How The Dallas Contemporary Will Elevate Dallas’ Visibility in the Art World: An Interview With New Director Peter Doroshenko

In October 2010, the Dallas Contemporary hired Peter Doroshenko as the museum’s new director. Doroshenko isn’t just taking over an administrative position. Once a curator at the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, the Chicago native comes to Dallas after nearly a decade working abroad at art museums and artspaces in England, Belgium, and Ukraine. With that experience, he brings a new vision not only for the Contemporary — but for the very idea of the American arts institution. Doroshenko calls it the “anti-museum,” an organization that must take risks, be willing to fail, and constantly “refresh” its own understanding of itself. We spoke with Doroshenko in advance of this weekend’s openings at the Contemporary, the first group of shows organized by the new director.

Part one of two. You can read part two here.

So how did you get involved with the Contemporary and its search for a new director?

A headhunter called me. I was finishing up a book in Brussels. I had just moved from Kiev to Brussels to finish up a book, and I actually started researching another book because I really wanted to get these two books done. And so that was more like a lifestyle choice, to say I’ve been thinking about these things for five years and now it is either time to do it or not to do.

I couldn’t finish them in Kiev because the job was just too intense. I tried, and it obviously didn’t work after two or three years. So they called me and said they had this position open. I had been to the space on Swiss Avenue a few times. I knew of some collectors, some people here in town because I spent some time in Houston. And I said, “No way, I’m not interested.”

The headhunter was very good at her job, and she called back and laid out a map of where it’s going and what the interests are, and after speaking to a few people on the board via phone, I said, “OK, this sounds like an interesting dynamic. Can it happen? I don’t know, but it sounds like an interesting dynamic.” So they called me up for an interview. It was actually the people on the board and the people I met during that two-day process here that interested me more than — I mean the building’s great, but it was really the people connection. And I thought, well, it’s an ambitious goal, and it’s ambitious in terms of what the organization wants to accomplish, but these are the right people to do it. So that’s really what piqued my interest.

What was the vision that was presented to you, and what attracted you to it?

Well I really knew the history quite well, and I had met [former director] Joan Davidow before, but they basically said we need an international institution to put local artists into a context. It’s creating a two-way street. And it’s about really creating a new model for the 21st century. So of course that interested me a lot because I think that institutions as a whole in the States — it’s pretty sad because I think people are doing very safe things. Nothing has changed. I mean I left eight years ago, and people are kind of doing the same things. And I said, wow, in eight years I’ve changed dramatically, my colleagues and institutions have not. It’s the same thing: learning programs are the same, exhibitions are, at best, lukewarm. A lot of bad group shows.

Is that a product of the culture or funding models or . . .

I think it is a little bit of everything. I think it is a little bit of curatorial laziness. I think it is about people being afraid of taking even the slightest risk. I don’t think it is just one thing, but there are more opportunities. What I liked so much about what existed here was, moving into the new space, having Joan Davidow kind of create the template here I could build upon. And so that was a great trump.

So how are the institutions different in Europe?

People are more open-minded in terms of seeing an exhibit. It doesn’t have to be a big, well-known name. A well-known name will fill the galleries, but there’s always a balance of supporting local and putting locals into a context. And not just providing lip service, but actually doing it. I think also the academic or intellectual rigor for group shows is much higher. And it’s a cultural component because people will go to museums on their day off as families, or as couples, or as individuals. Here I think it is more of a TV-based culture, and it is getting that way too there. It’s actually becoming very Americanized, but, still, people do get out. And if there is a great opportunity to go see something interesting, they do.

In some of those things — general interest, going out to things — the cultural conservatism seems even more exaggerated here than in other places in the United States. Was that a concern coming into this position and this city?

I guess I haven’t really seen that. I don’t know if I agree with that. Maybe it was there before, [but] I don’t see it now. I think there are some other good spaces in town that work with contemporary artists, but for me it was creating a balance and shaking things up a bit — and really that is a cliché in itself — but really to not be afraid to examine new issues, to risk failure, because you ain’t going to achieve anything if you don’t take risk. And really to apply who and what I’ve gotten to know in Texas to a broader, global network.

From your time in Houston, what’s your impression of the state of the state: how it works and where it stands?

I think, overall, when I was in Houston there was a “Texas art.” I think it is actually impossible to have regionalism anymore, because even the most regional artist is now getting out for a variety of different reasons, and so that has changed dramatically in the last 15 years. I know that a lot of people are coming through, both in Dallas and Houston, Austin and San Antonio. Linda Pace changed things up in San Antonio. The scene became more sophisticated in Houston and became beyond the kind of Texas component. And Dallas always did its own thing. So it has always been its own things. So nothing changed, and the world changed, and there was a sort of equilibrium that was found there.

A lot of institutions were also built during that time, so that really changed the dynamic in a big way. The Modern and the DMA and the Nasher and the Meadows thinking bigger — that really changed things dramatically. And so now all these things firing on different cylinders, they really are in sync. I think that people go to LA only, and they see the world as New York, but when they do come out to Dallas — or another city — they are really shocked. They hear about things; they read about things; artists are always talking, but then they actually do come out, and they are converted easily. The nice part is that in Dallas there is very little overlap. And that‘s actually very, very good because everyone can really excel and becoming centers of excellence in their own areas. And we can work together on things, and no one feels that their egos have been bruised, and so that’s good.

Continue reading: part two.

Photo: Desiree Espada


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