New-York Historical Society Promotes Wendy Nālani E. Ikemoto to Chief Curator - Living Strong Television Network
New-York Historical Society Promotes Wendy Nālani E. Ikemoto to Chief Curator

The New-York Historical Society, the city’s oldest museum, has named Wendy Nālani E. Ikemoto as its new chief curator and vice president. Ikemoto, who is Native Hawaiian, is one of the few Native people to ever lead a curatorial department of a major US museum, especially one that is not primarily focused on the art and history of Indigenous people.

She has worked at the New-York Historical Society since 2018, joining as an associate curator of American art; in 2022, she was promoted to senior curator. She has worked to diversify the institution’s permanent collection, adding key works by Oscar yi Hou, Augusta Savage, Betye Saar, and Kay WalkingStick. In celebration of the acquisition of a recent work by WalkingStick, Ikemoto curated the exhibition, “Kay WalkingStick / Hudson River School” (on view through April 14).

Other recent exhibitions by Ikemoto include “Nature, Crisis, Consequence” (2022), “Monuments: Commemoration and Controversy” (2022), “Scenes of New York City: The Elie and Sarah Hirschfeld Collection” (2021), and “Dreaming Together: New-York Historical Society and Asia Society Museum” (2020–21). She also served on the inaugural faculty of the Master of Arts in Museum Studies, a program launched in 2019 as a partnership between the New-York Historical Society and City University of New York School of Professional Studies.

In a statement, board chair Agnes Hsu-Tang said, “The New-York Historical Society is fortunate to have a new generation of talents rising to leadership roles from within. … Wendy has demonstrated exceptional intellectual heft and curatorial audacity, and now she trailblazes the field of American art to become the first—among a new generation of Indigenous and Native Hawaiian curators—to lead the curatorial department of a historical American institution.”

ARTnews recently spoke with Ikemoto to learn more about her vision for the New-York Historical Soceity.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Installation view of “Kay WalkingStick / Hudson River School,” 2023–24, at New-York Historical Society.

ARTnews: Can you talk a bit about your tenure at the New-York Historical Society so far? What was the institution like when you arrived?

Wendy Nālani E. Ikemoto: The museum was already doing a lot of great work when I arrived six years ago, in late January 2018. I took time to learn about the collections, and to learn about the processes here. I was brand new to curating. I never imagined that I would become a curator; I trained to be an academic art historian.

What happened is, I had a couple of postdocs, one at the Courtauld Institute in London and one at Vassar College after finishing my graduate studies, and I then left academia to teach at a school for Native Hawaiian students, back where I’m from in Honolulu. Then this job at the New-York Historical Society became available. I thought that it was a wonderful opportunity to marry my love of research, scholarship, and rigorous art history with my desire for good for the community. For me, museums are really institutions of public service.

When I arrived, one of my focuses was proposing exhibitions that would help break down some of the perceived barriers between the museum and the publics that it serves. For instance, one of my exhibitions, “Scenes of New York City: The Elie and Sarah Hirschfeld Collection” [2021–23], involved bringing in over 70 New Yorkers to respond to works. I thought it was a way to crowdsource knowledge, to honor the experiences and perspectives of people who are not coming from a curatorial or art historical background, which are equally valid and can complement curatorial knowledge. I also thought it was a way to break down barriers that I believe some people feel in interpreting art.

Another thing I’ve tried to advance at the museum is making sure that we reconsider our permanent collections. We are New York City’s first museum, so we have this incredible substance and historical weight in our collections. But how do we push those historical collections forward, and how do we illuminate the ways that the past means to the present? The past isn’t some dead entity. It is an active force, and it acts upon the present.

An assemblage that features a stereotyped mammy figure atop a washboard. Above reads text 'EXTREME TIMES CALL FOR EXTREME HEROINES'. At very top is a a dial clock in black and white. Her apron is a detail of a drawing of a slave ship.
Betye Saar, Extreme Times Call for Extreme Heroines, 2017. 

