By Catherine Fox
When Michael Rooks, the High Museum’s new curator of modern and contemporary art arrived in January, a full plate of responsibilities awaited him.
For starters, he became point person for the High’s multi-year collaboration with New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and co-curator of the contemporary art exhibition to be drawn from MOMA’s collection.
“Artists, teachers and collectors are the front lines, ” he says. “It’s important to support them. I want to use my post and relationships to help build excitement for the community. It’s good for everybody.”
He’s done it before. John Koga, chief preparator at the Contemporary Museum Honolulu, says Rooks galvanized a community that was fractured and stagnating before his arrival in 2003.
“He has an amazing ability to bring together all different kinds of people, to pool their energies toward a common goal, ” he says.
Gaye Chan, chair of the Department of Art and Art History for University of Hawaii at Manoa, adds, “He was one of the few curators who really worked with local artists. His leaving was a huge loss.”
The Illinois native wasted no time getting started in Atlanta. He met with art consultant Mary Stanley his first day in the office, and soon thereafter spoke to a youngish cross-section of collectors, artists and arts advocates at a meeting of her Young Collectors Club.
“He stayed until midnight talking to a group of artists, ” Stanley reports. “It’s not just that he shows up; he really listens.”
She watched him work a different crowd at the High’s Collectors’ Evening in January. The guests paid $500 a pop to attend and vote to select acquisitions proposed by the curators.
Rooks, who pitched a portrait by Kehinde Wiley, was articulate and professional during his presentation, she says, but punctured the seriousness by having the words “buy this” flash on the screen like a subliminal sales ploy. (The piece was acquired.)
Relaxing after work in his still sparsely furnished Midtown apartment, the wiry curator looks younger than his 44 years. Dressed in Keds and casual clothes and sporting fashionable stubble, he looks more like an art handler than a museum curator and, according to Paul Klein, a former gallery owner who knew him when Rooks was curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, he behaves out of character, too.
“A lot of curators get in their ivory towers, ostentatiously separate from [the lay audience], ” says Klein, now a curator and art consultant. “He likes to do exhibitions that normal people can relate to.”
The Iraq war, for example. While at the Chicago museum, he organized “Like War, What is it Good For, ” which mixed local artists with national figures, such as Malcolm Morley, David Hammons and Mike Kelley.
As curator at the Honolulu museum, he commissioned Michael Lin, known for murals using traditional floral motifs inspired by Taiwanese textiles, to paint giant chrysanthemums on the museum’s tennis court and invited visitors to play on it.
Although he’s curated exhibitions on canonical figures, such as Roy Lichtenstein, Rooks is more interested in under-recognized artists. He did the catalogue raisonne for the quirky H.C. Westermann, for instance, and mounted an exhibit of work by the late Al Taylor, whose admirers included Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly.
Rooks left Hawaii in 2008 to take the position of chief curator and director of exhibitions and artist relations at Haunch of Venison, Christie’s gallery in New York. He lasted nine months.
“It wasn’t very fulfilling, ” he says. “I like mission-driven institutions. I like to serve the public.”
Then there’s this: “The relationship between artists and gallerists is like a marriage. You argue over money and attention. For a curator, it’s more like dating. You can be promiscuous, ” he says, flashing an impish grin and his cornflower blues.
Rooks says he’s spending his first six months getting to know his way around before embarking on projects like re-hanging the permanent collection.
Yet he’s already begun making acquisitions. Collectors Sara and John Schlesinger purchased a sculpture by California-based artist Thomas Houseago for the museum, which will go on view this summer, and one for themselves.
The Schlesingers are already big fans. In contrast to curators who have a list of artists they recommend, Rooks, says Sara, made an effort to understand their aesthetic and is helping them explore it.
“I think he will be able to ignite excitement and get more people involved, ” she says.
Given the initial impression and past performance, the most difficult challenge may be to live up to expectations.