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Waschek to leave Pulitzer

In Visual Arts

2:41 pm on Wed, 01.05.11

Matthias Waschek, the talented and ebullient German art historian whose work at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts took the organization out of its building and into the streets, has resigned.

Waschek, 49, said in a statement he decided over the recent holidays to make a move.

"I think the time has come to begin planning for the next phase in my career and to make my intentions known," he said. Waschek said he had no definite position in mind.

Foundation founder and chair Emily Rauh Pulitzer wished Waschek the very best, and said in a statement that she was extremely grateful to him "for his outstanding contributions to the growth and development of the Foundation."

Photo from the Pulitzer Foundation
Waschek gives opening remarks before a marathon reading of "Metamorphoses."

A successor is to be sought nationally. Waschek plans to  remain at the Pulitzer for up to six months.

Waschek came to the Pulitzer in 2003 after a long and successful career at the Louvre in Paris.

He arrived two years after the foundation opened in a landmark building designed for it by Japanese architect Tadao Ando. Waschek quickly established himself as a dynamo, getting involved in the cultural life of the community at large and in the Lafayette Square neighborhood where he lives.

He is personable, charming and erudite, and made friends not only for himself but also for the foundation he served.

In his almost eight years in St. Louis, Waschek dramatically redirected the course of that institution toward a significantly greater involvement in the life of the community, particularly the diverse and economically challenged neighborhoods adjacent to Grand Center. He brought disadvantaged men and women into the foundation and took art to them in the community. To hasten the institution's community involvement, he hired a social worker.

The opportunity the foundation presented to him when he arrived, Waschek said, was to determine how to make an institution housed in a fabulous building relevant to an economically disadvantaged neighborhood, far less magnificently housed.

Such relevance, he said, "depended our finding different ways to approach the challenges" of folding works of art and complex ideas into the consciousnesses of men, women and children who live lives far removed from the experiences found in galleries of museums and taught in the academy.

Waschek said the notion that an institution can assume economically disadvantaged populations are going to be made happy simply by delivering art to them is folly.

What works, he said in an interview Wednesday, is to involve them in the processes of art, to meet them where they think and feel, not just where they happen to live.

Waschek said an opportunity to help to shape a new institution such as the Pulitzer Foundation is one that comes once in a lifetime. In his statement, he said, "My experience ... has been richly satisfying. With the start of a new year, I think the time has come to begin planning for the next phase in my career and to make my intentions known."

At the Louvre, Waschek worked as head of academic programs, specifically art history and archaeology. He earned his Ph.D. at Bonn University in Germany.

His accomplishments in St. Louis have been recognized widely for their singularly innovative qualities and their goal of reaching audiences who often feel either alienated or uninterested in contemporary art.

"That is what art is about," he said, "using symbolic value to make it relevant."

All the shows he mounted or supervised had as a common thread an awareness of the distinctive architectural qualities of the Ando-designed building, as well as revelatory qualities far exceeding usual museum exhibitions. He was a virtuoso of juxtaposition, and excelled at drawing forth meaning from art; and while explaining it clearly, he also allowed the art to speak its piece unfettered by excessive explanation.

He curated such exhibitions as "Exploring Ando's Space: Art & the Spiritual"; "Brancusi and Serra in Dialogue; Minimalism and Beyond"; "Portrait/Homage/Embodiment"; "Water; Ideal (Dis) placements: Old Masters at the Pulitzer," in conjunction with curators from the Harvard Art Museum and the St. Louis Art Museum; and "Stylus," a project by Ann Hamilton that opened in this past summer. The latter two exhibitions made extraordinary connections with urban audiences, as well as with artists of varied disciplines working in various media.

In the "Old Masters" show, for example the Pulitzer worked with Prison Performing Arts to create and present interpretative performances by men and women who'd served time in prison or were homeless. A feature of "Stylus" was to send writers into classrooms in area schools to discuss creative processes with their students.

Waschek also oversaw exhibitions by outside curators, including "Dan Flavin Constructed Light" and "The Light Project" in Grand Center.

One of the most innovative accomplishments during his tenure was the establishment of a series of contemporary music concerts, each related in some way to the art on show in the building. Waschek worked with Symphony music director David Robertson on this popular series.

He commissioned a book called "Joe," featuring the photographs of Hiroshi Sugimoto and text by Jonathan Safran Foer. The foundation website, organized during his tenure, is an award winner.

During his directorship, the staff of the Foundation grew to 16 from six. Among that number is a senior curator and the social worker. The latter works jointly at the Pulitzer and the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University.

Waschek said it would he difficult for him to remain at the foundation and to continue to make programming decisions when, in fact, he was seriously considering departing.

"I did my part," he said, "and now it is time to go."

Contact Beacon associate editor Robert Duffy.


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