Grace Kook-Anderson Leaves Laguna Art Museum

Grace Kook-Anderson stands in the final room of the Elizabeth Turk exhibition at Laguna Art Museum (LAM), surrounded by the artist's enigmatic creations. The soft, white flesh of marble sculptures and chalk writing on the black-box walls is behind us; in front are drawings, textbooks, newspaper articles, salvaged pieces of nature—dozens of Turk's inspirations.

“Elizabeth brings attention to the little things around us, the things that we miss,” says LAM's curator of contemporary art, softly. “There's a vulnerability to her offering herself up to the community.”

The same can be said about Kook-Anderson. We're walking down the gray concrete paths of the Great Park, away from the Palm Court Arts Complex, where she has just spoken at Kevin Staniec's Living Room Talks. It was a small, lively group, full of questions and comments. Kook-Anderson had told me earlier that she was leaving her position at LAM and moving with her husband and small son to Portland. Looking around me, I couldn't help but think that she deserved a better send-off, a larger crowd that was more familiar with her exhibitions.

“I'll miss your work,” I tell her. “It may not have always seemed that way. I know I wasn't always very nice to you.”

She smiles and waves her hand. “It's part of the game,” she says. “It toughened me up.”

My first review of Kook-Anderson's work was less than flattering. I won't repeat it here, but it didn't take her long to prove I was dead wrong. What does Elizabeth Turk, trompe-l'oeil, John Altoon and World of Warcraft have in common? Not much, except LAM's curator of contemporary Art.

Factor in her ex•pose shows and their deeply-felt social consciousness—the unforgettable individuality of Macha Suzuki, the transcendent images of Richard Kraft's video, Allison Schulnik's melancholy animations and paintings, the war nightmares of Dana Harel, or the physical devastation of beatriz da costa—as well as the dozens of artists collected from her stint as jurist at Irvine Fine Arts Center's “All Media: 2013,” and Kook-Anderson has exposed Orange County to a host of artists completely underserved by the art world, with most of the work displayed in a basement space that makes many people wonder, when they come off the elevator, whether they went too far and ended up in an underground car park.

“I think it's a shame when people shy away from social issues or politics,” she says. “It's an argument to be made, but I feel everything is political. Since the '60s . . . I think it's a little irresponsible to not be in a dialogue.”

But in 2008, Kook-Anderson didn't see herself living in Southern California. A self-described “Bay Area snob,” she had a dual BA in art practice and art history, a master's in curatorial practice, had primarily worked in galleries, and was attached to the intimacy of university spaces. In that awkward year following graduation, still searching for a place to belong while trying to make ends meet, she basically said “yes” to everything that came her way: She installed art, curated it, sold it and painted the walls around it; was a liaison with creatives; and worked the front desk of a hotel.

Then she saw the listing.

Three trips south and three interviews later, Kook-Anderson secured her job with LAM, a position previously held by powerhouse curator Tyler Stallings that had been vacant for two years.

“ex•pose was a great opportunity,” she says. We're sitting on a bench in the dimly lit downstairs gallery, gazing at Lita Albuquerque's Pigment Figure No. 1 and listening to the artist's poetic, if slightly incomprehensible, narrative playing over the loudspeakers. “I would have liked to have seen it go longer. It's not a one-off; it's a serial. You need to see it over time,” she says, passionately, adding, “Grants were a challenge.”

Unlike art history, which is somewhat fixed in time, contemporary art is something ever-changing, its narrative barely happening. I offer that it's nasty and unpredictable and hard to trap for longer than a moment.

“Embrace the messy,” Kook-Anderson says, laughing.

So does she have any regrets? “Living in OC was really a challenge,” she says. “We lived quite modestly. . . . Lev and I only have one car. The demand to be in LA, always viewing, always at openings. I always felt guilty that I didn't see enough.”
She tells me that the hardest part about leaving is that she'll miss the people at LAM, who have become family to her. She wishes the best for them: “There are lots of ingredients to make the museum really great, but it just needs an extra push of support from the community to take it to the next level.”

Including artists? “Not the artists. We love donations, but seriously, they're the most generous people that I know. They always did more than the modest stipend we gave them. It's the people with the wallets who need to help more.”

So where does she go from here?

“We're going to sell our car. Our little boy will be well-versed in public transportation.” She smiles at me, radiant and full of hope. “I'm going to be a Portland hippie. There might even be a career change. . . . I might go into agriculture and raise bees.”

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