As CCA Pauses its Curatorial Practice Program, a Look Back at its Influential Scope

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View of building exterior with glass and school name above doorway
California College of the Arts' San Francisco campus, where the curatorial practice master's program has run since 2002. (Courtesy of CCA)

The news spread quickly through my former classmates. On Feb. 3, California College of the Arts sent out an email to alumni of its curatorial practice master’s program (CURP), announcing the school’s decision to “pause” new student admission starting with the fall 2023 semester. I graduated from the program in 2018; after 21 years, the class of 2024 will be the CURP program’s last for the foreseeable future.

In the email, CCA’s provost Tammy Rae Carland explained the decision: “This temporary pause will allow CCA to explore new opportunities related to campus expansion and to explore deeper connections with the internationally-recognized Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts.” CCA’s expansion is set to be completed by July 2024, and the Wattis will move back onto campus as part of the school’s new grounds.

Much is in flux: The Wattis will soon begin a search for its next director, following Anthony Huberman’s departure earlier this year. CURP’s current chair, Glen Helfand, is the third to hold the position in the past five years. In an interview, Carland also confirmed that application rates have dipped, with seven students across both current years compared to cohorts of up to 13 in the mid-2000s. Presumeably economics are also at play in the desire to refresh and restructure.

Panoramic view of SF design district with downtown in background
A view of CCA's San Francisco campus with the planned expansion, set to finish by July 2024. (Courtesy Studio Gang and Kilograph)

Born during the biennial boom

The CURP program admitted its first class of students in the fall of 2002. Kate Fowle, CURP’s first chair, and then-Wattis Director Ralph Rugoff recruited the aspiring curators and shaped the curriculum. Curatorial master’s degrees were a new concept at that time; programs at the Royal College in London and Bard College in New York were the only existing models.

“As the first program on the West Coast and only the second in the country, it was important to focus out into the Pacific Rim and Latin America,” Fowle explains of CCA’s distinction, “because all the masters at the time were focused on a Western European tradition of creating.”


CCA’s program was further distinguished by being in an art school. “It was artist-centered, and thinking around creating was important,” Fowle says. “We looked at a lot of artist initiatives and the rise of land art and alternative practices.” Fowle consulted artists like Fred Wilson and Andrea Fraser, who were at the forefront of institutional critique, to recommend five books each for the inaugural reading list.

Exterior view of gray building with gallery name on front
CCA's Wattis Institute moved to its current location on Kansas Street in 2013. (Courtesy CCA)

2002 was the height of the biennale boom, with almost every major city instituting a perennial exhibition of contemporary art, and curators were at the center of this discourse. Fowle capitalized on that excitement to fundraise. Grants from the Warhol Foundation aided with student travel and scholarships, and funding from Getty and the Wattis enabled the program to invite prominent practitioners, including Magalí Arriola, Adriano Pedrosa and Raimundas Malašauskas, to teach and curate.

After learning that curators and artists who received Asian Cultural Council grants stopped over en route to New York, Fowle began hosting them in San Francisco. All of this was to expose the students to people working on the ground in different contexts.

The program created its own far-reaching network through these initiatives. Kitty Scott first met Fowle at a bus stop during documenta11 in 2002. Scott was the curator of contemporary art at the National Gallery of Canada, and Fowle proposed she teach a two-week course about the process of acquisitions. “I loved teaching in San Francisco,” Scott remembers. “It enriched my life. I’d often run into a great person somewhere else in the world, and we would quickly figure out we first met in San Francisco.”

Five figures in a watery plain, sky and ground both gray blue
CCA curatorial practice students at Robert Smithson's 'Spiral Jetty' in 2010. (Courtesy of David Kasprzak)

‘Culture in many forms’

In 2006, when Xiaoyu Weng applied to CCA, contemporary art curation was a new concept in China. “There were no programs like that in China or even Asia,” she remembers. Her university professors connected her to Fowle, who was visiting for the Shanghai Biennale. “We hit it off and she encouraged me to apply. Then she gave me a full scholarship,” Weng says.

Studying in the U.S. would have been impossible without this support, she says. It was also an opportune time. “That was a moment when, politically speaking, China and the U.S. were in a much better relationship,” she explains. “Culture was playing a much bigger role in facilitating mutual understanding.”

Weng moved to San Francisco just as Fowle was stepping down as chair in 2007. Faculty member Leigh Markopoulos took the helm. J. Myers-Szupinska, who was teaching art history courses and advising student theses, says the program shifted at that time. With the onset of the Great Recession, funding decreased and the focus turned towards the immediate region.

“We were trying to work with what we had and what allowed us to do compelling things, without a really strong budget for travel,” Myers-Szupinska says. “I think that Leigh was very resourceful in those years.” Subsequent thesis exhibitions did the important work of historicizing the Bay Area, with students accessing local archives, artists and estates.

