chief curator, contemporary art museum st. louis
CAM’s new chief curator, Wassan Al-Khudhairi, knows what it means to bring global insights to one’s professional endeavors. She has lived, studied and worked on more continents than many people have visited. Her broad experience gives her a variety of perspectives as she researches, develops and oversees the changing installations that make their way through the museum. Al-Khudhairi specializes in Middle Eastern art and is called on often to jury exhibitions and give lectures in other cities. She just moved to St. Louis last summer, but already is making herself at home in the Gateway City, designing innovative ways to enrich people’s lives through art.
about me … My parents are from Baghdad, and I was born in Kuwait. We emigrated to the U.S. in 1989 before the first Gulf War. I studied art history at Georgia State University, then attended The American University in Cairo. I have a master’s degree in Islamic art and archaeology from the University of London and participated in the Getty Leadership Institute for museum professionals.
what i plan to accomplish … My role is to envision new programs for CAM, but it’s not something that happens quickly. It takes a lot of slow integration, but we have a wonderful space that’s very open and malleable. I want to continue the museum’s exciting legacy, organize exhibits that are relevant to people here, and bring visibility to artists who don’t have a presence yet.
about my development … Originally when studying in Egypt, I wanted to be an anthropologist, but then I became interested in contemporary art and bringing attention to work that didn’t yet have a platform there. We think of Cairo and other Middle Eastern cities as centers of ancient art, but there are many wonderful contemporary artists working there, too.
what i like about st. louis … The art museum, history museum, botanical garden and zoo are amazing! I love that so many attractions are free here. And smaller arts organizations and galleries in neighborhoods like Cherokee Street offer such a great, energetic vibe. I love interesting little spaces that pop out of older buildings in the city’s historic neighborhoods. I live in Botanical Heights, so I can walk to a lot of great spots. I also enjoy the Central Library—I walked into the atrium for the first time recently and was amazed at what a beautiful resource it is. Even the airport has great public art!
where i’ve been … I came to St. Louis after three years as curator of modern and contemporary art at the Birmingham Museum of Art in Alabama. I was the founding director of Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Qatar, which opened in 2010. I also was a curator of the Gwangju Biennale contemporary art event in South Korea and have worked for the Brooklyn Museum in New York City.
the local art scene … Before I moved here, I didn’t realize there was so much support for culture in St. Louis. Organizations like the Regional Arts Council and Pulitzer Arts Foundation have made a real commitment to funding artists, their work and arts education. It’s been a really great surprise that St. Louis organizations commit as much financing and time as they do. CAM works with the Gateway Foundation on the Great Rivers Biennial exhibition and awards three artists $20,000 each. And in the summer and fall, we invite artists to create exhibits on a special project wall at the museum, with viewing hours so the public can watch and learn about their work. It’s a great chance for underrepresented artists to get a first showing. We’re all about making the creative process transparent and accessible; artists shouldn’t be mysterious people working alone in dark rooms!
what i enjoy … I’m still figuring St. Louis out, but it’s been fun exploring the city. I go to Rise for coffee on the weekends or before work, and I love Turn on Locust—it’s close to work, so I can zip over easily. A friend visited recently, and I took her to Olio; the bartenders are great there. I’m a vegetarian, so I love places like Lulu’s Local Eatery as well. When it’s warmer, I go for long walks in Forest Park or Tower Grove Park—the green spaces really pull me in. And I love going to estate sales and visiting dealers; I’ve discovered that St. Louis is a great city for mid-century modern design. I also enjoy reading and spending time at the library and Left Bank Books.
my philosophy … Contemporary art is meant to reflect our times, so I like to think about artists in their local contexts and consider the issues they are dealing with now. I want to involve them and the public in conversations about art happening elsewhere in the world, examine similarities and differences, and make the gap in understanding much smaller. And I like that we can do that instantly now. A creative idea that’s on your mind here in St. Louis also might occur to someone in Tokyo, and you can help them see it through a local lens.