Judith Tannenbaum is leaving her post as Richard Brown Baker Curator of Contemporary Art at the Museum of Art Rhode Island School of Design next February after more than a dozen years of helping establish the museum’s contemporary program national reputation by organizing about 50 exhibitions with an emphasis on crossovers between fine art, craft, and design as well as works by women artists and performance art and new media.
After coming to RISD in 2000 as the museum’s first curator of contemporary art she was given her official title in 2002 – the museum’s and college’s first endowed position named for Richard Brown Baker, a Providence native and eclectic art collector.
She will continue as an adjunct curator for the museum through 2014.
PBN: What do you see as the biggest change in the Providence art scene during your tenure at the museum?
TANNENBAUM: There has been a significant expansion of art spaces since I arrived in Rhode Island in 2000. AS220 and the Steel Yard continue to grow and branch out in exciting directions. RISD’s Chace Center, which opened four years ago, allows the RISD Museum to increase the scale and impact of our temporary exhibitions, while the Granoff Center at Brown enriches the community greatly with its interdisciplinary programming.
PBN: What was the biggest challenge for you in taking on the role of the museum’s first full-time curator of contemporary art?
TANNENBAUM: It has been challenging to integrate experimental contemporary art into a traditional museum known for its historic collections, ranging from ancient Egyptian objects to Japanese prints and Impressionist paintings as well as decorative arts, prints and drawings and textiles from all ages and parts of the world. I love working directly with artists – to enable them to develop new projects – but it can be an unpredictable process, one that requires flexibility from many staff members. I also hope I encouraged RISD Museum visitors to feel more comfortable when approaching new types of art with which they are unfamiliar. Children are not intimidated by contemporary art, but many adults find it difficult to be as open minded and enjoy its challenges.
PBN: Is there any one exhibition you would consider your best work?
TANNENBAUM: I don’t think I can single out one exhibition. But I can narrow it down to ‘On the Wall,’ the 2003 show of wallpaper designed by contemporary artists who normally work in a range of other disciplines, and ‘Wunderground’ in 2006, an exhibition of posters [2,000 of them] and commissioned installations by artists in the Providence community that underscored the amazing creativity of a particular generation of print makers, musicians, and comic artists who live here. I’m also proud of the Lynda Benglis retrospective exhibition  and the video/new media program I developed during my tenor.
PBN: Why is now the right time to leave. What will you do next?
TANNENBAUM: My decision to leave has a lot to do with the stage of life I’m in. I am going to move back to Philadelphia, where I lived from 1986 to 2000. I will continue to curate two exhibitions for the RISD Museum through 2014, which I’m very happy about. But I look forward to working independently with artists and collectors as well. I took up ceramics about six years ago and I’m very excited about spending more time in the studio.
PBN: RISD and the RISD Museum undoubtedly are central figures to the state’s art and cultural scene. What more can be done to promote Rhode Island’s place in the contemporary art world?
TANNENBAUM: Providence attracts a younger generation of artists in part because it has affordable studio space. The commercial conversions of old mill buildings in the early 2000s displaced a number of artists and a decade later there are many wonderful industrial spaces that are empty and could be turned into venues for performances and exhibitions on a temporary or permanent basis. Providence is a vital community, but greater assistance from local foundations, corporations, and individuals would help to make Rhode Island and Providence a more supportive environment for artists who live here and for all those interested in the arts.