Pushing More into Avant Garde, Whitney Museum Taps Meg Onli as Curator-At-Large

The Whitney Museum of American Art justs appointed Meg Onli as Curator-at-Large, the first one to hold such a title in over ten years. Onli has worked as Assistant Curator at the Museum of Modern Art Philadelphia and, mostly recently, as Director and Curator of Los Angeles’ Underground Museum. She has curated such exhibitions as “Colored People Time: Mundane Features, Quotidian Pasts, Banal Presents” (2019) and “Jessica Vaughn: Our Primary Focus Is To Be Successful.” She has spoken of her work as “attending to the intricacies of race and the production of space.” Most recently, she was appointed to curate the 2024 Whitney Biennial alongside Chrissie Ives.

| 13 Jul 2023 | 06:18

Congratulations on being the Whitney’s first curator-at-large in a decade. Why do you think the role’s been reinstated for you?

Thank you. I am thrilled to be joining the museum in the role of curator-at-large. Scott Rothkopf, current Chief Curator and soon-to-be Director of the Whitney is probably the person you should be asking this question to, but I can speculate. I think the role of curator-at-large is often seen as a position that can focus on the creative outlet of exhibition making while also working within communities outside of the museum. I was born and raised in Los Angeles and have worked with many LA-based and born artists. I see this position allowing me to continue to explore the avant-garde traditions seen in Los Angeles. For instance my recent exhibition with curator Erin Christovale on the LA artists Ulysses Jenkins—a path breaking video artist who had not had a solo exhibition in his 50 year career.

What’s the first thing you want to do as Curator-at-Large at the Whitney?

First thing on my docket is co-curating the 2024 Whitney Biennial with Chrissie Iles. The Biennial is a staple of the Whitney’s programming and has been held since 1932. The show is often said to take the temperature of the moment in American contemporary art. I am deeply honored to be curating the upcoming edition with Chrissie. As for the content, you will have to check it out in March of 2024. After that I will be co-curating a retrospective of Roy Lichtenstein with Rothkopf and the artist Alex Da Corte.

What role do you think the Whitney Museum plays in the contemporary art world?

The Whitney has a long history of supporting emerging artists and creating exhibitions that have shifted the landscape of contemporary art and exhibition making. I see the museum continuing that history and asking challenging questions of our time. I might flip your question with something that is on many art workers minds, which is “What is the role of the museum not simply within the contemporary art world, but within our local communities and in a larger sense within society at large?” From my first year here curating the biennial I know that every department is posing such questions and trying to build a museum that more closely resembles the world(s) that we live in.

What kind of work would you like to see more of at the Whitney?

I’ve joined the museum at an exciting moment. Over the past year the Whitney has hosted some important exhibitions including “No Existe Un Mundo Poshuracán: Puerto Rican Art in the Wake of Hurricane Maria” curated by Marcela Guerrero and currently on view is “Jaune Quick-to-See Smith: Memory Map” curated by Laura Phipps. Like my colleagues, I am invested in exhibitions by artists who have been marginalized within museum spaces. I am interested in exhibitions that continue to question and rewrite the canon.

It’s been said that as a curator you “glimpse the future while respecting the past.” What does the Whitney’s past mean to you? How do you hope to balance that past with your own ambition as a curator?

The history of the museum means a lot to me. There have been so many artists, exhibitions, and curators to pass through walls of the former Breuer and now the Renzo Piano building. It’s the terroir that we are all working with. For me the balance is in understanding and studying historical positions that the museum has had and placing them in conversation with our contemporary discourse.

In 2021, you were the inaugural winner of the Figure Skating Award for advancing racial justice in the arts. How do you hope to continue that work at the Whitney?

I was very moved to receive the Figure Skating Award from Virgil Abloh and his team. And its reference to Surya Bonaly will be forever epic. There is of course a political aspect to my curatorial practice, but I think it is more about my view of the world. I am Black, Queer and butch. So my perspective will forever be from those positions. I see it less as an agenda of advancing racial justice than a byproduct of museum’s welcoming different positionalities.

And more broadly, what role do you think the arts can play in advancing racial justice?

The arts have always played a role in advancing any movements towards justice.