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In Conversation With…David Breslin, Curator in Charge of The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Modern and Contemporary Art Department and the new Oscar L. and H.M. Agnes Hsu-Tang Wing

April 2024

David Breslin is the Curator in Charge of The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Modern and Contemporary Art Department and the new Oscar L. and H.M. Agnes Hsu-Tang Wing

David Breslin’s fascination with art started at a young age. With a father who was a college administrator and a mother who was an artist, he grew up among creative people in the arts and sciences on college campuses: “At the University of Charleston, amongst other artists, Maurice Sendak spent some time at our home. I remembered seeing him in our house, drawing. I was fascinated that you could do that as a living.”  Frequent museum visits prompted his love of art history “I loved Art History because of the museums and I loved the idea of a museum as a point of gathering, dialogue, and debate. If you’re an institution that cares about questions, you have to be ready to navigate open waters. There are increasingly fewer places for these conversations to happen so the museum becomes more important.

With this discovery, David pursued a master’s in Art History at Williams College where he worked first part-time and then as a project manager for Jenny Holzer and witnessed the real life of an artist. Her work became the focus of his dissertation as a PhD student at Harvard: “It helped demystify the life of an artist as a job like any other, but re-mistify it because there is an unbelievable task of making something new for people that also feels ingrained in daily life.” After his studies, David worked at the Clark Art Institute in Massachusetts, curating and helping run a research center. He then spent two years as Chief Curator of the Drawing Institute at the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas, collaborating with architects to create a new building dedicated to the drawings collection. He describes this experience as a “crash course in architecture” which helped him prepare for his work on the new Tang Wing.

After the Menil Collection, David spent 6 years at the Whitney Museum of American Art where he started as the Director of the Collection shortly after the museum opened its new space on Gansevoort Street. He moved to Director of Curatorial Initiatives and co-curated the Whitney’s 2022 Biennial, the first since the pandemic: “It was a wild experience but I was lucky to have a co-curator, Adrienne Edwards, whom I respected enormously and whom I could trust, in a similar way to my relationship with my co-curators and colleagues at The Met. Faith and trust were especially important at the time: we were doing studio visits on screens and navigating difficult political circumstances. We didn’t know how long the pandemic would last so it was also an existential experience.

In between giving tours of the Biennal, David was headhunted by The Met to head the museum’s modern and contemporary art department and work on the Oscar L. Tang and H.M. Agnes Hsu-Tang Wing. Of this new responsibility, David notes: “The Whitney is an interesting place because of the specificity of its mission being a museum of American art. But at The Met, you have a daunting and incredible challenge of taking on the world: all eyes are on that institution.” While many other museums in NYC specifically focus on modern and contemporary art, David highlights the importance for The Met to invest in it as well: “The Met is about the breadth, scope, and intensity of artistic expression across ages and cultures. It’s a special opportunity to show those points of connection, to show that artists of today are thinking deeply with the past and across cultures, but as importantly, to also see the points of real break, rupture, and desire for change and something new.

Current installation in The Met’s Levine Galleries. Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

David describes this project as highly collaborative, engaging with Drawings and Prints, Photography, and departments across the museum. Co-leading this vision is Frida Escobedo, a Mexico-based and award-winning architect who opened a studio immersed within The Met for the first year of work: “Frida is such an accomplished person, thinker, and architect. It’s incredible to be working with someone for whom it’s also a first project of this magnitude, as it would be for most! She has a sense of real curiosity, and reflexive questioning of why something has to be done a certain way, which is a great prompt for our thinking curatorially.”

Of the various works in The Met’s modern and contemporary art collection, one of David’s favourites is Allegory by Bob Thompson, painted in 1960, shortly after the artist arrived in NYC from Louisville, Kentucky: “Many of his works are riffs of old masters paintings but they’re done with this widely inventive sense of color. I love it because I think for someone of his time and background, finding The Met a home might have been offputting. Yet he made it his own, which is an idea I like a lot for The Met: these old things can take new meaning in our hands.”

As David adds, these curatorial narratives and grand-scale projects wouldn’t be feasible without the generosity of supporters: “Philanthropy helps us dream big. It responds to the idea that art and our audiences matter. It means those outside the institution care for the work that we’re doing and have faith in our staff to back up our projects.”

The ҹѰ is contributing $10,000,000 to fund a gallery within The Metropolitan Museum of Art Museum’s new Oscar L. and H.M. Agnes Hsu-Tang Wing for modern and contemporary art.