Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art brings in new curatorial leadership

René Morales of the Pérez Art Museum Miami and Jamillah James of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, will fill key vacancies at the MCA

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Incoming Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago chief curator René Morales. Photo by Karli Evans

Incoming Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago chief curator René Morales. Photo by Karli Evans

A new guard is coming to the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Chicago. A year after losing its two top curators—chief curator Michael Darling, who left to co-found the for-profit start-up Museum Exchange, which matches collectors with institutions in need of donations, and senior curator Naomi Beckwith, who took up the post of deputy director and chief curator at the Guggenheim Museum in New York this June—the institution has found their replacements. René Morales, the director of curatorial affairs and chief curator at the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM), will take over as chief curator at the MCA in January, with Jamillah James, senior curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (ICA LA) and co-curator of the 2021 New Museum Triennial, joining as senior curator.

“We are building a curatorial team for the MCA’s next chapter, one that is committed to telling an inclusive art history, engaging with our community, and expanding the breadth and diversity of experience on the team,” said the MCA’s director, Madeleine Grynsztejn in a statement. The museum has been working to address criticisms of it over the past year, including from former staff and artists over its decision to layoff 11% of its workers. The new appointments could help the institution turn a page, as both Morales and James are known for their close collaboration with artists and fellow curators.

Incoming Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago senior curator Jamillah James. Photo by Jasmine Clarke



“A very strong focus of [the MCA] going forward is going to be softening those lines between the institution and the community and really making itself more open and accessible,” Morales said in a phone interview. “The MCA has always placed an emphasis on social practice and socially engaged activities. And it’s well set up to pursue that further to take into new directions.” For James, “the MCA is an institution that I have long admired and where, as a student in Chicago, I had many formative experiences with contemporary art and artists. Visiting the MCA helped me realise the possibilities of curating and of museums,” she said in a statement.

Morales added that Chicago is “a place that is very conducive to experimental approaches to culture. And it’s a place that seems to really reflect the most current issues that we are dealing with as a society, it’s a great barometer or lightning rod for everything that’s happening throughout the country in different ways.” He is also eager to get to know the artists who live and work there. “I can’t imagine working for a place that doesn’t have a strong artist community. It’s just a major source of inspiration and where you get all your energy as a curator,” he said. James added that she is “humbled by the opportunity to be an advocate for them as part of the MCA’s team”.

And while Morales said there are a few critical staff hires to be made, “particularly in the realm of the performance and public practice pod under curatorial”, it remains to be determined how much more the department will grow. “I know one of the important areas of focus for the museum, and for myself, and our curator Carla Acevedo Yates, is to look at the Latinx community more closely. Whether that involves additional staff, I don’t know yet, but certainly on a programmatic level, that’s something that we want.”

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