By Keysha Drexel
The Birmingham Museum of Art recently welcomed two new staff members who say they are excited about taking care of the more than 25,000 objects in the museum’s collection and about making those works of art relevant to residents of the Birmingham area and its visitors.
In December, Robert Schindler came from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to become the new curator of European art at the Birmingham Museum of Art. On May 5, Wassan Al-Khudhairi returned to the U.S. from her job as the co-artistic director at the Gwanju Biennale Foundation in South Korea to take on the job of BAM’s new curator of modern and contemporary art.
Born and raised in Berlin, Germany, Schindler got his first introduction to the U.S. and the American South when he was an exchange student in West Virginia during high school. He returned to the States while pursuing his doctorate and worked in the manuscript department at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
Schindler held a postdoctoral curatorial fellowship in the department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters at the Met.
“The Met has a lot of curators, so to get a full-time position there, you kind of have to stand in line,” he said.
Schindler said he jumped at the chance to join the Birmingham Museum of Art.
“The museum has one of the best collections in the Southeast, and for a regional museum, the resources are extraordinary,” he said. “We have a lot of support in the community, and all of that makes for a really, really attractive package.”
Schindler said that Gail Andrews, the museum’s director, is very well respected both in the U.S. and abroad.
“That helps a lot when you are trying to put together an exhibition like the Delacroix,” he said.
Through May 18, the Birmingham Museum of Art is hosting the first Eugène Delacroix exhibition in the U.S. in more than a decade. The museum is one of only two venues to host “Delacroix and the Matter of Finish,” which represents works of collections from around the world, including Paris, Switzerland, Madrid and New York.
“With this exhibition, we had very precious objects coming here on loan from all over the world,” Schindler said. “The museum has the reputation that will we take very good care of these works of art, and that means a lot.”
Schindler said the support the museum receives from local corporations shows that it benefits the community.
“To have an institution like PNC Bank supporting us speaks to the fact that we are doing important things here at the museum,” he said. “The corporations and individuals wouldn’t be supporting us if they didn’t see a benefit.”
Schindler, who has worked in the European Art Department at the Detroit Institute of Arts, said a vibrant, healthy art scene is important to any city’s economy.
“When people are trying to convince other people to move to a new place or to open a business in a new city, they shop around to see what a city offers, and they inevitably make a stop at the museum,” he said. “It’s the cultural assets like the museum, the (Alabama Symphony) orchestra, the Birmingham Botanical Gardens and the zoo that attract people to this area, and it’s what attracted me.”
Schindler, 38, and his wife, Ann Trondson, live in the Highland Park area with their 2-year-old daughter, Clementine.
“In talking with people from companies that support the museum, they know that the cultural opportunities here are a major factor in bringing in new businesses to Birmingham,” Schindler said. “Birmingham may not be a major tourist destination, but institutions like the museum attract young, creative people and help convince them to move here and to do business here.”
Schindler said he thinks the museum’s educational programs also enrich the community.
“Your life can be enriched by art, and the earlier you are exposed to it, the better. That’s why our educational activities and programs are so important,” he said.
Schindler said one of the museum’s goals is to make sure everyone in the community takes advantage of all it has to offer.
“We want people to feel comfortable in the museum,” he said. “Museums can sometimes have this elite feel to them, and we’re trying to avoid that as much as possible. It’s not about how you’re dressed. It’s about taking advantage of the free admission and coming in and browsing or letting us help guide you through the collection.”
The museum’s free admission is something Al-Khudhairi said she loves about it.
“I don’t think people realize how cool that is,” the 33-year-old native of Iraq said. “Most of the museums in the U.S. charge $15 or $20 just to get in the door, and here in Birmingham, we have this wonderful museum that is completely accessible and free.”
Last week was Al-Khudhairi’s first week on the job as the curator of modern and contemporary art, but it wasn’t her first introduction to the Birmingham Museum of Art.
“I did my undergraduate studies at Georgia State University and visited the Birmingham Museum of Art when I was a student,” she said. “I’ve always been impressed with its collection.”
Al-Khudhairi earned a master’s degree in Islamic Art and Archaeology at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London and served as the founding director of Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Qatar.
In Qatar, Al-Khudhairi spearheaded the development of the museum’s strategic plan and cultivated community relationships to support it. She said she has many of the same goals with her job at the Birmingham Museum of Art.
“I’m very excited about deepening our relationships in the community, and in talking with the museum leadership, I was really encouraged that there’s an interest in expanding the global approach to the museum’s collection,” she said.
Al-Khudhairi said she is not only thinking about the future of the museum’s contemporary art collection in a global way but is also focusing on its future in the Southeast.
“I think we have the ability to attract attention from our neighbors in Atlanta and Chattanooga and other places in the region and let more people know about the incredible collection at the Birmingham Museum of Art,” she said. “I think it could also extend beyond the region, because people are curious about the South and about Birmingham, and we have a chance to show the world what we have here.”
Like Schindler, Al-Khudhairi said she thinks one of the most important things about the Birmingham Museum of Art is the opportunities it offers to its visitors.
“Art can play an important role in helping people understand and experience the world in a different way. It can help us learn about each other,” she said. “And art is also just fun, so to have a wonderful institution like this as part of the fabric of the city is important.”