Whitney Museum curator Rujeko Hockley ’01 champions a new generation of contemporary artists.
By Emily Harrison Weir
In the heart of New York City’s meatpacking district stands the Whitney Museum, a temple of contemporary art in the United States. Outside its soaring glass, steel, and concrete skin, visitors — a million every year — can see the High Line and the Hudson River. Inside, the museum’s storied Biennial exhibition took the pulse of American art for four months this year, as it has since 1932.
Rujeko Hockley ’01 was co-curator of this painstakingly assembled cross section of what artists across the country are making right now. It was a high-profile, high-stakes assignment, quite a coup for the 35-year-old Hockley. “It was a huge honor to join this lineage of Biennial curators, but there was absolutely a lot of pressure,” Hockley admits. “It’s a crazy logistical project with lots of deadlines.” The Biennial is one of the Whitney’s most prominent events, and Hockley’s job was to honor the exhibition’s long and distinguished history while also serving the artists, which was her own personal mission.
“Artists shape every part of our culture, yet they are among the most underappreciated members of society,” she says. “Being a curator is a way to create a platform that gets artists’ thoughts — which can literally change the world — out to more people. Visitors can have their thinking broadened and their worldview expanded and even challenged.”
As nearly any living artist can testify, talent alone doesn’t get your work seen. Only a few get coveted exposure in a prestigious show like the Biennial. So Hockley deliberately used her curatorial power to throw wide the doors of opportunity and welcome an especially diverse group of American artists.
The 2019 Biennial featured more than 300 pieces of art by 75 artists. More than half of the artists were female. Half were people of color. Nearly three-quarters were under 40. Few were household names. All got attention that could change their careers.
On a Tuesday in late June, the museum was closed to the public, and the empty galleries didn’t reflect the hundreds of thousands of visitors who filled the spaces during the Biennial’s May–September run.
Behind the scenes, curatorial staff worked in rows of blond wood cubicles and glass-fronted offices with surprisingly art-free walls. Much like her surroundings, Hockley’s look — basic black linen — is serene and spare. She laughs often and deflects attention from herself onto the artists. She conducts interviews — she’s done many this year because of the Biennial — in a white-walled conference room, keeping her office private despite her now very public role.
Hockley’s work was anything but public for the nearly two years it took her and co-curator Jane Panetta to mount the Biennial. They spent about 14 weeks on the road together, visiting more than 300 artists’ studios in nine states and Puerto Rico. Panetta says that “Ru’s exceptional warmth, intellectual curiosity, and compassion for artists made this process both more engaging [for me] as her co-curator and one with a richer end result.”
How to choose from the bounty of art they discovered? “We didn’t have a checklist,” says Hockley. “But we wanted to include primarily artists who had not been in a Whitney Biennial before.” (Only five had been.) “We felt strongly that this platform should be as wide as the Biennial could sustain. If this exhibition can do anything, it can be a space to support people’s artistic practices. Jane and I were interested in being led by the artists.”
Hockley learned to embrace new experiences and possibilities early in life. By the time she enrolled at NMH, she was already a world traveler. The only child of two international-development specialists — a Zimbabwean mother and British father — Hockley spent her childhood wherever her parents’ work took the family. That included Somalia, Barbados, and Malawi as well as Zimbabwe, New York City, and Washington, D.C.
Hockley’s parents wanted a boarding school’s stability for 13-year-old Ru, as she is known. She initially resisted, but warmed to the idea when she found NMH more diverse and less restrictive than other schools she visited. “Suddenly I wasn’t considered a weirdo for my strange, peripatetic childhood,” she recalls.
Hockley says NMH prepared her well for college, but what she remembers best is performing and choreographing with the NMH dance company. “It was one of the first places I was asked, ‘What do you think? Do you have an idea? Great; run with it!’” she says. “There was a sense of connection and camaraderie among us dancers, and it was a really empowering space creatively.”
NMH dance program director Gretel Schatz P’19, ’21, ’23 recalls Hockley as a student with “spritely yet unflappable energy. She was enlivened by the creative process and brought a mature openness to making work,” says Schatz. “In
the dance company, Ru was ready for anything.”
