talk with a shot of Philadelphia-based artist Tristin Lowe’s Lunacy, a colossal rendering of the moon created in felt, and its complement Visither I, a neon light sculpture.

After the lecture and a brief Q & A with students, Richard Torchia, director of the Arcadia University Art Gallery, thanked Tannenbaum for giving so generously of her time and expertise as guest juror of the 2014 Student Biennial. Tannenbaum narrowed down the field of 127 entries to the 26 pieces that comprise the exhibit. “I witnessed firsthand her jurying of the show,” Torchia told the audience while introducing Tannenbaum. “I was really impressed with the thoroughness and the thoughtfulness and the way she sort of developed a regard for the harmony of the full object. I think you see this sensibility expressed in her choices. It’s been great working with her.”

For Tannenbaum, participating in events like this is a way she can help young artists gain the experiences needed to discover and pursue their dreams. “When I was in college I had no idea what a curator was,” Tannenbaum said, “and I had no idea that I would be one. Now some several decades later I feel really fortunate that I was able to have a career in a field of work with things that I enjoy doing, that I love.”