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Meet Toby Kamps, Blaffer Art Museum’s Director

Q&A with Blaffer’s new director and chief curator.

The Kathrine G. McGovern College of the Arts (KGMCA) welcomes Toby Kamps to the University of Houston as the Blaffer Art Museum’s new director. Kamps, a Houstonian who made his way to Texas just over a decade ago and has since become a fixture of the city’s art scene, joins the college after an extensive national search. The former curator of modern and contemporary art at the Menil Collection brings with him a wealth of knowledge and experience from both the East and West Coasts. We talked to him about the path that led him here — his introduction to the museum world, his interest in social history's exploration of cultural and emotional experiences and some of his favorite exhibitions over the years — as he gears up to lead Blaffer into its next chapter.

How did you get your start in curating?

Being a curator was my childhood dream job. I learned what a curator was early on while going to museums with my family, and in college I was lucky to keep reconnecting with art history and museums. While I was studying in Germany, I began to think seriously about a museum career because it seemed like every city had great art spaces — not only a comprehensive, encyclopedic museum, but also a non-collecting contemporary art museum, or Kunsthalle, that put on exhibitions of new art. It really seemed like these institutions were an integral part of the fabric of society in that country. 

When I returned to the US, I applied to the Williams College Graduate Program in the History of Art, in Williamstown, Massachusetts because I’d heard that they turned out more museum curators than any other school. I managed to get into this very strong program and have had a terrific adventure ever since. 

Your career has taken you from coast to coast, serving as a curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego and the director of the Institute of Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art before moving to Texas. What brought you down to Houston? 

After a few years working in museums, I realized that this was a happening place. I think it’s fair to say that every curator in the United States loves Houston. There are great museums, wonderful collectors, lots of artists and very open and smart audiences for art here. Like a lot of curators, I had come here for work in the past and had a very positive experience. 

In Houston, the distance between an idea and execution is the shortest I’ve ever seen. I love the spirit of Houstonians. They make stuff happen in a fast and exciting way. That’s extraordinary, and I’d say that’s the biggest inspiration about being here.

What are some of the most memorable exhibitions you’ve curated over your career?

I love it when you’re walking around, not necessarily thinking about anything in particular, and suddenly an idea comes to you. This happened to me over 10 years ago when I started seeing all kinds of artists who were making little or large-scale dioramas. I thought “there’s something there.” I was curious why, on the cusp of the digital age, so many artists were making analogue representations of the world. The resulting show, “Small World: Dioramas in Contemporary Art” at the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego, was a popular success and it was just recently one of the inspirations for another exhibition on the subject at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. It’s tremendously gratifying when a show resonates like that.

I also enjoyed working on “The Old, Weird America” and “No Zoning: Artist Engage Houston” at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. “No Zoning” featured a lot of UH alumni, artists who recognized the extraordinary art-permeability of our city and did some very creative things on their own outside of our city’s institutions.

What interested you in this position at the Blaffer Art Museum? How does the museum’s mission resonate with you?

My great interest is contemporary art, and Blaffer has a spectacular record of putting on innovative contemporary art shows and giving artists their first US shows. I also really like the fact that the program here is international.

And, I really like it’s connection to the University of Houston. Aaron Parazette, a painting professor at the School of Art, invited me to visit M.F.A. graduate students’ studios the first year I was in town, and it was a great experience. To this day, I’m still friends with a lot of the people I visited back then.

As you step into the role of director, what is your vision for the Blaffer Art Museum?

I hope to build on its fantastic record of innovative shows and to try to expand the scope and reach of the programs. I’d also like to increase Blaffer’s focus on working artists, helping provide a real boost to their careers and the scholarship of contemporary art with our programming.

My life was changed for the better in museums. I was fortunate enough to see a number of works of art that stayed with me as a kid, and they helped me realize that museums can present a kind of social history. Instead of treaties and decrees, museums showcase the most important sides of life: the things that people are thinking, laughing, crying, singing and dancing about. They present an emotional history of the world. Contemporary art is especially interesting because it talks about right now. I think that’s one of the very best ways to understand our own moment in history, which always feels so difficult to define. 

Do you have any additional message you’d like to share with the University of Houston community?

Yes, how can I find out more about bicycle commuting?