Jenny Moore: Executive Director, Chinati Foundation
WFU Class of 1995
Minor: Studio Art
Jenny Moore converted internships into job opportunities upon leaving Wake Forest, maintaining a solid work ethic and zeal for passion projects. Now stationed in the renowned city of Marfa, Texas as Executive Director of The Chinati Foundation, Jenny shared her story along with some quality advice.
DeacLink: Tell us about your role at Chinati Foundation. How have things changed since you came on board in 2013?
Jenny Moore: I am the Director of the Chinati Foundation. We are a contemporary art museum that was founded by Donald Judd. It’s located on a former military base with 344 acres and 34 buildings, so it's not a typical museum in terms of its scale and history. We are also unique in that we are an institute founded by an artist and founded in direct response to Judd’s opinion that big museums often fail artists.
We have a small staff in far-flung place, but also a large scope and a pretty intense mission. We need to follow the wishes of Judd as well as supporting artists on their own terms. We have 13 large scale permanent installations all created by artists themselves in response to invitations, and it was this fantastic opportunity for them to make something permanent on a large scale. Often times, the Minimalism rooms in large museums all look the same from one institution to the next. It’s the lowest common denominator in terms of an art experience. Judd wanted to create something different that would be permanent and enduring.
DL: What's your favorite thing about Marfa, outside of the Foundation's grounds?
JM: It’s really an extraordinary place. As much as we travel and as far we go, it’s a long way to get to Marfa. The closest airport is three hours away through the desert. It’s an extreme experience. The population is 2,000 people, but the world comes through here so it has an interesting dynamic. What people are struck by are the light and scale of the land. I am looking out the window and I can see for 80 miles. It is extraordinary, the scale. We are in a pretty far removed corner of Texas. We have the benefit of a rich cultural life between Chinati as well as the culture inspired around it. There’s a very dynamic community of artists, ranchers, and third generation Hispanic communities. The border is a very important part of our lives here. That lends a richness and perspective that is important and significant now more than ever. Marfa is magical.. it has singular characteristics - very interesting and distinct.
DL: Your major at Wake was in Cultural Anthropology. How much involvement did you have with the art program, and did either drive or inform your career path?
JM: I was an Anthropology major and Studio Art minor. I had an influential teacher, David Helms, and he had gotten his undergraduate degree in anthropology and was teaching culture classes. What was interesting to me was that my experience was not like most Wake kids. A majority of the people I knew were in business school or pre-med. The anthropology department was really small. Art was a bit bigger, but everyone knew each other. I was closer to the art faculty than other students. There were a couple of interesting dynamics that I think play into what DeacLink is trying to achieve. They came up at another university where I was speaking to someone running an art department. They seemed skeptical that someone with a fine art degree would find employment; I was struck by the concern of the lack of employability. The people I was in college with were much more engaged in the pursuit of knowledge, questioning, and working through things, and we weren’t driven by the “will this get me a job” mentality. Economics are different these days, but I had time at Wake to consider what it meant to be learning. I could think about art, creativity, and problem solving.
Anthropology allowed me to learn fundamental human nature and how to apply scientific inquiry to that, but at the same time, humans are complex things. You could learn and think about the process of thinking about learning. There was real freedom in that. My parents were very supportive of me, which also really helped. But I can't think of a better way to have prepared for a job as the director of a contemporary art museum. Like the artists here, I have struggled with what it means to be alone in a studio, and you don't have anything good, and you are totally failing, but you have to put it out there and deal with the consequences. I was so lucky to have the depth of an outcome-independent educational experience. The skills I learned in thinking through things and the support I received from teachers really helped me. You need to be resilient when you get out into the world, and you have to stick to the things that give you inspiration and passion, and for me those things were art and anthropology.
DL: What or who directed you to Bard's Curatorial Studies program for graduate school? Do you see grad school as important for students aspiring to roles like yours at Chinati?
JM: I went to graduate school ten years after I graduated from college. That was a very important decision. By the time I applied, I knew exactly what I wanted to get out of the program, and I had a goal and a focus. It was interesting going to Bard when I did. There was a range of students, from 22 years-old's that wanted to be taught how to be a curator, to a 40 year-old who’s run things before. When I got out of school, the best thing I did was doing whatever it took to get a job. I moved to Portland, and I sent out a lot of resumes, and I just wanted it. I knew art was meaningful to me, so I was willing to do any kind of job that got me close to that kind of experience. Over the course of my career, there have been times where I worked four to five jobs. Each gave me something, but none were enough to make a living off of. If you have a drive to succeed and be a part of something, you will find a way to get there.
I left the Guggenheim to work for Exit Art - which was this funky crazy nonprofit art space that was in downtown SoHo. I learned so much from that experience. I left the job that was better on paper for the one that seemed a little more idiosyncratic. But throughout my career, opportunities have shown up and I have taken them because I could learn something from it. In the art world, there is this pressure and questioning around “What do I need to do to get to a certain place and what degrees do I need to get there?” But don't sell real life experiences short. If you are passionate about it, the hard work isn't that hard. It’s never easy, but it’s incredibly fulfilling.
