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Q&A With Departing DMA Curator Olivier Meslay
by Jerome Weeks 12 Jul 2016
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Detail of a portrait by Egon Schiele from the Dallas Museum of Art’s ‘Mind’s Eye’ exhibition

Olivier Meslay [Oliv-ee-AY Muh-LAY] is the head curator at the Dallas Museum of Art — but he’s leaving Dallas this August to direct the  Clark Art Institute in Massachusetts, with its celebrated collection of French Impressionists and American artists like Winslow Homer. Meslay was a curator at the Louvre in Paris before coming to the DMA in 2009, so KERA’s Jerome Weeks sat down with him to ask about his seven years here, about his biggest success and what it was like for a Paris art official to live in North Texas.

Monsier Meslay, welcome. Bienvenue.

OMMerci.

When you came here seven years ago, the very first question asked by the local press was, ‘Why would a Parisian art official join the Dallas art world?’ And at the time, you pointed to the 200-year-old bureaucracy at the Louvre, and how you preferred curating, doing research in the archives. So seven years at the DMA have apparently convinced you to return to management?

OMNo, and I enjoyed my seven years at the museum — fully. The seven years I spent were not without management. There was a lot of management. My position now is managing all the curators, for example. But it’s a very easy team to work with, and you can also spend a lot of time curating.  It’s true that you have this sort of freedom that is invaluable for me.

Is that what you’re looking forward to at the Clark?

OMWell, it’s a different institution. It’s an institution that has a balance between the museum and the research and academic program which is one of the best in the country, and the balance of the two is something I was very interested in.

When Bonnie Pitman stepped down from leading  the DMA, you became interim director for about a year —

OM— yes —

— but late last year when Maxwell Anderson abruptly left, you didn’t. You could have quickly stepped in again as interim director or even replaced him entirely. Were you already considering the Clark Institute?

OMWell, I was looking around, of course, and the Clark was for sure one of the museums I was interested in. But I think it was a good thing that I wasn’t stepping in again into the interim director position because I think Walter Elcock who’s the interim director now and who also was the former president, was in a more natural position to take care of that.
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Three of the eye-popping video-faced mannequins from the Jean-Paul Gaultier exhibition, ‘From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk.’

You did a variety of shows in which you involved local art collectors to a degree they’ve probably never been before — shows like ‘Mind’s Eye,’ the exhibition about works on paper. But you’re probably going to be best remembered for the Jean Paul Gaultier show, ‘From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk,‘ one of the highest-attended shows in the DMA’s history and, somewhat controversially, its very first devoted to the art of high fashion. 

OMI’m not a strong advocate always of fashion shows. I think fashion shows are very difficult to exhibit. One of the reasons I was so keen of this show was that Jean Paul Gaultier was  about pop culture. Jean Paul Gaultier was interested in many, many aspects of the society from low culture to high culture. He was also involved in the film industry, in the song industry. He’s far more than a fashion designer.

A number of years ago, I saw you and your two sons shopping at a Super Target. And it occurred to me, forget the differences in the art worlds and the museum worlds, what have you missed about life in Paris?

OMWell, I miss many thing from Paris, but they are usually thing I’m very happy to replace with new thing. And my wife and I, we still have family in Paris, so we visit often. I like to quote the line by Humphrey Bogart in ‘Casablanca,’ the last thing he says, ‘We’ll always have Paris.’

The only thing I really miss here is probably the fact that I cannot walk from a place to another place, the fact that it was really a driving place, I mean a car place.  But I’ve even been able to replace my cafe by another cafe, and then when I went there this morning, and when they see me in the window, they know I want my blueberry muffin and my espresso in a china cup, and I have that.

Before you came here, you had a fellowship at the Clark, so you’ve lived in  America. But what was the biggest surprise about Dallas?

OMFor me, and it still struck me almost every day, the amazing energy of the city. It’s still growing at a pace that I never saw anywhere else. You have China, you have some places like that. But to see under your eyes a city which is transformed completely year after year, it’s still a daily amazement, the buildings growing like mushrooms everywhere.
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