Jeffrey Grove, the DMA’s new gay curator of Contemporary Art, takes a forward-thinking approach to keeping art — and museums — vibrant

JEF TINGLEY  | Contributing Writer

Jeffrey Grove
Jeffrey Grove, who came to the Dallas Museum of Art last fall as its first titled curator of Contemporary Art, poses in the museum’s sculpture garden. Photography by Arnold Wayne Jones

Dallas Museum of Art
1717 Harwood St. The Jeffrey Grove-curated Luc Tuymans exhibit
continues through Sept. 5. Tuesdays–Sundays, 11 a.m.–5 p.m. (open until 9 p.m. Thursdays). $10. 214-922-1200.

For Jeffrey Grove, modern art is more than just a paint-splattered canvas or the iconic portrait of a soup can; it’s a way of life. The Dallas Museum of Art’s newly minted Hoffman Family Senior Curator of Contemporary Art boasts stints at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art and the Cleveland Museum of Art. In addition to being the first person at the museum to hold the modern art curator title, there’s one particular item on Grove’s extensive resume that always piques the most curiosity: “Founding curator of the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C.”

“It’s everyone’s favorite part of my history,” Grove says with a grin. “And a very fun place.”

Originally a student of industrial design, Grove began his career wanting to make objects, but along the way he became more interested in the history of the things themselves — and consequently developed a passion for art history. After receiving a master’s degree in archeology and art history from the University of Missouri, Grove received a doctorate in art history from Case Western Reserve University.

While studying art, Grove simultaneously began immersing himself in artists’ culture and the act of staging small shows.
“I really wanted to help artists translate their ideas — you know, be a facilitator,” he says. And his career as curator was born.
Grove arrived at the Dallas Museum of Art last September to help its department of Contemporary Art with exhibitions, programming, publications and acquisitions. One of his immediate large-scale projects was coordinating the presentation of the first U.S. retrospective of the work of the Belgian painter Luc Tuymans. Jointly organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Wexner Center for the Arts, the installation showcases Tuymans’ interest in interiors, landscapes and figural representations. Among the highlights of this particular showing are six additional works by the artist on loan from Dallas residents, on view through Sept. 5.

In conjunction to the installation, Grove has coordinated a sculptural installation to supplement the artist’s iconic works entitled Mass and Material: Sculpture Since the 1960s, featuring work by artists Barry Le Va, Charles Ray and Bruce Nauman, among others. It runs through Oct. 24.

“It’s the first solo show I have done [at the DMA]. It’s drawn from Tuymans to be a compliment to the painting exhibition.”
Given the often unfamiliar and non-traditional nature of contemporary art, Grove faces a larger challenge than many other curators: How to get people to connect with the often abstract or misunderstood.

Over the years, Grove has developed numerous exhibitions, including the 1997 retrospective Fame & Misfortune dedicated to the life of LGBT icon Andy Warhol, a giant of contemporary art.

“You see his self portrait in magazines. He’s the [contemporary] artist that every school child knows and thinks is the greatest thing since sliced bread,” says Grove, who is also gay.

Nonetheless, he’s quick to squelch the notion that modern art must be explained away to be enjoyed.

“I don’t feel like people have to know it to appreciate the work, but certainly a more contextual knowledge creates an understanding of the artist’s situation, which leads to different identification the viewers’ part,” he says. “Didactic wall hangings, smart phones or someone like me giving you the information [are some of] the preferred ways.”

And because of the nature of contemporary art, the collection he oversees is always growing and changing. A quick look at his bookshelf brimming with muses, including gay artists like Jasper Johns and the late Texas Robert Rauschenberg, gives a hint to what’s on Grove’s wish list for the museum. However, he’s careful to add that the collection requires specific parameters when adding new acquisitions.

“[You must know] what compliments what is already here and really analyze the collection. Where it is going? Where can strengths be built? What is being collected in the community?” he notes, adding that he’s still working on all these questions having only been on the job less than a year.

Earlier this year, Grove led an after hours “walk & talk” for the Gay & Lesbian Fund for Dallas as part of its partnership with the DMA. It was a chance to introduce Grove to Dallas’ LGBT community while allowing participants to hear firsthand his unique perspective about the museum’s collection — witty quips and all.

With a bright view of the future, Grove sees a new dynamic in the way museums and individuals will continue to collect art, specifically modern art. “I think that the change will be in the distinction between private collecting and institutional collecting,” he says. “Speaking particularly about contemporary collecting, on a high level Dallas is already a pioneer in partnering with individuals and organizations to share acquisitions. ­­No great museum can afford to buy all the great art and keep pace with cultural production.”

As for staging his dream collection, Grove says, “stay tuned,” but should it not work out, he can always return to his bio highlight, a world of espionage and double agents. As he says, in a tone laced with sarcasm, “All the conspiracies are true: It’s all a way to support things like Salt.”

The Angelia Jolie spy movie? No, thanks. We prefer Grove in this day job working with some real art.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 27, 2010.