Van Ryzin: Annette DiMeo Carlozzi retires after pushing UT art forward

Like so much of how Annette DiMeo Carlozzi has conducted her career, she has given her decision to retire next month — after nearly two decades at the Blanton Museum of Art and four decades in the profession — a considerable amount of thought.

When she joined the then-modest University of Texas art museum in 1996 (it was known as the Huntington Art Gallery), Carlozzi was the institution’s first curator of American and contemporary art.

After a upward trajectory of positions — senior curator of American and contemporary art, director of curatorial affairs and then deputy director of art and programs, and most recently curator-at-large — Carlozzi quietly transitioned to part-time in 2013, a way to gradually unwind from the now-major university art museum she helped shape.

“I feel like there’s hundreds of (young people in the field) waiting for me to retire,” she says with a laugh.

If these days specialized university programs churn out scores of newly minted degree-bearing curator hopefuls — and if the very word “curate” has been appropriated from the museum realm and used for everything from selecting a Spotify playlist to choosing a cheese menu — when Carlozzi entered the field in the 1970s, a curator of contemporary art was a rare if almost unheard of position. Art historians trained with an eye to the past dominated the museum field.

Growing up in a working-class family in Boston, Carlozzi is proud to be among the first of her family to graduate college. She didn’t intend to enter the art field at all, only realizing once she had embarked on a major in psychology at Brandeis University that careers in art museums were possibilities. She switched majors to art history. And never looked back.

Well, not entirely, that is.

Carlozzi has always been determinedly democratic in her approach to explaining contemporary art and its contexts and origins. She bears little tolerance for the deliberately obfuscating language the art world remains so fond of.

She is, instead, the consummate educator and equalizer.

“I’m always thinking about the way that people without a grounding in art — people like my family — can find ways to understand art on its own terms, or ways that are clear and make sense,” she says.

Carlozzi’s 18 years at the Blanton actually comprise her second tenure in Austin.

She first arrived in the late 1970s to take the position as the senior curator at the institution then known as Laguna Gloria Art Museum. (After several iterations, it is now the Contemporary Austin.)

After leaving Laguna Gloria in 1988, Carlozzi spent several years as director of the Aspen Art Museum in Colorado, then headed to New Orleans to work as the executive director of that city’s Contemporary Arts Center. Next, it was on to Atlanta, where she was the producer of visual arts events for the 1996 Olympic Games.

By the time she was back in Austin and at UT in 1996, plans for a new university museum percolated. But another decade passed before the Blanton Museum of Art opened in 2006 as the nation’s largest university art museum. In the meantime, Carlozzi got to work. She organized critically acclaimed exhibitions such as “Cartoon Noir,” which looked at edgy takes on animation, and “Transgressive Women,” which reconsidered the work of four overlooked but important female artists.

Importantly, though, Carlozzi busily and enthusiastically engaged with the Austin and Texas art community, something that had been missing at UT.

“It didn’t ever occur to me to go some place and bury myself in the ivory tower,” she says. “If contemporary art is what you study, how can you not be out in your community looking and exploring and talking to artists?”

Recently, an invited group of friends, colleagues and associates gathered at the home of collectors Jeanne and Michael Klein to celebrate Carlozzi.

Among the noted artists there were Michael Smith, Annette Lawrence, Deborah Roberts and the groundbreaking choreographer Deborah Hay, the subject of an innovative multimedia exhibit Carlozzi organized last year that served as a brilliant way to exhibit contemporary dance as contemporary visual art.

In an email after the reception, internationally recognized artist collaborators Alexander Birchler (who was at the party) and Teresa Hubbard said: “Annette has built a long-standing reputation of nurturing the Austin arts community, connecting people and reaching out to a wide audience. Her exhibition with the work of Deborah Hay is a brilliant example of Annette’s passion for the arts in its many forms.”

Such comments invoke an inevitable question: Of what is Carlozzi most proud?

“Exhibitions come and go,” says Carlozzi. “And I love them. But it’s building the museum’s contemporary collection that’s most important to me.”

Carlozzi took the legacy collection she was handed — the more than 400 20th-century American paintings assembled by author James A. Michener — and astutely diversified it by adding work by important female artists, artists of color and artists born outside the United States. She acquired works by established creators such as Vito Acconci, Celia Alvarez Muñoz, Luis Jiménez, Lee Lozano, Ana Mendieta, David Novros and George Sugarman.

Carlozzi sought out cutting-edge works by younger artists who are considered contemporary masters, including Terry Adkins, Anne Chu, Trenton Doyle Hancock, Cao Fei, Ellen Gallagher, Rachel Harrison, Emily Jacir, Glenn Ligon, Dario Robleto and Amy Sillman.

Carlozzi accomplished some breathtakingly major international acquisitions such as Anselm Kiefer’s “Sternenfall,” Richard Long’s “Summer Circle” and Louise Nevelson’s “Dawn’s Presence.”

Carlozzi has been tapped for UT Press’ ambitious “Texas Bookshelf” initiative that will see 16 books on the state’s history and culture published. Carlozzi will pen the volume on Texas artists, the research and writing for which she’ll embark on almost as soon as she officially leaves the Blanton next week.

Downtime and some travel with her husband, Dan Bullock, are also on Carlozzi’s agenda. But the challenge of lassoing Lone Star State modern art in an understandable context is tempting to the consummately curious Carlozzi.

“I can’t wait to get out there and start looking,” she says.

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