By Richard Gessert
Irene Sunwoo is the new John H. Bryan Chair and Curator of Architecture and Design at the Art Institute of Chicago. Sunwoo joined the Art Institute from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP), where she was curator of the Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery and director of exhibitions from 2016 to 2021. During her time at Ross Gallery, Sunwoo oversaw an experimental and interdisciplinary exhibition program through which she supported and collaborated with architects, designers, and artists. Her exhibitions have engaged with the works of Arakawa and Madeline Gins, Cooking Sections, Torkwase Dyson, Frida Escobedo, Norman Kelley, Armin Linke, and Liam Young, among others. Her last curatorial project at Ross Gallery was A Wildness Distant (2020), an online program of films and essays exploring landscapes as “sites of memory and political imagination.” Throughout her work as a curator, Sunwoo has consistently showcased the ways that architecture and design offer critical frameworks for understanding today’s most pressing issues.
In this interview, Sunwoo, who trained as an architectural historian and holds a PhD from Princeton University’s School of Architecture, reflects on this moment in her career. She discusses her relationship with Chicago, what it means to have joined one of the nation’s largest encyclopedic art museums, her relationship with practitioners across fields, and her commitment to inclusion as a curator.
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Richard Gessert: You were an associate curator for the inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial in 2015. In what ways does your new position at the Art Institute allow you to deepen your connection with Chicago?
Irene Sunwoo: The biennial was a formative experience for me. I had decided to pivot away from academia, so it was the first time I had worked with so many contemporary architects. These included MAIO, Frida Escobedo, Counterspace, Norman Kelley, Sou Fujimoto, Francis Kéré, Pedro y Juana, Amanda Williams, SO-IL, and so many others—close to one hundred participants, from all over the world. During the run of the biennial, I learned a tremendous amount about institution-building, made wonderful friends, and established great relationships with a global network of designers. Many of those relationships would follow me to my time at Columbia University. Now, it is especially rewarding to see how a younger generation of architects—whom I encountered several years ago—have developed and advanced their practices since then.
Coming back to Chicago has allowed me to not only reconnect with the local architecture and design community but also to think about ways to connect Chicago with global discourses and practices. In this way, I am able to build upon and contribute to the efforts of an incredible range of institutions and organizations focused on art, architecture, and design. On the one hand, there are so many terrific schools here—including IIT, SAIC, UIC, and the University of Chicago—but also the Graham Foundation and Volume Gallery, which are both so incredibly special. I am exposed to a fantastic cross-section of thinkers, makers, and organizers, some of whom are quite interdisciplinary and not limited to just architecture.
How does joining an encyclopedic art museum reflect a juncture in your career?
It is super exciting. Previously during my time in academia, I was very much focused on the history of architecture, though I also have a background in design history. At the Chicago Architecture Biennial and GSAPP’s Ross Gallery—both architecture-specific institutional contexts—my work expanded to address contemporary practices. Today, I am so excited to be at a museum with such an expansive collection where I can think about architecture and design through a new institutional lens, and I can work alongside other curatorial departments that operate across geographical regions, historical periods, and mediums. I love collaborating with people from other fields with other forms of expertise. I am looking forward to opportunities to develop projects with colleagues from other departments and learning from them!
Do you find that your relationship with curation has changed due to the need to cater to the museum’s broad audience?
This is an important question. Ross Gallery at Columbia was primarily geared toward an architecture audience. However, I always kept in mind the context of the university. All types of students could be potential visitors, as well as local residents. Could a layperson enter the gallery, be curious, understand texts, feel welcome, and engage with these specific works? Working in that context, my attitude was always that architecture is not just for architects. Architecture affects everyone in the world in varied ways.
We have a much broader and larger audience at the Art Institute, so I’m even more attentive to the same concerns I had at Ross Gallery. I want visitors to feel welcome, curious, and engaged—and that requires constantly recognizing that our audience is not monolithic and brings different experiences and perspectives to the galleries. For this reason, it’s great to have such a robust team at the museum who offer support on interpretation and educational programming to work towards a more inclusive experience.
Has the inclusion of design within your purview—in addition to architecture—shifted your approach to curation?
I also have an MA in Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture from the Bard Graduate Center, so it’s nice to return to those roots!
Historically, architecture and design are two very closely related disciplines. I find it exciting because, even though I’ve focused on architecture for the majority of my professional career, for me there has always been an understanding that architects think expansively and elastically—as do designers—and therefore, there are many areas of overlap and shared interests in terms of production methods, aesthetics, political concerns, and material experimentation. There are also so many fantastic artists, both historical and contemporary, who address architectural issues and topics in such powerful ways. So, again, it is a real privilege to be in a museum where disciplinary boundaries can be crossed regularly.
I think these connections will really come into focus with a future show on the architect Bruce Goff, which is curated by my colleague Alison Fisher with our postdoctoral fellow Craig Lee. The exhibition was in the works when I arrived at the museum, and I was so thrilled to learn about it upon my arrival. In addition to being a prolific architect, Goff was also a prolific painter, had interests in music, and was a fanatical collector of objects and artwork. That project will really demonstrate this idea of elasticity. That is the beauty of a creative mind—it doesn’t see disciplines, right? It goes where it feels like going.
