Five questions with: Kelly Baum, Des Moines Art Center’s new director, who’s looking forward to the future of art history

Dr. Kelly Baum

After longtime Des Moines Art Center director Jeff Fleming announced last year that he would step away after a quarter century, the question of who could replace him quickly arose.

Now, as the Art Center begins its 75th anniversary year, the answer has come in the form of Dr. Kelly Baum, who was announced as the new director on Feb. 7.

With 23 years of art curation under her belt, Baum comes to Des Moines after working at a variety of institutions including The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Princeton University of Art Museum. She was selected by search committee made-up primarily of Des Moines Art Center Board of Trustee members that also included one Honorary Trustee who took-up a nationwide search.

Little Village got in touch with Baum following her announcement as the new Art Center director and discussed via e-mail her love of art and the eventual move to Iowa.

How did you first become interested in visual art?

It really began in college. My parents were scientists, and we tended to go to national parks instead of museums, so it never occurred to me to study art. When I entered the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1989, I started out studying speech pathology, but I happened to sign up for a class on ancient Greek and Roman art, which sent us into the Ackland Art Museum for course assignments. That was my first experience seeing art in person.

I found ancient art intriguing, but it wasn’t intriguing enough to prompt a change in major. That occurred only after I met Professor Carol Mavor, who taught 19th and 20th century art. Then my future became art history.

Pieces in the current Des Moines Art Center exhibit “75 Years of Iowa Art.” – Adria Carpenter/Little Village

You’ve curated exhibits in museums and institutions across the country. Do you have any favorite exhibits you’ve been a part of or artists you’ve been able to include?

I’ve curated almost 30 exhibitions and commissions big and small over the last 23 years. I love putting together shows, and I have a lot of favorites. There’s one I organized at the Princeton Art Museum in 2013. It had the very quirky title, New Jersey in Non-Site, and it explored experimental artists who were inspired by the cities, highways, ruins, mines and beaches of New Jersey in the decades after World War II. That show was very special to me, because I was able to learn more about the state to which I had moved only a few years earlier.

I’m also very fond of an exhibition I co-curated with Randy Giffey titled Alice Neel: People Come First. We worked on it in the year before and during the initial phase of the COVID pandemic: I drew strength from Neel’s art. The response to the exhibition once it opened was extraordinary, moreover: people were very moved by Neel’s drawings and paintings, and for some, it was the first museum show they had seen in over a year.

Finally, I have to mention Wangechi Mutu’s 2018 commission for The Met: The NewOnes, will free Us. Wangechi created four incredible bronze sculptures for the façade of the museum, whose niches had always intended to hold art, but which had been left empty since the early 20th century. Her monuments to female empowerment stood sentinel over the museum for two years.

When did you first hear about the Des Moines Art Center?

My introduction to the Art Center took place in 2007, when I wrote an essay for one its exhibition catalogs, on the artist Conrad Bakker. I came to learn more about its program and collection after that, and for my 2018 exhibition Delirious: Art at the Limits of Reason, 1950-1980, I borrowed an extraordinary work by Yayoi Kusama titled Ladder (1963).

Ladder, 1963, Yayoi Kusama

After I was able to share the news of my appointment last week, I learned what an enormous national fan base the Art Center has among artists, curators and critics. Like me, people deeply admire its architecture. The three buildings that make up the Art Center — and the way they touch Greewood Park — are exceptional. I’m also very excited about the Art Center’s studios: to have an art school embedded inside the institution, in close proximity to the galleries, is very special. I love that the making of art, by members of the public, is folded into the very identity of the Art Center.

You have a particular interest in art of the 1960s and 1970s. What draws you to that period of art?

This is one of the periods in the history of art that fascinates me the most, and it’s a particular strength of the Art Center’s collection. During those decades, artists embraced change and experimentation: every month, they were breaking and rewriting the rules of art. It was a thrilling time. Three of my favorite artists from that time are Eva Hesse, Ana Mendieta and Yayoi Kusama, all of whom are represented at the Art Center. Medieta, whose art appears in the current exhibition Art Center: 75 Years of Iowa Art, was a Cuban immigrant who studied at the University of Iowa. She was a fierce advocate for the rights of women and women of color.

Tilly Woodward poses next to her painting “David Hall: I hope to die with my pride, honor, and dignity intact” at the Des Moines Art Center on Feb. 10, 2022. This painting is from Woodward’s AIDS Portrait Project. Woodward asked each person to make a statement about AIDS, which is partially reflected in the title. – Adria Carpenter/Little Village

What are you most looking forward to about getting started at the Arts Center this spring?

There’s so much to look forward to. First and foremost, I can hardly wait to meet the staff, the rest of the board, and the Art Center’s donors and members. I’m also excited to get out into the city, the state and the region and speak with as many people — from artists, collectors and students to entrepreneurs, community leaders, arts professionals and more — as possible.

I want to take a deep dive into the history of the Art Center as well. Understanding where the Art Center came from and how it evolved into the great institution it is today will be key to planning its future alongside the staff and board. I want to spend a lot of time thinking about the buildings, the collection, and the communities the Art Center does — and should — serve. Great strides have been made to bring more women artists, LGBTQ+ artists, artists of color and Indigenous artists into the institution; more of that will come.

Part of what drew me to the Art Center and Des Moines were the people: everyone I have met on this journey thus far have been exceptionally kind and absolutely committed to the success of the Art Center. When I visited recently and stepped foot inside the Saarinen building, it felt like home.

The “75 Years of Iowa Art” exhibit debuts at the Des Moines Art Center on Feb. 10, 2023. The exhibit celebrates the Art Center’s 75th anniversary and reflects the work of artists who have lived and worked in Iowa. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

This article was originally published in Little Village Central Iowa issue 012.