The Exit Interview: Stéphane Aquin Looks Back As He Advances to the Hirshhorn

Stéphane Aquin. Photo: Gil Nault.
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Stéphane Aquin holds a distinguished profile in the Canadian artworld and abroad, in part because he arrived to the role of curator from art criticism, but also because, in an era of revolving doors and fast-tracked careerism, he has stayed with one institution – the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. For a long time, Aquin has put his head down and achieved increasingly strong exhibitions. Over the course of sixteen years, he has accomplished major solo shows with the likes of Pipilotti Rist, Tom Wesselman, and, most recently, Peter Doig, an exhibition that many consider (including Aquin) to be a crowning achievement for the MMFA. In addition, Aquin has curated interpretations of the Chapman brothers, Andy Warhol, and Alfred Hitchcock, and expanded the museum’s collection by more than 1,000 artworks, including David Altmejd, Kiki Smith, Antony Gormley, Dorion FitzGerald, and Michael Snow.

Aquin’s name had become so longly associated with the MMFA’s challenging post-war and contemporary programing that the recent announcement of his appointment to the Hirshhorn Museum as chief curator, turned heads.

He replaces Kerry Brougher, who held the position for fourteen years until late last year (he left to head the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, in Los Angeles), after a disquieting succession of departures and news-making disruptions at the storied national museum. But under a newly-appointed director, Melissa Chiu, and a refreshed board and band of curators, Aquin is stepping in to an institution actively working to turn its own page.

Momus editor Sky Goodden sat down with the transitioning curator a week before his departure from the MMFA to discuss the work he’s accomplished, and the work ahead.

You’ve long held the position of curator of contemporary art at the MMFA, Stéphane. Did you have opportunities to depart before now? What made this the moment to go?

I have had several opportunities, but I never felt like there was a gain in moving to another position. I’m not into a “career” state of mind.

What do you mean by that? You’re not a “careerist”? 

No, I’m not a careerist. Now it turns out, though, that when you’re old enough, like I am, you realize, through people’s gaze and reactions, that you have a career. It’s a fact, because you’ve done this, you’ve done that, you’re being appointed here and there. From an outsider’s point of view, you have a career. I’ve never seen it that way; I’ve just done stuff that was interesting to me when I was doing it. I’ve never had plans to take this position, that position, move on. A beautiful job with a beautiful business card. I’ve never thought this way.

Some people do. But as long as I was happy, content doing what I was doing, no other condition matched the one I was in.

Did you ever feel like you were getting too comfortable here?

That’s when the Hirshhorn offer came in and I realized that maybe, yeah, I was on the comfortable side of things, and I could just glide away until my retirement. But it took me some time to accept it [the offer].

How have you seen the MMFA change in the 16 years you’ve been here, and the Montreal artworld? How have you perceived the museum and city’s recent trajectories?

The museum has undergone a considerable growth. We added a wing in 2011, we’re adding another one next year, 2016. Two wings in ten years – in five years, in fact – is exceptional. The audience went up, too. From 600,000 to 1 million. And the overall sense of sympathy and affection and esteem that we have from Montrealers, our public, has risen. The museum grew, the art scene grew. It used to be a run-down parallel art center in the ‘90s. I mean, you know this. And now that we have these important collectors who have gone public with their active collecting, and various other things, there’s a lot of excitement about contemporary art in various milieus, here.

What spurred Montreal’s recent and growing confidence?

It’s both intrinsic to the city and extrinsic. That change occurred over the entire world, the art market exploding in the 2000s and its re-explosion after 2008. There’s so much glamour and money and appeal that comes with the artworld now. So many people want to jump in and get into it, and whatever their reasons, whether or not we think they’re the best ones (speculating, making money, rubbing elbows with the stars), overall I think it’s an improvement.

How have you worked to distinguish the contemporary curating you’ve done at the MMFA from the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal?

It’s been very easy. We have a different mission than the Musée d’art contemporain. This museum has been around 150 years. It has its traditions, its story, perspective. They have theirs. Also they are a state museum and we’re a private museum. They have an obligation, more of an obligation than any other government organization has, to be fair, to be seen. We don’t have that. We can do what we want, to a certain extent.

And then, I like art history. It’s fun to work with a collection, and it’s fun to have colleagues who are specialized in old masters and Asian art and pre-Columbian. It’s enriching. This is something you don’t necessarily have in a contemporary art museum, strictly speaking; you only have contemporary-art specialists. So that is a different take on art. It informs what you look for and what you look at.

What do you consider your specialty?

