Curator of Style

The Blaffer's Powerful Claudia Schmuckli

Art direction Michelle Aviña. Makeup Terri Sullivan. Hair Ashley Scroggins for Cutloose Salon.

On the eve of a breathtaking $2.25 million grand reopening by “it” architecture firm WORKac, Claudia Schmuckli contemplates the reborn museum she helped forge and forecasts what’s next. Catherine D. Anspon has a sit down with the woman at the top of University of Houston’s game-changing kunsthalle.

Stats. Director and chief curator, Blaffer Art Museum, University of Houston. Three and a half years as director, seven on and off in various capacities, including adjunct curator and director of PR and membership (by detour).

How you see the Blaffer. As an institution engaged in and fostering global dialogue about contemporary art … for both students at the University of Houston and the larger Houston art community.

Trajectory. MA in art history from Ludwig-Maximilians-University, Munich.

Route from Switzerland to MoMA. An internship at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, which led to a curatorial assistant position at the Guggenheim followed by an assistant curator position at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. MoMA to Houston.  The first time for love, the second time to assume my current position.

The Blaffer as dream job. It gave me a platform to shape an institution and realize ambitions I never quite knew I had.

Books authored. Eight (as in writing an essay) and published an additional six (as general editor and publisher). Most recently Tony Feher and an upcoming Henning Bohl [volume].

Required viewing this fall. “Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949-1962” at MOCA [Los Angeles], Richard Artschwager at the Whitney; Rosemarie Trockel at New Museum.

How you recognize the next important artist. A combination of (learned) knowledge, experience (15 years), exposure (travel as much as you can), and instinct. I am always on the lookout.

Definitive mags, newspapers, art blogs. Artforum, Cabinet, Texte zur Kunst, The New York Times, Artnet, ArtInfo. I don’t read that many blogs. I guess I am old-fashioned that way. Just haven’t found much of interest outside of gossip.

Favorite piece of studio jewelry you own. A Bruno Martinazzi bracelet, because it’s the whole package: conceptual, beautiful, powerful and wearable.

Last personal art acquisition. A Joshua Neustein work on paper that I discovered at the Independent Art Fair this spring.

Next acquisition. I’ll know it when I see it.

Your design collection. Mid-century modern mixed with contemporary reinterpretations.

First design acquisition. Probably something silly like an Alessi bottle opener. What I really want is an Ingo Maurer Porca Miseria chandelier

Jewelry designer you’re tracking. Doug Bucci for his inventive adaptation of scientific technology to create aesthetically inventive wearable objects. 

Furniture designer on your radar. I am still partial to everything that comes out of the Netherlands, in particular Droog.

Fashion designer you covet. Anyone who combines classic lines with edgy detail. I am a Prada/Sander/Miyake kind of girl, but you’ll find many younger and more affordable designers in my closet whose names I can’t remember.

On life after Duchamp’s Fountain. Both [upcoming Blaffer artists] Tony Feher’s and Andy Coolquitt’s works are part of a lineage that harks back to 1917, when French artist Marcel Duchamp declared a urinal a work of art … The impact of this gesture is still palpable today … Feher and Coolquitt represent very different positions: Feher’s is formally rigorous but very emotional and associative … Coolquitt’s is more grounded in the social conditions of a specific locality. Both, however, share an immediacy to our experience of everyday life that I find myself to be eternally drawn to as I look at works of art.

On the horizon for your new building. An exciting mix of solo and thematic exhibitions including first museum exhibitions and surveys of Russian-American artist Anton Ginzburg and Texan Andy Coolquitt; the presentation of “Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art,” which examines the role and importance of the meal as an idea generator and medium in contemporary artistic practice; and the generation of “Time/Image,” which looks at time as a culturally specific experiential condition. 

How you and Jim Petersen Jr. cooked up the “Windows” series. Spring 2011. “Window into Houston” was the outcome of a happy convergence of interest. Jim was seeking to turn the windows of his residence into a platform for artists, and I was looking for an off-site programmatic platform. The plan was hatched over dinner and implemented in less than two months. It has been such a success that we would both like to see it continue and expand. Next at 110 Milam: Debra Barrera, Clarissa Tossin.

