MCA Chicago Announces New Curatorial Leadership

  • CHICAGO, Illinois
  • /
  • November 17, 2021

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René Morales, photo: Karli Evans

The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA) announces the appointment of two new leaders to their curatorial team, René Morales as the James W. Alsdorf Chief Curator, and Jamillah James as Manilow Senior Curator. Both Morales and James will assume their roles at the MCA in January 2022.

“We are building a curatorial team for the MCA’s next chapter, one that is committed to telling an inclusive art history, engaging with our community, and expanding the breadth and diversity of experience on the team. Both René and Jamillah are passionate about investing in Chicago’s community of artists, cultural stakeholders, and audiences, and their collaborative practice and open and authentic approach will be transformative for the MCA,” states MCA Pritzker Director Madeleine Grynsztejn.

Born in Cienfuegos, Cuba, and raised in Miami, René Morales is an award-winning curator and significant presence in Miami's art scene. He brings over 25 years of curatorial experience, previously serving as Director of Curatorial Affairs and Chief Curator at the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM). At PAMM, his work has focused on exhibitions and projects that reflect Miami's diverse community and pivotal geographic location at the crossroads of the Americas. His current project, Gary Simmons: Public Enemy, the first comprehensive career survey of the multidisciplinary artist known for works that apply strong aesthetic and conceptual strategies to questions of race, class and gender identity, is originating at PAMM and will travel to the MCA in 2023.

In his role as Alsdorf Chief Curator, Morales will lead the MCA’s artistic division, reconsidering the MCA’s exhibition, performance, program, learning, and collection plans through a transcultural, inclusive and integrative lens. His emphasis on collaboration and the development of curatorial talent will strengthen the impact of the museum’s curatorial team which hails from across the globe, including the new voices of Marilyn and Larry Fields Curator, Carla Acevedo Yates; Curator, Performance and Public Practice, Tara Aisha Willis; Pamela Alper Associate Curator, Bana Kattan; Assistant Curator, Jadine Collingwood; and Assistant Curator, Performance and Public Practice, Gibran Villalobos.

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"As a longtime fan of the MCA and Chicago's radiant community of artists and art professionals, I am honored to join the museum at this pivotal time. I am looking forward to drawing from Chicago's complexity and dynamism to craft a unique program hand in hand with MCA's brilliant team," says Morales.

Before his role at PAMM, Morales worked at the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design where he organized and co-organized numerous exhibitions, including Island Nations: New Art from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico. Morales studied at Swarthmore College, where he received a Bachelor of Arts in biopsychology and art history, and Brown University, where he received a Master of Arts in art history, focusing on the work of Odilon Redon. 

Jamillah James, photo: Jasmine Clarke

In a long line of exhibitions spanning more than a decade, his projects include Meleko Mokgosi: Your Trip to Africa (2020); Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Surrounded Islands, 1980–83 (2018); Dara Friedman: Perfect Stranger (2017); Sarah Oppenheimer: S-281913 (2016); Susan Hiller: Lost and Found (2016); Marjetica Potrc: The School of the Forest (2015); Nicolas Lobo: The Leisure Pit (2015); Victoria Gitman: The Desiring Eye (2015); Bik Van der Pol: Speechless (2015); Global Positioning Systems: Selections from PAMM’s Collection (2014–15); Amelia Peláez: The Craft of Modernity; A Human Document: Selections from the Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry; and Monika Sosnowska: Market (2013–14).

Morales spearheaded the acquisition of over 300 works from the Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry for PAMM’s collection, with the support of the Knight Foundation, as well as major works by artists including Hélio Oiticica, Tania Bruguera, Virginia Jaramillo, and Robert Morris. In addition, he has extensive experience purchasing works for the PAMM collection via the museum’s Collectors Council, the Jorge M. Pérez Fund for Latin American Art, and the Fund for Black Art. 

