UC BAMPFA’s chief Rinder looking forward to next chapter
By Lou Fancher
While acknowledging the surprise and ripple effects from a cultural figurehead leaving a prominent arts institution, Lawrence Rinder’s coming departure announced Sept. 24 from his position as director and chief curator of the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive did follow precedent. After all, it is not uncommon for a director to leave after successfully completing a major capital campaign.
During the second of two periods when Rinder has served at BAMPFA — returning as director in 2008 (after having first been its curator and assistant director for audience and programs from 1988 to 1998) — Rinder oversaw BAMPFA’s move from Bancroft Way to a new building in downtown Berkeley designed by renowned New York City firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro.
After curating in 2016 the inaugural exhibition “Architecture of Life,” and earning ongoing accolades from The New York Times and others, Rinder initiated partnerships with diverse, independent Bay Area arts organizations, acquired more than 6,000 works for the collection and saw attendance figures double and membership grow by roughly 4,100 members. Rinder will leave the museum in March 2020, a decision he revealed was years in the making and made about 120 miles north of his book-filled Berkeley office.
“The reasons that led to the decision are that I’ve been researching for a novel for the past six years. If I wanted to write it, I was going to have to quit. I’ve also had a home for 15 years in Ukiah in a remote, wild area on a dirt road. It’s hard to come back to the city after a weekend up there,” he said.
It is also hard for Rinder to focus on and fuel creative juice for personal projects when masterminding an organization like BAMPFA.
“That’s the shift I see in my life. Maybe I have creativity of my own, but I can’t explore that on the margins. I need to get in the ‘groove.’ It takes time; I have to soak in it. I’m going to do that, sitting in nature.”
He admits to pushing aside counterarguments.
“Loving the staff, loving every day in this new building, the collection, the way the public engages. It’s so fun, meaningful and inspiring that it seems ludicrous to walk away. I’m in a position with great latitude to express myself through the museum. That kind of pleasure comes only at the peak of one’s career when you have the basics down.”
Notably, the “basics” were not handed to Rinder — he had to learn and earn the stature and awareness he now considers dear. Rinder recalls early in his career being intrigued by what he thought was an artist’s generosity and openness, only to discover while presenting the work that it was incredibly controlled and filled with assumptions about the audience.
“I almost felt it was unethical. It was an awakening about art that presents itself as engaged but really performs that, rather than is that. I’m glad it happened early on. It gave me healthy clarity about pitfalls. I’ve embraced a vision that’s highly engaged with the public and shares resources, hopefully in ways that are genuine.”
Working in 1995 as a young curator on an exhibition with artist Nayland Blake, Rinder was freed of entrenched notions about exhibit structure and art’s didactic purposes.
“I realized there was more: art was psychological, narrative, emotional. Slowly, over 20 years, I’ve managed to approach that sensibility.”
An openness to the indeterminacy of objects and presenting experiential wonder and letting it rest with an audience became priorities. A project Rinder undertook while engaged as a curator at the Whitney Museum after 9-11 in New York City, “The America Effect,” brought art made outside of the United States from 20 different countries.
“In the city, there were American flags everywhere. It was ‘Circle the wagons, remove the outsiders.’ It was viewing the world in the way we’re living out horribly in today’s America. The general tenor was not to listen,” he recalls. Eventually drawn into conversations with the chiefs of police, homeland security, business titans and others, Rinder says, “That’s when I felt my practice as a curator was part of a larger conversation.”
The realizations lead Rinder to take special pride in BAMPFA’s progress in activities for K-12 youth. Giving a hearty shout-out to guest artist programmer David Wilson, he hopes initiatives and engagement with East Bay communities continue to increase. One area in which he regrets the slower pace is in the museum’s relationship with UC Berkeley.
“We’ve doubled the number of students who come here since the move, but I believe we can become more foundational to the entire university,” Rinder said. While researching learning theory, Rinder studied the underlying potential of learning under certain conditions. “Exposure to diverse cultures, peer-to-peer learning, presenting problems without obvious solutions — art museums support that and should be feeding it to students.”
As one of his “last acts,” Rinder will mount a major retrospective in February of work by the late Richmond quilt artist Rosie Lee Tompkins. “She’s one of the greatest artists of the 20th century,” he says. “The distance between seeing and feeling in her work is zero. It’s powerfully so: melancholy, joy, all measures of feeling. It’s like a miracle.”
With more than 80 works, including assemblages and a piece featuring athletes Magic Johnson, O.J. Simpson and Michael Jordan, Rinder says, “That piece is about strong black men. She wasn’t just abstract but connected to important currents in the culture.”
Demonstrating his own fluidity, Rinder might present surprises even after his departure. The book he’s working on is a historical fiction novel set in 1870s America, around the time of the country’s first female presidential candidate. “It’s all about the connections to what’s going on now. We have all the same fundamental dynamics,” he says.
Or he might knock on doors in Ohio.
“I want to see a sane, progressive, optimistic leader in the White House. “I’d like on November 3rd (2020) to go to sleep knowing I did what I could to make things better than they are now.”
And there is flamenco, a passion he mentions while mourning his two left feet when it comes to dancing.
“And I may realize the world needs a different cultural thing and by gosh, I’ve got to do it. But I’m not going to sign up to do someone else’s projects,” he promises.
Writing and contemplating nature with his partner, artist Colter Jacobsen, Rinder anticipates finding peaceful, creative flow in Ukiah. In dwellings made with more than 200 people helping to fashion reclaimed chicken barn wood and clay dug up from the land and stomped to mix with water and straw, he says, “It’s 1,000-thread count sheet luxury delivered by Japanese joinery techniques, birds, big trees and a fragile ecosystem that nevertheless feels strong.”