“I’m a great fan of Cleveland,” says Emily Liebert, the CMA’s new associate curator of contemporary art. “As a native New Yorker, I appreciate Cleveland’s depth of character. Even as the city grows and changes, its layers of history are palpable.” Having arrived in November, Liebert has settled into her new home and job. “I believe that curating is a site-specific endeavor,” she says. “As I think about the projects I want to develop here, I’m responding to the qualities that are particular to this remarkable museum—and the city.” She is especially excited to present contemporary art in the context of the CMA’s encyclopedic collections, paying special attention to the rich connections that can be drawn among artworks spanning time and place.
In recent years, the CMA’s contemporary art collection and exhibition program have deepened and grown. In January the museum acquired its first performance work, Pierre Huyghe’s Name Announcer (2011), which is activated on weekends through September as part of the exhibition Recent Acquisitions 2014–2017. Currently Liebert and curator of contemporary art Reto Thüring are organizing Kerry James Marshall: Works on Paper in conjunction with this summer’s FRONT International, Cleveland’s inaugural triennial for contemporary art.
Liebert is interested in the ways in which diverse genres of art intersect with and fuel each other. In 2013 she curated the exhibition Multiple Occupancy: Eleanor Antin’s “Selves,” which debuted at Columbia University’s Wallach Art Gallery and traveled to the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston. An outgrowth of her doctoral dissertation at Columbia, the show explored how Antin—a pioneering conceptual artist—develops complex narratives across media. Before joining the CMA, Liebert worked at the Museum of Modern Art, where she was part of the curatorial team that organized the major retrospective Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends.
Liebert values an interdisciplinary approach not just to making art but also to curating it: “I see exhibitions as starting points to tell stories through art as well as music, film, dance, poetry, and scholarship.” With this in mind, she looks forward to collaborating with the museum’s Department of Education and Academic Affairs to develop robust programming around exhibitions. Liebert’s experience as a teacher of art history students and practicing artists at Columbia informs her perspective as a curator and underlies her “commitment to offering viewers a framework for engaging with narratives that may be new to them.”
“I can’t name just one favorite work in the CMA collection,” she says. “There are so many that stop me in my tracks!” These days she finds herself spending time in front of a potent pair of paintings in the contemporary galleries: Agnes Martin’s The City (1966) and Jack Whitten’s Rho I (1977). “Using such basic means—a grid and a scraper, respectively—both artists make their minimal, monochromatic canvases pulse and change as you look at them.” Near these works is Jackie Curtis and Ritta Redd (1970) by Alice Neel, another of Liebert’s favorite painters. “Neel brings compelling abstract qualities—formal and emotional—into her portraits, which is part of what keeps me looking at them,” she explains. It’s that same play between figure and abstraction that draws her to The Stargazer, one of the CMA’s most beloved objects, dated to the third millennium BC.
Now that somewhat warmer weather has arrived, Liebert anticipates exploring aspects of Cleveland that are hidden in winter. Like many newcomers, she enjoys the Metroparks and the West Side Market. She’s heard the Cleveland Orchestra at Severance Hall and gone to shows at the Beachland Ballroom. “I know I’ve only scratched the surface,” she admits. “I’m eager to keep discovering all that this city has to offer.”