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The Culture Curator | Keeping art real at the Oakland Museum.

I’ve long wondered what, exactly, museum curators do. Do they just cash in on their exquisite taste, or what? Well, no, says Rene de Guzman, senior curator of art at the Oakland Museum of California since 2007, as well as an artist in his own right (his mixed media sculptures are held by various private and public collections, including the Berkeley Art Museum and the San Jose Museum of Art). In de Guzman’s view, the curator’s job is a lot more involved than just making sure artistically important stuff glistens behind the velvet ropes. First and foremost, he says, exhibits must be relevant—especially to what you might call museum irregulars. So it’s no surprise that de Guzman was the guy who put together the Oakland Museum’s well-received (not to mention well-attended) shows on Pixar (2010), the fine cartoon art of local fixture Daniel Clowes (2012), and the current artifact-filled look back at the game-changing year 1968 (catch it through Nov. 25). Obviously, de Guzman has a gift for subjects the great unwashed can really sink their molars into. Intrigued, I popped into his office recently for a more complete job description.

Paul Kilduff: What is the future of museums if you can go on a virtual tour and see all this stuff online?

Rene de Guzman: I think actually the future for museums is really bright if museums do the right thing, where they maintain their confidence that they have something that no one else can give, which is direct experience with the real thing. There’s only one Mona Lisa out there, and there’s a value to seeing the Mona Lisa in real life.

PK: Have you seen the Mona Lisa in real life?

RDG: I have, actually.

PK: What do you make of that little smirk?

RDG: She’s laughing at the tourist that’s videotaping her. She’s a painting. She’s not going to move. And she was laughing at all the hoopla. “I’m a modest portrait of a woman and I’m behind glass and there’s guards around me and people are coming here with video cameras. I’m merely a good painting.” So, there’s value to direct experience with the real thing. Where museums get off the track is that they just can’t do that. They just simply can’t say, “We’ve got the goods. Come on our terms.” It’s not as if, because there are virtual reality games that could, say, simulate a surgery, you don’t need doctors.

PK: But you know they are doing surgeries remotely now.

RDG: Yeah, but there’s still the direct relationship to that important knowledge that exists. So, it’s a matter of bedside manner. How do museums help people understand the value of their cultural material? And that’s what we do that no one does. We preserve, we understand, and we share.

PK: Do you have to be concerned about the box office?

RDG: That is an extremely important question in this day and age when a lot of the traditional funding has disappeared from foundations and grants. Cultural institutions need to increase the amount of earned income and that translates into how many folks pay to see your work. Now, I don’t believe that it’s the only indicator of good work, but I think if you do stuff that no one looks at and you couldn’t pay them to come see [it], then there is something going on there. Either you’re a genius, way ahead of your time, or . . . not really tapping into the lives of other people. [But] not every show is going to be a popular hit. Some things very few people are going to get, but it’s important for you as a culture house to put it out there because you believe it’s important information. You just need to know what kind of animal you’re putting out there.

PK: Interactivity, how important is that for a museum? It seems like that really must be the Holy Grail now.

RDG: Museums were built as unresponsive safety-deposit boxes—the only places where, presumably, you can get culture. And museums were set up to safeguard stuff from people. They are in the forever business, and there’s a value to that, making sure that this important thing is around when your daughter’s children and your daughter’s children’s children are around. But now we have to understand we’re also public institutions. We’re here to benefit the public, not just the people who have time to access this material. We need to be much more generally useful for people. So, consequently, we have to look outwards and address the public. There’s a major transformation in the museum industry because of some 21st-century expectations.

PK: In a lot of ways, it is just like going to the movies, right? I mean I have streaming Netflix now. I don’t have to get out of my chair to watch new movies.

RDG: No, you don’t. And you could pick what you want.

PK: Are we going to see an exhibit about the Occupy movement?

RDG: I worked on a project where we made some attempt at sort of doing an online exhibit where we interviewed a baker’s dozen of people involved in the Occupy situation in Oakland . . . Mayor Quan to former Chief Batts to two or three organizers to young business people. What the rest of the country is feeling now has been happening in Oakland for quite a while, the social injustice and how certain people have been left out of access to wealth. And that’s why I think [that], strangely, Occupy really took hold here when they actually should have been in places like San Ramon, places with corporate headquarters. The one thing that a big institution like ours can do is really put the stamp of approval on the amazing arts and culture that are happening here. We hope to serve that purpose for Oakland, to generate that other story about Oakland, that this is the creative engine of the Bay Area. We hope to move that storyline along.

PK: And you don’t ever want to get rid of the koi pond, do you?

RDG: No, I love the koi. I’ve always wanted to mount a camera on the koi, like koi cam.

PK: That would be good!

RDG: But the beauty is, it’s not about the koi. It’s about the people because invariably, the koi is going to tip its head and you can see a bunch of fourth graders looking at it. So, it’s a way to capture the public through the koi.


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Photo courtesy Oakland Museum of California.


Age: 48

Birthplace: Manila, the Philippines

Astrological Sign: Aquarius

Book on Nightstand: Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Motto: “I’m not only here for the show.” —Herschel Walker.