What are some acquisitions that you’ve help bring to the New-York Historical Society over the past six years that speak to this desire?

My very first major acquisition was an assemblage by Betye Saar, titled Extreme Times Call for Extreme Heroines [2017]. It is very characteristic of the work that she is celebrated for. It features a stereotyped, offensive mammy figure from the Jim Crow era that Saar has transformed from this figure that was designed to denigrate Black women into a warrior who’s fighting racism and sexism. On her apron, she carries enslaved people from history, so her apron is emblazoned with an image of the bow of their slave ship Brooks. You see all of these black lines, and if you look closely, you see that those lines are actually bodies packed into the cargo hold. This warrior is carrying all of these ancestors with her forward—into these extreme times.

For me, that was precisely the type of object that was fitting for the New-York Historical Society to acquire because it was a contemporary work that deeply engaged with history. That, in a way, performed or practiced what we are trying to do in grappling with history and its actions upon the present and moving that conversation into today.

My most recent acquisition was the painting Niagara [2022] by Kay WalkingStick, the Cherokee artist. And in a similar fashion, Kay is engaging in a historical tradition of landscape painting, which is a strength of our collections. One of our signature holdings is our 19th-century Hudson River School paintings, and Kay is exploring this tradition that has historically marginalized Native people and ignored Native stewardship of the land that was presented by the Hudson River School as pristine wilderness. So, Kay’s work takes this landscape tradition, and in her most recent works, she stencils patterns from Native communities onto the land that they historically or presently steward. In the same fashion as Betye Saar’s work, Kay’s is engaging with a historical tradition. She’s helping to lift up and recenter a traditionally marginalized voice in the discourse of American landscape painting.

A landscape painting of Niagara falls with an Indigenous abstract patten in light blue stenciled in bottom right.
Kay WalkingStick, Niagara, 2022.

How did the current Kay WalkingStick show come together, and what is its significance to the New-York Historical Society?

The exhibition is the public unveiling of Niagara, and the work is, in fact, our first painting by a Native artist to join the collection. We all felt it was essential to have represented in the New-York Historical Society a vision of the lands that we now call New York from Native artist’s perspective.

We had invited Kay to our primary storage facility in Jersey City to view a selection of our Hudson River School paintings. We ended up having a really magical morning, looking at the paintings through her eyes and seeing them, as much as possible, from her perspective. That, along with the acquisition of Niagara, is what became the genesis of the show.

This is a type of exhibition that I feel is important for the New-York Historical Society in engaging with our strengths and pushing them forward. It’s a way of delving into the depths of our collections but also refreshing them, complicating them, and exploring them with an open and critical eye.

Installation view of a museum exhibition with several abstract paintings on the wall.
Installation view of “Kay WalkingStick / Hudson River School,” 2023–24, at New-York Historical Society.

What is your vision for the New-York Historical Society’s curatorial program?

I recognize the significance of a Native person being appointed to a leadership role in an institution that’s devoted to American art and American history. I have several pillars that my aims are built upon—they will all be, of course, part of a larger institutional vision—but in terms of our curatorial programming, I would like to make sure that we serve and engage with the community. I want to take the same spirit that was behind the community quotes [from “Scenes of New York City”] to drive more initiatives. We are in the process, for example, of developing an initiative that will make curators more accessible to the public and available in the galleries to engage, to answer questions, to just be present and be able to talk with our visitors about the works on view.

I’m interested in conversation. This is going back quite a ways, but my dissertation was actually on pendant paintings [works of art that are meant to be displayed with each other]. So, I’m invested in the larger pictorial discourses that can arise from thought-provoking groupings and juxtapositions on the wall. I want to continue to use those sorts of curatorial actions to stimulate further thoughts about our permanent collections. I want to make sure that we continue our work of putting on display exhibitions that feel current, that are current that engage with debates or conversations that are happening today. Again, going back to my commentary on the importance of the past, it is a force that is constantly acting upon the present.

Our current motto for the institution is “Because History Matters.” That’s what drives a lot of my own thinking.

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