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Julian Cox, the High Museum of Art’s photography curator for the past five years, will join the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco as founding curator of photography and chief curator of the de Young Museum this fall. He will, however, leave a multifaceted legacy here.

In Atlanta, Cox has made significant and strategically canny acquisitions and mounted a series of diverse exhibitions. Photographers whose works entered the High’s collection during his tenure range from Eugéne Atget to such contemporary artists as Sze Tsung Leong, Taryn Simon and Alec Soth. Amassing 325 photos from the civil rights era, the largest trove in a U.S. art museum, is Cox’s signal achievement and one already raising the museum’s profile. “Road to Freedom: Photographs of the Civil Rights Movement, 1956-1968,” which the High debuted in 2008, has traveled in the United States and is likely to continue internationally.

Just as importantly, Cox made genuine and substantive connections with the community. An active participant in its life, he also helped promote careers by exhibiting and acquiring work by local artists — Sheila Pree Bright, Angela West and Ruth Dessault among them.

High chief curator David Brenneman, who recruited Cox and will conduct the search for his successor, says the museum values his talents and tried to get him to stay — Brenneman declined to discuss specifics — but said he understands the call of professional advancement that the new position offers.

“Julian had discussed with me his desire to take on more administrative duties,” Brenneman said, adding that the move is the natural progression up the ladder.

One consolation: Cox’s accomplishments, Brenneman said, have made the search easier. “Julian has made the job into a much better and more attractive position.”

In the following interview, Cox speaks with affection and pride about his five years in Atlanta, his reasons for leaving and his hopes for the High’s future.

ArtsATL: From the get-go, you were involved with the local community. How did that come to pass?

Julian Cox: I had this terrific experience when I came to interview for the job. Photographer Arthur Tress had told me to look up Lucinda Bunnen, who had some of his work in her collection, so the Saturday before my interview, she invited me for tea. She was very welcoming and invited me to a friend’s 75th birthday at the Fox Theatre that night. I had a great time cutting the rug with Lucinda, and the people I met — Nancy Solomon, Ben Apfelbaum — gave me the sense that this is a really interesting community.

That set the tone. On subsequent interviews, I met others. I came in wanting to be engaged, and that read held to be true.

ArtsATL: The feeling has been mutual. You’ve been blessed with a lot of passionate patrons.

Cox: I’m grateful to the museum and the community for their supporting me so that I could do projects at a level that I feel pride in…. It’s definitely bittersweet to be walking away from that. I believe in this city.

ArtsATL: Why did you decide to leave?

Cox: There are a medley of reasons, some professional, some personal — my family’s California ties. I’ve given a lot to my institution, and I was ready for a fresh challenge, but I wasn’t hungrily on the hunt when I was made aware of this opportunity.

The position is an opportunity to continue what I’m doing in photography and expand into other areas. I will have major responsibility for curatorial programs in American art, contemporary art, international textiles and costume and art of the Americas. It’s an opportunity to broaden my awareness, knowledge and skill set. That’s very exciting to me. That was the decisive factor.

The museum wants to get serious about building its curatorial staff, a number of whom are approaching retirement. I’ll be a part of that. I’ll have a significant role in shaping the institution. That’s very exciting.

ArtsATL: You’ll have some unfinished business when you leave in August.

Cox: [Atlanta artist] Chip Simone is on the schedule for 2011, and the commissions from artists Martin Parr, Kael Alford and Shane Lavalette. The show is the companion to the 2012 MOMA exhibition of  photographs of New York City from its collection. The next curator will curate that show and select the work for the collection, just as I picked up [former curator] Tom Southall’s exhibition of Harry Callahan’s Eleanor pictures.

Martin will be photographing in and around Atlanta. Two events that he has expressed an interest in are the state fair in Perry and the Atlanta Steeplechase. Kael is working on a multimedia project documenting the effects of coastal erosion in southeast Louisiana and its impact on the indigenous communities, which is all the more relevant now. Shane is a young Boston artist in his 20s, who I think is going to be very successful. He’ll be doing work on Southern music.

ArtsATL: You’ve said you believe that the High’s four-year partnership with the Museum of Modern Art, in which curators from both institutions will create a series of exhibitions for the High, has incredible potential for our community. How so?

Cox: The museum knows it needs to make changes — to reach a younger audience and the next generation, and find relevancy for them. The MOMA project has the potential to connect with them in ways the Louvre couldn’t. It also has the potential to reinvigorate the base.

ArtsATL: What do you mean by “base?”

Cox: There are two audiences. There’s the general audience, and then there’s the community that’s highly informed. They want the museum to be a bit riskier, fresher. One thing we talked about with MOMA is changing the art ecology of the museum and Atlanta. The 2012 show exhibits three new bodies of work that will enter the collection. It’s about building a collection in an assertive manner to show people we have these aspirations. That’s the side I’ve been most invested in.

ArtsATL: Hallelujah. This constituency has felt left out for a long time.

Cox: The museum’s desire to effect some change is genuine. It wants the dialogue. The community needs to be convinced of that.

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