A 46-year-old scholar with an international personal and cultural background will be the next leader of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
On Friday, the museum’s board of trustees announced the appointment of Julian Zugazagoitia, director of the Museo del Barrio in New York, as its fifth director.
Born in Mexico City and educated at the Sorbonne, Zugazagoitia has been director of the Museum del Barrio since 2002. Before that he was executive assistant to the director at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, where he organized the big "Brazil Body and Soul exhibition." In 2002 he was a curator of the 25th Sao Paulo Biennale in Brazil.
Zugazagoitia (pronounced SZU-ga-sa-GOY-tee-yah) began discussions with the nine-member Nelson search committee in January.
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The group was impressed, said Sarah Rowland, chair of the board of trustees, by his “vision and engagement with art and his passion for art as a factor for bringing people together.”
“I want the museum to resonate more and be more relevant in everybody’s life,” Zugazagoitia said this morning in a meeting with The Star.
During his tenure at the Museo del Barrio, Zugazagoitia, transformed the institution into a leading museum of Latin American and Caribbean art. He increased attendance five-fold, multiplied the number and kinds of programs and led a $44 million capital campaign and renovation. The museum reopened in October, at the beginning of its 40th anniversary year.
Zugazagoitie said he was attracted to the Nelson position by the museum’s “enormous potential” and his impression that “Kansas City is committed to a cultural future.”
Another big plus he cited was “no building campaign.”
“I adore and admire Steven Holl,” he said with a grin about the design architect of the Nelson's three-year-old Bloch Building. “They told me there were no leaks.”
Zugazagoitia will officially take the museum helm Sept. 1. He succeeds Marc F. Wilson, who announced his retirement last year after nearly 28 years as director and CEO. Wilson's retirement takes effect June 1.
With the hiring of Zugazagoitia, the Nelson returns to a structure involving a single point of responsibility, after years of dual leadership divided between a director/CEO and a chief operating officer.
“The timing for us is perfect,” Rowland said, “to build on the accomplishments of Marc Wilson’s tenure.”
The search committee, led by Louis Smith, over the last 16 months began narrowing the field early this year. Rowland said members were impressed by Zugazagoitia's emphasis on community outreach.
"I think Julian’s vision and his engagement with art, his passion for art as a factor for bringing people together and moving art into the communities were all qualities we were delighted to find.
“I think the Nelsonis poised to do something very dramatic. We have an extraordinary building, a fabulous curatorial staff, a community that wants to be engaged — and I think will be — and Julian’s conviction about art and its necessity and importance were all very attractive and meaningful to members of the search committee. "
Zugazagoitia joins the Nelson at a time of lagging and less-than-hoped-for attendance—358,000 visitors in 2009 — and an economic picture dimmed by the recession.
Although the Nelson is much larger than the Museo del Barrio, Zugazagoitia, is unfazed by the Nelson’s size. Fund-raising , he said, is a way to achieve “immediate gratification of a great plan.”
On the art side of the business, Zugazagoitia brings extensive knowledge of Latin American art and broad international experience. He has served as cultural attaché in the permanent Mexican Delegation to UNESCO, Paris. From 1991-99, he worked as a consultant with Getty Conservation Institute on European and African projects. From 1997 to 1999 he was director of the Spoleto Festival in Italy.
Zugazagoitia grew up in a culture-imbued family of Basque and German heritage. A grandfather emigrated to Mexico during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. His father is a mathematician with musical leanings. His mother is an actress, who, as it happens, was to appear in a play in Mexico City Friday night. A sister is a dancer. At some point he realized he should concentrate on the visual arts.
After growing up in Mexico City, he studied in Paris where he eventually earned a doctoral degree in philosophy at the Sorbonne.
Zugazagoitia will move to Kansas City with his wife, Tasha, and two children, 10 and 6, who have lived in New York all their lives. He has promised to get them a pet to help ease the transition.