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Pulitzer Foundation names new director

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 5, 2011 - Kristina Van Dyke, curator for collections and research at the Menil Collection in Houston, has been named director of the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts.

Emily Rauh Pulitzer, chairman and founder of the Foundation, announced Van Dyke's appointment. Van Dyke's selection by Pulitzer and the Foundation board was unanimous and enthusiastic, Pulitzer said.

Van Dyke is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin. She received her master's degree in art history from Williams College, Williamstown, Mass., and her Ph.D. from Harvard University. She has special expertise in African art; her dissertation was a study of the nature of representation in the oral traditions of Mali in West Africa. She has worked at the Menil since 2005.

During her tenure, she curated shows called "Insistent Objects: David Levinthal's Blackface," "Chance Encounters: the Formation of the de Menils' African Collection: Objects of Devotion" and "Body in Fragments." She also initiated exhibits and publications on the Menil's Oceanic and Byzantine collections.

She was responsible also for reinstalling the African and Pacific Islands galleries and published "African Art from the Menil Collection." Currently she is pursuing a study of Malian antiquities that promises to have scientific as well as art historical significance, and an exhibition focusing on contemporary African art that spans Houston, Texas and Lagos, Nigeria. That endeavor will result in exhibits mounted in both locations simultaneously.

Van Dyke succeeds Matthias Waschek, who resigned the Pulitzer Foundation directorship in early January. Waschek came to the Foundation in 2003 from the Louvre, and is credited with leading the Pulitzer Foundation onto a much more open and community-embracing platform.

Pulitzer said Van Dyke was chosen following an international search. She praised the new director's "intelligence and her particular focus on works of art."

Pulitzer's positive impressions of Van Dyke were formed, in part, by travelling to Houston to look at Van Dyke's installations at the Menil. She found them, she said, to be brilliant. Pulitzer noted a special and important compatibility between the Menil and the Pulitzer Foundation, and said the Menil is "as close to what we are" as any other institution.

This compatibility arises in part by a philosophy of the late Dominique de Menil, founder of the Menil Collection with her husband, John. Mrs. de Menil believed in the absolute primacy of the work of art. That attitude is shared by the leadership of the Pulitzer Foundation and is fundamental to its intellectual and aesthetic progress.

Van Dyke put it this way: "The object comes first. Our job is not only to remove any impediments of access to it," such as display cases and labels, "but also, when we put the art in the gallery, by allowing the art to do the work, and allowing the visitor to make decisions about the objects.

"You create conditions where the work of art truly lives and breathes," she continued. "You have to have confidence in the work of art and the viewer."

She said a common quality of the Menil and the Pulitzer is the absence of the "tyrannical voice," the controlling impulse to direct a viewer to a particular point of view, rather than allowing or encouraging him or her to develop individual aesthetic experiences.

The presence and ever-changing quality of natural light in both buildings -- the Menil's, designed by Renzo Piano, and the Pulitzer's, designed by Tadao Ando -- profoundly affects and enables such experiences, she said.

Pulitzer said ideas such as those influenced the selection of Van Dyke. In addition, Pulitzer said, "she writes beautifully and has the sort of intelligence that will take us to a higher scholarly level, while maintaining our capacity for out-of-the-box thinking.

"She is thoughtful, she is a good administrator and has so many of the qualities we need in the area of management."

Comment: The Pulitzer works as a sanctuary for art and laboratory for innovation

Van Dyke comes to the Pulitzer Foundation at an important time in its history. This autumn is its tenth anniversary, a moment that offers opportunity to reflect on its development and its place in St. Louis and the world.

When the doors opened in 2001 America was reeling from the tragedy of concerted attacks on the World Trade Center and on Washington, acts of violence that brought about not only enormous human death and suffering and material destruction but also disequilibrium on a massive scale, a sense that the world had changed fundamentally and forever, and not in any sense for the good.

What was the appropriate role for art to assume in this new reality? And what was the place of a new and exquisitely beautiful new building created specifically for the celebration of art?

In the beginning, the fledgling institution's vision, while certainly educated, experienced and sophisticated, was directed inwardly toward scholarly research and quiet contemplation of works of produced in the main by contemporary artists. Now, in various and often astonishing ways, the Pulitzer continues to serve those purposes above while simultaneously reaching out into the community, the nation and the world in which it exists.

In the world of Pulitzer 2011, an on-staff social worker works side-by-side with curators. Chamber music is performed in the main gallery. Movies are shown on exterior walls.

In exhibits in the past seven years or so, South Seas Ancestor poles and the circuits-frying surrealism of Max Klinger are as much a part of the flow as works of art by Richard Serra and Ellsworth Kelly.

In a program called "Staging Old Masters: Former Prisoners at the Pulitzer," paintings at the Pulitzer by artists such as Domenico Tintoretto and Luca Giordano derived new meaning from dramatic interpretations by recent members of prison populations.

The ideological re-formation of the Foundation evolved organically and credit for it goes to many bright and talented individuals, along with wisdom that has rained down over the passage of time, plus dizzying technological advancements, along with the ever-thrilling eruptions occurring constantly within the grand body of art itself.

There was also, however, a significant synthesis of ideas and realities, accomplished by a former president of the Foundation's board, the late James N. Wood.

Wood, who died last year, besides being a scholar, was one of the most beloved, most innovative and most highly respected members of the sprawling world of the fine arts and the museum business. He was a former director of the St. Louis Art Museum and the Chicago Art Institute, and at the time of his death was head of the Getty Trust in Los Angeles.

In addition, as a pillar of the Pulitzer Foundation's board, he was enormously important to the institution's growth and development. It was he who put in words what that mission should be: to serve as a sanctuary for the contemplation of works of art and as a laboratory for innovative thinking about art and its transformative powers in modern society.

It is this world Kristina Van Dyke will enter on Nov. 7, a world at once utterly refined and scrupulously intellectual yet at the same time so thoroughly energetic and marvelously unpredictable, a world in which innovation and experimentation is valued as highly as the respected traditions of art history.

Guided by Wood's dyadic mission, the Foundation has flourished, offering exhibitions and programs that beckon the public to enter its serene interior spaces while simultaneously reaching out to and calling forth the neighborhood in which it exists, a neighborhood that encompasses not only the region's most important educational and cultural resources but also a population that is decidedly disadvantaged.

Van Dyke said work such as that - work in which art ceases to be hermetically sealed within a building, or art that serves as a backdrop, or worse, interior decoration - "is one of the most exciting aspects of coming to St. Louis. This is definitely part of my work, and it is a key to the philosophy of the Pulitzer," she said. And, in addition to making a contribution to the cultural life of St. Louis, she said, "work of this sort can serve as a model for other institutions."

Editor's note: Emily Rauh Pulitzer is a donor to the Beacon.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.

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