When I applied to grad school, I had a broad range of work experiences, and that made me a more interesting candidate for them. Because I knew what I wanted out of grad school, I could ignore some of the BS. Also I met amazing people that are important in the field and that are also some of my closest friends, mentors, and champions. I imagine grad school is intense at any program, but you also meet extraordinary people that help you through that, and who continue to champion you after.
When I interviewed for this role, they were looking for a seasoned professional with a proven track record. I was a curator in New York but I hadn’t been a fundraiser to the level that the position needed. However, I had a connection through grad school who really championed me to the recruiter. I think if people can find a few champions in life, you will subsequently find those that will go out on a limb for you.
Also, the art world is a small world, so don't be an ass - it comes back around. Be gracious, hard working, respectful, and fair. That makes anyone stand out in any field, and people remember that. People will remember someone for those qualities when there’s an opening. When I have been in the position to offer my opinions on someone, these are the type of people that I recommend.
DL: Before Chinati, you worked at both the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and then the New Museum. Could you tell us a little more about both experiences, how you found and applied to these positions, and the most challenging aspect of each?
JM: I got to New York through my internship at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice. I was able to get that internship because I studied abroad in Venice at Wake Forest. I learned about that internship program and fell in love with Venice. I had found myself in an unpleasant work environment one and a half years out of college. I applied for the internship, was selected for it, and moved in Venice. That led to the Guggenheim in New York, for which I moved again. I left that job to work for Exit Art for many years.
I also started doing art exhibitions in my apartment at the time, as I wanted to show artists that weren't getting attention elsewhere. It was about five years of doing that when I realized that I had a good art history background from in college, but there was a lot of theory that I wasn’t familiar with that artists were referencing in their work. It wasn’t right to exhibit them and make decisions about their work without being more well informed intellectually. So I took a deep dive into critical theory in graduate school.
It was after graduate school that I applied for the role at the Warhol Foundation. It was amazing to go through 66,000 of Warhol's photographs, many of which had never publicly been shown. I was able to see a person’s worldview and how influential it was to their artmaking, and it was this private experience that had not been shown to broader public
Also I was working in a gallery, and I had my first child, and then I was laid off from my job. That led to a situation where the partner of my close friend (who I had hired once before) was looking for a curatorial assistant for an art exhibition in Asia. They asked me to help out, saying I could work from home. In effect, I was able to work on one of the most insane projects and largest exhibitions in Asia while also taking care of my daughter. With that project, I was working with with Massimiliano Gioni for the Korea Biennale, now called the Gwangju Biennale.
At the same time, I left New York for a few months to be in France. My husband is an artist, and he was given a space to work in for a few months. Massimiliano was promoted to Artistic Director for New Museum, and he was building a curatorial program, and he asked me to come on board. That goes back to the importance of establishing friendships and being responsible with your work. There was a lot of luck, but you generate luck by being a good person and making friendships and working hard together on something meaningful. We believed in something that people were skeptical of. Judd established this museum against all odds. People thought nobody would ever visit - but it has succeeded against all odds hundreds of miles from a cultural center.
DL: Before we let you go, there's a lot of buzz around Solange's upcoming performance of 'Scales' in Marfa. Please tell us more about this amazing collaboration.
JM: Solange wrote that Donald Judd has been a real inspiration for her. She was stuck by his conviction and his belief that surely there had to be another way. He had this mentality of “I won't just make it for myself, but for other artists whose work I think is the best of the time”. The artists he invited to be here on a large scale and permanent basis, were often his friends. Solange has been performing ‘Scales’ in institutional settings to break open topics like, what is an art exhibition; who it’s for; how do you experience art; who has a seat at the table… and who doesn't. I am proud she wanted to partner with the Chinati Foundation in that way to break through who an institution supports. It is a very dynamic visual context and I am excited to see how she brings her piece into the context of the concrete works. I cannot wait to see how she brings her vision, talent and power to an inspiring place.
Our mission remains in support of the permanent installations that are fundamental to this institution. It is a small group of people, but you can bring in new voices to the conversation by inviting other artists to interact with the work here. From year to year you’ll have a new experience with the permanent works because you can introduce new aspects to the dialogue. Solange is creating a whole new experience of people who have seen these things dozens of times.
DL: Finally, have you got a piece of advice or mantra you go by currently, to leave with the readers?
JM: It is not easy to find the thing that gives you meaning and that you are passionate about in life. But if you find it, stick with it because it gives you strength to work hard and creates situations that you never imagined. Find work that gives you meaning. It might not meet everyone's definition of success, but if it inspires you, then it’s worth sticking with and working really hard for. Be open to the fact that there are a lot of ways to get where you want in life.