THURSDAY, May 7 — Mónica Ramirez-Montagut, a museum curator, director and architect with a reputation for community outreach, imaginative programming and broad inclusivity, has been named the third director of MSU’s Eli and Edythe Broad Museum.
She starts the job July 1.
At a stroke, the appointment throws open the windows of the Broad, which has been dogged since it opened in 2013 by a reputation for intimidating, academic and esoteric exhibits, to a wild world of expressions, styles and viewpoints.
MSU President Samuel Stanley said he was “elated” at the appointment. He predicted that Ramirez-Montagut “will bring a fresh perspective to MSU and a renewed energy to the museum, the university and the arts community.”
The appointment fills a lingering vacuum left by the death of the Broad’s gregarious and passionate founding director, Michael Rush, in 2015, and was never quite filled by his cerebral, aloof successor, Marc-Olivier Wahler, who left the Broad in January 2019.
A native of Mexico, Ramirez-Montagut has lived in the United States since 2002 and held several high-level posts as curator and director in New York, Connecticut, San Jose and New Orleans.
The MSU search committee was impressed by the way Ramirez-Montagut turned another university-affiliated museum, the Newcomb Art Museum at New Orleans’ Tulane University, into a lively gathering center for students and the community. Ramirez-Montagut has been the director of the Newcomb since 2014.
“Mónica has made the Newcomb Museum a destination, transforming it into an integral part of the city of New Orleans as well as a driver of curricular innovation at Tulane,” said Judith Stoddart, associate provost for university collections and arts initiatives and a member of the 10-person search committee that recommended Ramirez-Montagut to President Stanley.
Another thread that drew Ramirez-Montagut to MSU is her training as an architect with a special interest in Frank Lloyd Wright and the work of Zaha Hadid, who designed the MSU Broad.
In addition to her art and architecture expertise, Ramirez-Montagut has a track record of creating lively, cross-cultural, cross-disciplinary events that impressed the search committee, according to MSU Broad spokeswoman Morgan Butts.
In 2004, Ramirez-Montagut helped to put together the bilingual MexicoNow festival, a grand showcase of Mexican contemporary art, music and dance with more than 150 events in 36 venues.
“She’s very art-focused, of course, but she has this background in performing arts as well, and we were excited about all the ways she’s worked with art and culture throughout her career,” Butts said.
Ramirez-Montagut has a penchant for setting up shop inside buildings designed by her architectural idols. As assistant curator of architecture and design at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, which Wright designed, Ramirez-Montagut worked on several major projects, including “Zaha Hadid” and “Restoring a Masterpiece: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum.” She also served as curator of collections and public programs at the Price Tower Arts Center in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, housed in the only skyscraper designed by Wright.
The Broad has always championed marginalized and contrarian artists, but the appointment of Ramirez-Montagut promises to put that practice into overdrive. One of the exhibits she oversaw at Newcomb was “Per(sister): Incarcerated Women of Louisiana,” a multi-layered look at Louisiana prisons developed with the participation of formerly incarcerated women.
As a scholar and critic, Ramirez-Montagut has written extensively on art and architecture, including major books about KAWS, the graffiti artist and toy designer, and the hip-hop-comic-book-neon-noodle-surrealism of New York artist Erik Parker, for prestigious art book publisher Rizzoli.
Since it opened in 2013, the MSU Broad has hosted an impressive array of artistic voices and become a visual icon of MSU, but it has not yet lived up to its initial hype as a cultural game-changer for greater Lansing and mid-Michigan.
Among the reasons for the Broad’s widely perceived underperformance are lingering hostility to the museum’s bold architecture, a persistent animus toward contemporary art, bad blood over the annihilation of the Broad’s predecessor, the Kresge Art Gallery, and a series of unlucky leadership changes, as two directors and two curators — Alison Gass and Caitlin Doherty — came and went in the space of a few years.
Looking for a new director and a new direction, the MSU search committee placed a premium on talent for community outreach and engagement. The brief for the job called for someone who excels at “being at ease with people and accepting the public demands made upon a leader, with visibility in the community.”
Alan Ross, a member of the 10-person search committee, said he was looking for a “game-changer.”
Ross said the museum is doing “all right,” with attendance that’s close to that of other university-held museums, but it’s still not living up to its potential.
“It’s underperforming because we need a leader that understands an academic institution and a community at the same time,” Ross said.
Broad Museum assistant curator Stephen Bridges, also a member of the search committee, said a “strong leader” is a must.
“This is a dynamic place,” he said. “You can’t have a building like this and do the same old same old.”
Butts said that all of the finalists for the director post were able to come to MSU and meet with staff and search committee members before the coronavirus outbreak shut the campus down.
The names of finalists are kept confidential because they all have current jobs.
“In the search process, we were struck by Mónica’s ability to bring people together around the arts,” Butts said. “She is a passionate and enthusiastic advocate for the arts, but ultimately, she values connectivity the way we do at the MSU Broad.”
The committee also noted that Ramirez-Montagut has been a “sought-after partner and collaborator in New Orleans,” Butts said. “As we start to think about our role at MSU and in the community, we saw a lot of who we are, and who we want to be, in Mónica.”
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