"New York City is like Disneyland and LA is a freak show"

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Dieter Roelstraete. He plays the gong.
  • Dieter Roelstraete. He plays the gong.

Unlike most, Dieter Roelstraete, new Manilow senior curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, is drawn to Chicago’s traditional winter climate. “It’s the kind that forces people inside. Chicagoans spend a lot of time with books. As someone trained in philosophy, Chicago is an interesting place because of that,” says Roelstraete while sitting under a photo of Martin Heidegger at the Cafe Descartes downtown. Roelstraete, who began his career as a writer, is also drawn to Chicago's strong educational infrastructure and the dialogue around art. And of course there’s Chicago’s blue-collar history. “New York is like Disneyland and LA is a freak show. Chicago is more like how an American city should be.”

Roelstraete arrived at the MCA in mid-February, after leaving MuHKA (Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst) in Antwerp, Belgium, where he worked since 2003. Roelstraete also grew up in Belgium and graduated from the University of Ghent. “My father was an artist, so I grew up around art. It was like a small regional art world of the 80s. And that’s when I really came of age as someone aware of the existence of art.” It’s fitting that Roelstraete arrived for "This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s."

Before accepting his curatorial position at the MCA, Roelstraete had never spent more than two consecutive weeks in the States. “The first thing [MCA chief curator] Michael Darling told me about the job was that I needed to move here. That was a big decision. And of course it’s Francesco Bonami’s job, so it was a bit of a daunting prospect.” However, Roelstraete’s expertise in European art is one of his greatest strengths as an MCA curator.

“I think I’ve been brought here to bring a little bit of Europe to Chicago. And to broaden the perspective of institutional curating. In Europe, art as reportage is a strong theme. The idea of art as research and artists as researchers who become alternative historiographers.” Artist as historiographer may be less prominent in American contemporary art, but there's also a growing interest in anachronism. Anachronism, or, a cultish interest in Americana and folk tradition, is a theme that permeates both music and art today. “The return to craft is equally popular here and in Europe. But I’ve been struck by a weirdness, wackiness, and oddity here. It’s like Deliverance and the Smoky Mountains. But it’s way too early to theorize it.”

In Chicago, the relationship between art and community is particularly prominent. “Chicago has a strong representation of artists who work as cultural place makers, like Dan Peterman," says Roelstraete. "There’s the idea of making the world a home. And we’re in the right place for that. That’s like Hannah Arendt and Heidegger.” It’s no wonder Roelstraete likes Chicago. He fits right in.

Tuesday Roelstraete will give a gallery talk about the 1980s exhibition.

1980s Gallery Talk, Museum of Contemporary Art (220 E. Chicago), 6 PM, free with museum admission.

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