Arts / Museums

CAMH’s New Director Becomes the First Artist to Lead a Major Texas Museum

Hesse McGraw is a Bold Hire Who Breaks the Mold

BY // 12.07.19

After a year-long search, the 71-year-old Contemporary Arts Museum Houston is getting a new leader. The 40-year-old Hesse McGraw becomes the CAMH’s 10th director, set to take over in mid-January.

McGraw will become perhaps the CAMH’s most iconoclastic director to date.

McGraw is known as an artist’s advocate. He’s collaborated with diverse talents, including the great Theaster Gates, to realize impactful projects that transform communities and redefine art-making in the 21st century.

His background is nontraditional. The fresh hire is a curator, writer, former gallerist and an artist — the first artist ever (that we’re aware of) to be in charge of a major museum in Texas.

(The podcast Bad at Sports describes McGraw’s work as an integration of “photography, video, sound and text into site-specific installations and published works.” It’s been exhibited in New York City at Rare gallery, as well as internationally.)

With McGraw, CAMH trustees broke with tradition and looked outside the culture fields of NYC and the East Coast to the heartland and searched beyond the museum world. McGraw arrives from Kansas City, Missouri, where he led curatorial initiatives into the public realm as a partner of the avant-garde design/architecture firm El Dorado, Inc.

Prior to his time in Kansas City, McGraw held a high-profile curatorial post at San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI), where he oversaw cutting-edge residencies and brought forth projects including Jill Magid’s ongoing, controversial protest piece, The Proposal, which critiques the removal of the archives of Luis Barragán — Mexico’s greatest architect — and makes a stand for their return from Switzerland to their homeland.

Hesse McGraw with artist Michael Jones McKean, 2012, Omaha, Nebraska. McGraw is known as an artist’s advocate who has devoted more than a decade of his career to realizing innovative curatorial projects beyond museum walls. (Photo courtesy Omaha Magazine)
Hesse McGraw with artist Michael Jones McKean, 2012, Omaha, Nebraska. McGraw is known as an artist’s advocate who has devoted more than a decade of his career to realizing innovative curatorial endeavors beyond museum walls. (Photo courtesy Omaha Magazine)

Before SFAI, McGraw was chief curator at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in Omaha, Nebraska (2008 to 2013). The calling card of his time at the Bemis? He tapped the now iconic Gates on a community project a decade ago that became transformative. The Carver Bank, the first African American-owned bank in Nebraska, was reborn into a hub for creativity and neighborhood.

While in Omaha, McGraw also dipped into environmental issues. He commissioned Michael Jones McKean’s site-specific The Rainbow: Certain Principles of Light and Shapes Between Forms (2012), which conjured rainbows over the art center by employing a sustainable system of harvested, filtered rainwater.

In his official statement, McGraw said, “Contemporary Arts Museum Houston is a pioneering institution with a remarkable, radical legacy… I am thrilled to join CAMH at this pivotal moment in our culture — we need artists now more than ever!

“I look forward to working with the entire CAMH team, board, public and artists to directly engage the civic life of Houston and beyond.” Stay tuned.

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