You’re known for scholarly collaborations SUCH as your recent Tony Feher exhibition with Gilbert Vicario and the Des Moines Art Center. We travel two to three exhibitions at a time. Tony Feher will travel to the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum and the Bronx Museum after its presentation in Houston. I am also hoping to travel Anton Ginzburg, and the before-mentioned exhibition “Time/Image” developed by Blaffer’s Curatorial Fellow Amy Powell.   

Last travel destination. Kassel, Germany, in June for Documenta (13). Since then, I have been trying to get a building finished!

Next travel destination. Simple: New York. It’s been too long.

Favorite museum. I am partial to MoMA. I will always cherish my years there and still admire the dedication to scholarship and excellence that marks the curatorial endeavors of that institution and its curatorial staff. In the contemporary arena, I look more to Europe than the United States. I still think that the more interesting artistic positions have opportunity to be first articulated in municipally or state-funded kunsthalles.

Must-attend art fair. No question, Basel is the best in terms of modern and contemporary art. It is not to be missed.

Person you most admire in the contemporary art world. Anyone who can truly make a difference and put their mark on an institution, a community and a time, in particular women like Kathy Halbreich, Maria Lind and Ann Philbin.

Proudest accomplishment. Conceptualizing, funding and implementing a truly transformative renovation that will reposition the Blaffer as an intellectual and social hub on and off campus and enhance Houston’s national profile as one of the most important and progressive cultural centers of this country. 

Most fascinating trend. I am more interested in individual artistic positions that articulate acute concerns of our times. Trends are generally identified after the fact and tend to fizzle out quickly. Good work doesn’t. It outlasts the trend.

Now that you have your revamped building, what’s next on your wish list for Blaffer. An engaged audience. We have been working off-site and without a dedicated space for the presentation of art for a year and a half. I can’t wait to be surrounded, inspired, and transformed by art again on a daily basis and share that experience with everyone who comes through the door. I live for it and I want our audience to feel the same.

Three talents to watch. So many, for so many different reasons. Artists that we are hoping to work with right now are Raq’s Collective out of India, Francesca di Mattio who is based in New York and Candice Breitz from Johannesburg.

On continuing the Blaffer’s provocative performances downtown at the former Power Tools. We’ll see. The performance was integral to Linda Posts’ and Robert Appleton’s project for “Window.” It depends on the nature of the future ambitions of artists who develop proposals for this series of exhibitions. As of now, we don’t plan to organize independent performances, but that doesn’t mean that it couldn’t happen down the line.   

Parting thought. Art is the driving force behind my life, I wish I could say my life is art, but that is not the case. I am not an artist.


Blaffer director and chief curator Claudia Schmuckli is always in search of the avant-garde. Posed on the stairway of her reborn building she wears Roland Mouret dress, at Tootsies, shoes by Miu Miu at Saks.

Scmuckli reviews the upcoming fall season with the Blaffer’s director of external relations, Matt Johns.

The director’s personal jewelry collection mirrors objects also found in the MFAH’s Helen Williams Drutt Collection. Shown are works by Gijs Bakker, Manfred Bischoff, Doug Bucci, Peter Chang, Georg Dobler, Hermann Juenger, Fukuchi Kyoko, Bruno Martinazzi, Eleanor Moty, Breon O’Casey, Judy Onofrio, Iker Ortiz, Wendy Ramshaw, Gerd Rothman, Bernhard Schobinger and Janna Syvanoja.

In the bedroom, the present and the past rub shoulders: Josef Hoffmann chair, photograph by Tseng Kwong Chi, painting by Gabriel Vormstein, Breon O’Casey rug. Dress by The Row, at Tootsies.

Stairway to tomorrow: Days away from its opening, Schmuckli, center, joins her staff on the Blaffer’s new entrance designed by WORKac. Left to right: Teresa Munisteri, Youngmin Chung, Matt Johns, Katherine Veneman, Karen Zicterman, Emily Church. Foreground Mike Guidry, Amy Powell, Jim Rosengren.

In Schmuckli’s home, the living/dining floor plan features seating from Ligne Roset’s classic Togo collection, contemporary Chinese wooden carved side-tables, a Jens Risom dining table, and George Nakashima chairs.

In front of a print by Sarah Morris, dress by Martin Margiela, at Leap.

At Schmuckli’s modernist high-rise, Paul Cadovius shelving brims with art books and collectibles.