Hockley had never even heard the term “art curator” before taking a required course as a Columbia University undergraduate. “When I took my first art-history class, I had this moment of realization that there was this whole field of study that encompassed all my interests,” she told a reporter for MM Lafleur. “Art history is about looking at people and the development of societies and cultures through the things that they make … I was very compelled by that. I was also very interested in social justice and politics and race, and art history involved studying those things, too.”
Hockley parlayed her Columbia degree into a curatorial assistant position at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Two years later, she risked that fledgling career by moving to Southeast Asia and teaching English for a year. Back in the U.S., Hockley started a Ph.D. program in art history, theory, and criticism at the University of California, San Diego. She completed the coursework, but before she started writing her dissertation, the Brooklyn Museum offered her a dream job — assistant curator of contemporary art. She couldn’t say no. A highlight of Hockley’s four years there was co-curating an exhibition of work by radical black women artists. It was well-received, and by 2015, she was showing up on lists of young curators to watch.
The Whitney hired Hockley in March 2017, and by the end of that year, she and Panetta were chosen to organize the 2019 Biennial. Because of the museum’s long history and prominent reputation, the curators of each Biennial find themselves in critics’ crosshairs. Media reviews inevitably find each show too political or not political enough. Too specific or too broad-brush. Relevant only to art-world insiders or to tourists. Reviews of the 2019 Biennial ranged from “an elegant but safe portrait of right now” (Art News) to “the crème de la crème.” (Forbes Travel Guide).
Hockley says she and Panetta “did what we set out to do.” She’s particularly proud of the site-specific pieces created for the Whitney’s outdoor terraces, and the pieces that included dance, video, and other aspects of performance art. “We wanted it to feel ‘of this moment,’ and to reflect what’s happening sociopolitically in the U.S. right now,” she says.
• Maia Ruth Lee’s Bondage Baggage Prototype 4 (opposite page) re-creates luggage used by migrant workers to comment on economic oppression.
• Josh Kline places images of American power in brightly colored glass containers, then floods them with water as if victims of catastrophic climate change.
• Alexandra Bell alters copies of New York Daily News coverage of the Central Park Five, highlighting its racist language.
• Marcus Fischer’s untitled sound sculpture incorporates a vintage tape recorder spewing citizens’ fears on the eve of Trump’s inauguration.
• Daniel Lind-Ramos’ sculpture Maria-Maria (p. 21) repurposes blue tarpaulins in a madonna-like memorial to the damage Hurricane Maria did to Puerto Rico’s land and people.
The biggest controversy of this Biennial wasn’t art, though; it was the vice president of the Whitney’s board of trustees, Warren B. Kanders. His company, the Safariland Group, manufactures tear-gas grenades that allegedly were used against would-be immigrants at the Mexican border. Artists, critics, and more than 100 Whitney staffers — including Hockley — called for Kanders’ resignation. In late July, eight artists asked that their work be pulled from the Biennial. Instead, Kanders went. The art stayed.
“In a time deeply riven by identity politics and hyper-sensitivity to the inequities of race and class … the Biennial performs a delicate trick: It’s engaged and provocative without being pedantic or scolding,” noted a review in The Boston Globe. “It’s a place where traditional boundaries give way to an animating spirit of inclusion.”
Hockley pulled off her own delicate balancing act while planning the Biennial: She was pregnant with her first child. Zenzele was born in February, and the exhibition opened in May. After 12 weeks of parental leave, Hockley returned to work, leaving Zenzele with her husband, conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas, who works from home. “It was hard to leave my daughter, but I told myself, at least I’m going back for something that’s important to me and will hopefully be important in the art world, too.”
Hockley’s next curatorial challenge is a survey of work by Ethiopian-American abstract painter Julie Mehretu, which opened in November at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. With that exhibit and in her work at the Whitney, she says it’s a privilege to share artists’ work with the public. “We are not talking only to ourselves,” she says. “We’re talking to the world.”
This article was featured in NMH Magazine.