Issue #181  5/31/2011
MOMA's Peter Galassi Retires

By Alex Novak

In another major shakeup of the museum world, Peter Galassi, the longtime chief curator of the Museum of Modern Art's photography department, has suddenly retired, which opens up one more important photography vacancy.

The older giants like Galassi are disappearing from the scene. Just in the last several years the American museum world has lost John Szarkowski (retired and passed away), Ted Hartwell (passed away), Weston Naef (retired from museum, but still working), Robert Sobieszek (passed away), Terry Toedtemeier (passed away), David Travis (retired from museum, but still working), Robert Flynn Johnson (retired from museum, but still working) and Tom Hinson (retired from museum, but still working)--just to mention a few of the major and influential players no longer on the active museum scene.

Now with positions at NY MoMA, Cleveland, New Orleans, University of Florida, and Arizona's Center for Creative Photography all currently open and other major institutions' photography curator positions being filled relatively recently (Minneapolis, LACMA, Getty, Atlanta High Museum, Art Institute of Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco Museum of Fine Arts, Norton Museum, etc.), it looks like the photography world will lose much of its experience at the top of the museum curator world.

Galassi, at a mere 60, was a surprise. He was named director of the photography department in 1991 at the age of 40, after only ten years as associate director, taking over the position long held by John Szarkowski, who just passed away last year. In fact, Galassi is only the fourth curator to hold that director post since the department was formed in 1940 by Beaumont Newhall. Edward Steichen was the only other chief curator for the department.

Galassi organized or co-organized over 40 exhibitions at MoMA, where he began as a curatorial intern in 1974, including, surveys of both Andreas Gursky in 2001 and Lee Friedlander in 2005, a Jeff Wall show in 2007, and "Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century" in 2010.

Several observers that I have talked to recently decried this loss of talent and experience, worrying about younger curators and their focus on contemporary and celebrity, rather than substance and history. Personally, I think the jury is still out on the abilities of some of the younger curatorial talent. Many have the vision and flexibility to excite new audiences. It remains to be seen if they understand the importance of continuity, context and history.