He has taught museum history and theory and curatorial practice at Florida International University and held teaching assistant roles at Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design. In addition to authoring numerous exhibition catalogues, his writing has been published in New American Paintings, ArtLies Quarterly, and Cabinet: A Quarterly Magazine of Art & Culture.

Morales is the 2019 recipient of the prestigious Center for Curatorial Leadership Fellowship and served as a juror for the Whitney Museum's 2019 Bucksbaum Prize. He sits on the board of the City of Miami Art in Public Places and the Professional Advisory Committee of the Miami-Dade County Art in Public Places.

As Manilow Senior Curator, Jamillah James will lead the museum's visual arts department and be a driving force behind the MCA’s curatorial programming. She has built her reputation through deeply researched, beautifully presented exhibitions focused on supporting emerging and underrecognized artists, a concentration that will further the MCA’s own historic commitment to new art histories. 

“The MCA is an institution that I have long admired and where, as a student in Chicago, I had many formative experiences with contemporary art and artists. Visiting the MCA helped me realize the possibilities of curating and of museums. The city of Chicago is home to an incredible community of artists, and I am humbled by the opportunity to be an advocate for them as part of the MCA’s team. A leader in the field, the MCA is a true 21st century institution that is engaged with the most important discussions of the day, willing to reflect on its position and on what museums can do, and work towards what they should be—and I’m excited to be a part of its history,” says James. 

James was previously Senior Curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (ICA LA). She is also co-curator of Soft Water Hard Stone, the 2021 edition of the New Museum Triennial, the highly influential international exhibition in New York devoted to emerging artists from around the world, providing an important platform for a new generation of artists who are shaping the current discourse of contemporary art and the future of culture. Her work on the ICA LA's Barbara T. Smith survey opening in 2023 was recently awarded the Foundation for Contemporary Arts annual Ellsworth Kelly Award. 

Prior to joining ICA LA in 2016, James was Assistant Curator at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, and organized exhibitions and programs at Art + Practice, an arts and social services nonprofit in Leimert Park, Los Angeles established by artist Mark Bradford, MCA 2011 Artist in Residence. She has held curatorial positions at the Studio Museum in Harlem and Queens Museum, New York, and produced exhibitions and programs at various alternative and artist-run spaces throughout the United States and Canada since 2004. James’ appointment marks a return to Chicago, as she was part of the first class of Art History graduates at Columbia College in 2005 and organized music performances and other programming as a former resident of the exhibition space now known as Archer Ballroom. 

James’ current exhibitions include presentations of Sara Cwynar and Rebecca Morris, opening in 2022. Recent exhibitions include Harold Mendez: Let us gather in a flourishing way (2020), Stanya Kahn: No Go Backs (2020), No Wrong Holes: Thirty Years of Nayland Blake (2019), and This Has No Name, the first U.S. museum survey of B. Wurtz (2018). James also organized the Los Angeles presentations of the touring exhibitions Kenneth Tam: Silent Spikes (2021), Ree Morton: The Plant That Heals May Also Poison (2020), Patty Chang: The Wandering Lake, 2009–17 (2019), and Nina Chanel Abney: Royal Flush (2018). She has curated several thematic group exhibitions, including, A Shape That Stands Up (2016) and Sisters and Brothers (2014), as well as solo exhibitions of Lucas Blalock, Sarah Cain, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Alex Da Corte, Abigail DeVille, Rafa Esparza, Maryam Jafri, Ann Greene Kelly, and Simone Leigh. 

James has contributed texts to Artforum, The International Review of African American Art, and various institutional exhibition catalogues. She is a recipient of the inaugural Noah Davis Prize from the Underground Museum, Los Angeles and Chanel Culture Fund (2021), a curatorial research fellowship from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts (2021), and a curatorial fellowship from the VIA Art Foundation (2018). James regularly lectures on contemporary art, curating, and professional development for emerging artists and is a visiting critic in the graduate department at the Art Center College of Design, Pasadena.


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