Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Mass MoCA's Nato Thompson switches gears

'Angular energy'
Mass MoCA's Nato Thompson switches gears
By Jennifer Huberdeau, North Adams Transcript

Nato Thompson, curator at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, is leaving after 5 1/2 years bringing such thought-provoking exhibits as 'Ahistoric Occasion' to the city.

NORTH ADAMS — After five years of bringing thought-provoking art to the city, Nato Thompson, curator of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, is leaving for a curator's position with Creative Time, an arts organization in New York City.

"I love this museum to death," Thompson said Monday afternoon. "But in the curatorial world, you have to switch gears and move on every so often. I'm not one of those people who thinks New York City is better than anywhere. I'm one of those people who believes in switching gears."

"Creative Time is an arts organization that doesn't really have a fixed space, it works in the public sphere," he said. "It can be anything from working with the Times Square monitor to an art installation in warehouses or a sound installation in taxi cabs. I want to try my hand outside of the museum. The concept of working without walls in kind of exciting."

Mass MoCA director Joseph Thompson, who is no relation, said the museum will miss Nato's talent and energy.

"Nato conceived a lively series of exhibitions at Mass MoCA, leveraging our unique technical capacities, fabrication facilities and large spaces to maximum effect," he said in a statement. "His 'Interventionists' show was something of a landmark and revealed Nato's knack for collaborating with socially relevant and politically engaged artists to present work that is about something more than politics."

He added, "He's not afraid of humor, and we all need more of that. We're looking forward to his last show at Mass MoCA, 'The Believers,' which opens this April, and we eagerly await Nato's next moves at Creative Time. His colleagues at Mass MoCA will miss his angular energy, and we wish him well."

Originally from Los Angeles, Nato Thompson joined Mass MoCA in September 2001, after earning his master's in arts administration at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

"I came in as an assistant curator," he said. "I had run art space in the (San Francisco) Bay area and had done internships in Thailand and at the Art Institute of Chicago. This was my first serious art job following graduate school."

He said the beauty of the Berkshires was a "wonderful surprise" when he arrived in North Adams — a city he had heard about because of the museum.

"In the art world, the Mass MoCA is not all that obscure," Thompson said. "There are only so many contemporary art museums in the world."

In 2004, he was promoted to assistant curator and took over as curator in 2005.
"It's such a great place. Joe (Thompson) has set a real tone of warm-heartedness and can-do-it-ness," he said. "It's like a family. It's going to be tough to go. It's a small town, and you get to know people with a wide variety of personalities and kicks. I have a lot of friends I'm going to miss."

One of his favorite shows was 2004's "Interventionists: Art in the Social Sphere," which won a national spotlight when the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrived in the city to deliver subpoenas to two of the show's artists. They were being called to testify in the grand jury hearing for fellow artist Steven Kurtz, a Buffalo, N.Y., university professor who also was scheduled to exhibit at the museum. All three belonged to the internationally acclaimed Critical Art Ensemble. Biological terrorism charges were brought against Kurtz for materials — three types of bacteria — that were destined for the show.

"It was surreal," Thompson said. "It's still going on. He's still on trial. It was intense to have the FBI show up in a city of 12,000. One could call it a political experience. It just showed the social moment we were in. It really showed up on our doorstep."

He said the incident put the museum in a place where it was "tested by outside forces."
"Joe and the (museum) board really stood up and supported the artist," Thompson said. "I was really impressive."

For him, his exhibits, including the current "Ahistoric Occasion," are "like little children."
"Each show takes probably 1 1/2 years, start to finish. Then they stay up for a whole year," Thompson said. "There's a lot of discussion that goes into each one. There's also a catalog to put together for each show — the books take a long time to put out, too. But, they're a lot of fun and I really enjoy that."
He joked, "It's a long-term relationship. Most of my romantic relationships haven't lasted that long."
While he'll miss the friends he has made in the past five years, he's taking someone special with him when he moves to New York City — his girlfriend.

"My girlfriend, Miranda Ganzar, works for Berkshire Living Magazine in Great Barrington," he said. "She's going to try her hand in the publishing world of New York. Moving comes with a whole new world of things — housing costs and taking the subway. There will be new concerns about where to eat and what to do."
His final show, "The Believers," begins in April.