There’s a European Invasion in Chicago’s Art World

Here’s why Chicago’s art museums are hiring hotshot curators from abroad—and what you can expect to see from them.

Uncomfortable Objects, a 2012 work by Mariana Castillo Deball, is part of the Museum of Contemporary Art’s The Way of the Shovel: Art as Archaeology. Curated by Dieter Roelstraete, the show runs through March 9. For info, mcachicago.org.   Art: Courtesy of the artist and the Museum of Contemporary Art

A certain fad seems to have taken hold of Chicago’s art scene. The three biggest curatorial job openings here in the past couple of years—chief curator at the Renaissance Society, chief curator at the Logan Center, and senior curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art—all went to young (or youngish) Europeans. (They are, respectively, Solveig Øvstebø, from Norway; Monika Szewczyk, from Poland; and Dieter Roelstraete, from Belgium.)

So far Roelstraete, 41, who built his reputation as an art philosopher, has garnered the most buzz. During his eight years at the Museum of Modern Art in Antwerp, he masterminded blockbuster shows featuring cutting-edge artists from Vancouver and Rio de Janeiro. He also conducted penetrating public interviews, such as one in Berlin in 2011 with artist Martha Rosler. After seeing that interview, the MCA’s chief curator, Michael Darling, hired him. “We wanted someone who would take risks,” Darling explains. “Dieter sees [things] with fresh outsider eyes and helps us identify things that we might otherwise take for granted.”

Roelstraete got off to a fast start. In late 2012, he invited Goshka Macuga—an up-and-coming Polish-born, London-based sculptor who was little known in the United States—to show her work at the MCA. The show was a hit.

Given that it takes several years to produce a major multi-artist show from concept to gallery, however, it wasn’t until November that Roelstraete opened his first major MCA exhibit. The Way of the Shovel: Art as Archaeology is a survey of 34 artists who use historical documents, research, and ephemera in their work, a practice that Roelstraete says is “overwhelmingly European.”

“His philosophy background makes this show distinct from how other curators might approach similar ones,” says Darling. “It was so thoughtfully selected.” The London publication The Art Newspaper called it a must-see show—and it remains open through March 9. 

As for the other two? This month, Øvstebø curates her first show—the American solo museum exhibition debut of Berlin-based artist Nora Schultz at the Renaissance Society (which was the “Art” listing in “The 25 Best Things to Do in January”). That one opened earlier this week and lasts through February 23.

At the Logan Center Gallery, Monika Szewczyk struts her stuff with the massive group show The Fifth Dimension, an ongoing series of installations, conversations, and events that lasts until mid-February.

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