As a museum curator, what are some ways your relationship with practitioners differs from that of an independent curator or an academic?
At GSAPP’s Ross Gallery I crafted short-term, exhibition-focused projects that often involved commissions. However, at the museum, in addition to exhibitions, building the collection is a significant part of my responsibility. One really needs to think about the long view when considering the act of collecting and presenting a permanent collection.
In the past, when I organized exhibitions with practicing architects, designers, and artists, I was thinking about what moment they were at in their career or how an exhibition could be a launching pad for an idea, a way to test things out or be experimental. We can certainly still do that within our exhibitions program at the museum, but we also have to think about the longevity of the collection and how we recognize artists’ and architects’ contributions to the field within the bigger picture.
I am incredibly proud of how, during my tenure, Ross Gallery began to engage young practitioners in exhibition design. One example that is near and dear to my heart is Arakawa and Madeline Gins: Eternal Gradient. When I first arrived at GSAPP in 2016, I already knew I wanted to do a show on the understudied, visionary architectural projects by Arakawa and Gins. Working in close collaboration with the artists’ estate, I honed the project to focus on a group of little-known but extraordinary architectural drawings from the 1980s. I immediately thought of the office Norman Kelley (Carrie Norman and Thomas Kelley) for exhibition design. I had worked with them previously at the Chicago Architecture Biennial, and through that experience knew that they were deeply invested in experimental drawing practices. I was confident that they would engage rigorously and playfully with this body of work. They knocked it out of the park. This was a meaningful and fun way of supporting young architects. I hope to find ways to continue to do this at the museum. Stay tuned!
What are some ways that issues of inclusion play a role in the architects and designers you choose to work with?
That’s top of mind. I joined the Art Institute in April of 2021; from the start, this question was tremendously important. It is a great responsibility to be selecting projects and individuals to feature on this institutional level. I am very aware of certain gaps in historical narratives and the exclusion of certain voices. It is a matter of always trying to assess, understand, and interrogate how we as a department can change narratives rather than simply build upon or continue certain ones that exist—both inside and outside the museum.
What can we do to create shifts in discourse, thinking, and public awareness about architecture and design? What geographical areas have been underexplored? How can we introduce voices who haven’t had a platform, whose histories, practices, and interests haven’t been on an institutional radar—not just at the Art Institute, but at other museums, schools, and cultural and civic organizations—for years or decades? For example, I think the African American experience is one that needs to be strongly reflected in our collection, especially given that we’re in Chicago, where that cultural history and the communities are so incredibly vibrant and present. As an Asian American, it has also been a joy to engage in discussions on inclusion with a newly formed Asian/Asian American Pacific Islander (A/AAPI) Collective and other working groups at the museum. Making inclusion a priority requires a combination of long-term planning and acting nimbly, departmental mission-building, and constant critical self-reflection, collaboration, and commitment. I hope that I can help set the stage for changes to unfold both immediately and in the coming years for future curators in the department.
What are some of your current and upcoming projects?
Publication-wise, I’m working on a book that is an outgrowth of the 2018 Ross Gallery exhibition I curated on Arakawa and Gins. I recently wrote a short text for a book by the artist duo Cooking Sections called Offsetted, based on a show of the same name that we did together at Ross about environmental rights. I also wrote an essay on architect Frida Escobedo’s exhibitions and installations for a book being published by the Harvard Graduate School of Design.
In terms of exhibitions at the Art Institute, I recently completed a show with Jonathan Muecke, a designer based in Minnesota who over the past decade has been developing an intriguing and highly conceptual body of work. The exhibition is titled Jonathan Muecke: Objects in Sculpture and opened on May 26, 2022. The show was initiated by my predecessor, Zoë Ryan, as the fourth edition of the Franke/Herro Design Series, highlighting the work of emerging design talent.
I am also curating a show with Himali Singh Soin, an interdisciplinary artist who works between London and Delhi. Her project Static Range takes on an episode of Cold War espionage from the 1960s as a point of departure, in which the CIA planted a nuclear spy device on a mountain in the Indian Himalayas. It considers the consequent ecological damage, global nuclear entanglements, as well as the possibility of environmental healing. Soin uses that story to develop an ever-expanding project that draws upon textiles, video, performance, and poetry.
Can you say more about environmental issues and the creative practitioners who engage with those concerns?
I think we, as the Department of Architecture and Design, are well-poised to take on the issues of climate change and our radically changing environment. There are so many designers, architects, and artists leading the way as creative thought leaders who are speaking about and bringing these issues to a broader public in accessible, moving, and impactful ways. Soin’s project is a great example in that regard, and it is a springboard for exploring ways that our department can continue to support such urgent conversations.
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Featured image: Model Projections, an exhibition co-curated by Irene Sunwoo and Jennifer Gray at Ross Gallery in 2018. Sunwoo invited Tei Carpenter of Agency—Agency to design the exhibition, which examined the model making boom of the mid-twentieth century. Photo by James Ewing, courtesy of Columbia GSAPP.
About the author:
Richard Gessert holds a BA in art history from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He currently works as a graphic designer for the Office for Research at Northwestern University. Recently, Richard was awarded a Fulbright U.S. Student Grant to research modern art in Vietnam.
Richard is also an artist and has created artwork informed by his interests in design, visual culture, and cultural history. Find Richard on Instagram.