Late nineteenth-century art, and art criticism. And thinking about how we think about art has always interested me. How we think about art changes so enormously from one moment to another, one class to another. The multiplicity of perspectives on this, I find, is extremely fascinating. But everything from the late nineteenth-century to today is what interests me, the adventure of modernism.

What are you most proud of? Which exhibition gave you the greatest sense of accomplishment?

The most beautiful exhibition was Peter Doig. It was the most perfect and sublime combination of works and galleries and narrative and sheer absolute beauty. It was perfection. [But I have] hardly any credit to take for that. It’s all about the artist breathing in beautiful galleries.

The Warhol Live was a fun project to do, too. When you can contribute to the historiography of such a great artist in an original way, it’s a good feeling, a satisfying feeling.

What are the misses, or things you wish you had done better?

Innumerable. Man, I don’t want to go there. [laughs] You’re hardly ever satisfied with a project. When it’s up on the walls, you go “damn.” When the book is out, you think, “I forgot this and that, I should have done this and that.” Everything is more an experience in frustration and disappointment than anything else.

I’m sure there are many things that will be different in this new position, but what are the key distinctions?

The main difference is that all that I’ve been doing by myself here, I’ll have five amazing curators to help. I can’t tell you how thrilled I am, the idea of meeting my colleagues and getting to know them, and what they want to do.

I could fill a museum with projects as any curator can, but that’s not the idea. That’s not my plan. I’ve done a lot of shows, and I don’t need to prove anything.

What is the Hirshhorn’s profile, in your opinion?

Well it’s the national museum of modern and contemporary art. It’s one of the great museums of that sort in the world, like the Tate and the Pompidou. And it’s a beautiful museological instrument – the building is fantastic, so challenging and inspiring. The collection has its ups and downs, but it has a lot of ups that are really exciting, the idea of working with them is exciting – Francis Bacon, Willem de Kooning. And it went through a troubled time over the last years, but with a new director, a new deputy director, now a new chief curator, I mean all that we can look forward to is better days. It’s exciting to join an institution at a moment like this, knowing you can make a difference.

You told me a few years ago about various projects you were working on that haven’t materialized yet. Are you going to have to walk away from those, or bring them with you?

I don’t know. There are a few projects that if they ever happen, I’ll be really happy. But I’m not there yet.

My first goal is to sit down and know my team and know their aspirations. I could come with ten projects, but that’s not the idea.

But there is a moral and professional obligation that if you develop a project with a particular museum, you see it through with that museum. 

How do you perceive the issue of nationality, as a French-Canadian who’s about to run a museum of national import and symbolic significance in American culture? How do you perceive the Hirshhorn’s choice in you, regarding this, and do you foresee any difficult in navigating the role as an “outsider”?

I don’t see any conflict of any sort for a French-Canadian to be working in this role at an American national institution. I think it only enriches an institution to have people of various cultural backgrounds. At the MMFA there must be five or six nationalities just at the curatorial level alone. And I don’t see it being different [at the Hirshhorn]. It’s a cosmopolitan and international city but its mission, also, is to bring the world to Washington.

Is the Hirshhorn’s agenda aligned with your own, in terms of the curatorial focus of the past few years?

Certainly the goal is to balance the modern and the contemporary poles of the museum. These are built into the museum’s mission and collection and we have to be conscious of this. The building itself needs to be used in inventive ways. It’s also an international platform. There are many museums in the states that highlight all the American artists that we know, and who deserve to be highlighted, but what can be unique with the Hirshhorn is to transform it into a platform of international art in the heart of America. If it could be seen as a window onto the world from the American capital, that would be fantastic, it’s something we’ll work on.

You’re about to assume a very visible and symbolic position as chief curator of the United States’s national museum. This underscores the status that the curator has in the contemporary moment, I’m sure this hasn’t eluded you. Are you agitating against the notion of a star curator, and do you worry you’re about to adopt the burden or privilege of that mantle?

It’s funny, we had a panel on that recently, on the “curator as author.” Curators have become the uber-author who writes the text for contemporary life, using the work of contemporary artists. And it’s ironic to have that comeback of the uber-author after so many profound considerations on the death of the author. The [idea of authorship] came under fire from all perspectives in the past fifty years, and now, it turns out, it’s not dead, it’s alive and well. And it’s monstrous. [laughs]

I see curating more as reading than writing. Reading into art something, and sharing in your reading, saying “I read this, in that moment of art history, I read this in this person’s art. I read this, I see this.” I don’t say this out of false humility. At the end of the day what counts is the artist’s work. That has the power to help us in our understanding of life and why we’re here.

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