“We did an exhibition of Etel Adnan, an exhibition of Martin Wong, an exhibition about the punk scene in California in the 80s,” Myers-Szupinska lists off. The goal of those shows and their publications was not only to fulfill a degree requirement, but to make a contribution to the field. “We treated them as an ambitious form of exhibition making,” Myers-Szupinska adds, “a collective project that could provide something of use to the world.”

As chair, Markopoulos was committed to students with interests and backgrounds beyond conventional understandings of high-art. “Leigh was aware of culture in many forms,” remembers David Kasprzak, a 2011 CURP graduate. “She encouraged me to bring my experiences — things like organizing shows in a DIY punk venue in Ohio and on freight trains — into a world where that hadn’t been accepted.” Markopoulos combined this openness with a knack for networking, matching students with people who would become longtime mentors and friends.

Markopoulos died in a traffic accident in February 2017. It was an unfathomable tragedy for those of us in the program (I was in my first year), but the loss of Markopoulos was also a huge loss for the broader curatorial community, including CURP alumni.

A speaker at a desk with a room of seated students and books on walls
A curatorial practice class at YBCA, which housed the program 2018–2020. (Courtesy of CCA)

A period of instability

Qianjin Montoya was one year ahead of me at CCA; she came to the program specifically because of its local focus. Now a curator at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum, she is unsurprised the CURP program is pausing. She describes the transition in leadership after Markopoulos’s death as “shaky.”

There have been three chairs (James Voorhies, Christina Linden and Glen Helfand) over the last five years. “It’s about arts programs falling to the passion of one person,” Montoya says of the program’s recent instability. “That’s not fair. That’s a failure on the side of a whole system that says it supports it.”

These leadership shifts have led to sudden changes. Voorhies moved CURP classes away from CCA’s campus and the Wattis Institute to a bookstore he temporarily established at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Yomna Osman, the program’s sole 2019 graduate, was organizing her thesis exhibition at the Wattis when Voorhies pursued this reinvention, and she felt it wasn’t for her. “Anything that was happening with this move seemed like it was for the next class,” she says.

With that experience in mind, Osman thinks this pause is a good thing. “I feel like this is a delayed response to a force majeure problem that happened a few years ago,” she says.

Two students wearing masks install artwork against colorful background
CURP students installing an exhibition in CCA's Playspace gallery in 2022. (Courtesy CCA)

CURP reimagined

Carland, CCA’s provost, describes the pause as a logistical necessity, to avoid what Osman went through, and so the current and incoming classes are not running on two different curricula established by different chairs. The new vision for the program, still very much undecided, could include drastic changes. “We could have a track for architects and designers,” Carland suggests.

When I asked if she had an existing educational model in mind, she didn’t have one to share, but emphasized that any change would entail a closer relationship to the Wattis. CURP students have curated their thesis exhibitions at the Wattis since 2010, but the institute’s directors, including Huberman, have not always incorporated the curatorial program to the level that CCA desires.

Huberman even argued against curatorial education, in a public debate organized by Markopoulos in 2015. “I do not see proximity to artists, nor do I hear the voices of artists, in curatorial education,” he said at that event. “That can’t happen in a classroom, just as it doesn’t happen purely by sitting down in a room with someone and talking with them about their work.”

Graduates are entering a different art world. In recent months, Fowle, Scott and Weng have all left prominent institutional positions. “There is nothing like an exhibition in which curators and artists create the conditions to bring out the best in each other,” Scott says. But in recent years, she has noticed “a diffusing of the curatorial voice,” perhaps driven by the influence of the art market and museum marketing departments. Put another way: Curatorial influence is not as welcome as it was 20 years ago.

Tan walls with video and three photographic prints, hanging textile sculpture rests on floor
An installation view of Natani Notah's work in the 2022 CURP exhibition at the Wattis, 'Resonance of Place.' (Courtesy of CCA)

“Redesigning” and “invigorating,” words both used in Carland’s email, are promising terms. Still, it’s clear from the rapid-fire changes in chairs since 2017 that reinvention can also harm an educational project, especially if new leadership rejects the strengths of its lineage. Carland says this upcoming period of evaluation will involve speaking to alumni and previous faculty about their experiences.

The future for CURP is unclear, and I hope it only reemerges if there is intention behind its curriculum, faculty, funding and context within San Francisco (where the cost of living continues to rise). For now, seven students will complete their degrees before the program takes its hiatus. Current first-year Sam Hiura stressed her disappointment that there won’t be an incoming class in the fall. “Community-building and collaboration is a guiding value of the program for me,” she says.

The CURP network has been incredibly important to my life, and Hiura is right to desire these relationships. As curatorial trajectories shift, I am evaluating, along with my peers and mentors, my role in serving artists and institutions. I hope we can be a resource for students like Hiura — those graduating into an ever-changing field.