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Huntington picks Kevin Salatino to head its art collections

February 9, 2012 |  4:05 pm

Thornton Portrait Gallery at Huntington by Gary Friedman

This post has been corrected. Please see note at bottom for details.

Kevin Salatino, director of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick, Maine, was named Thursday as the next director of art collections at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino. 

Salatino, 55, will succeed John Murdoch, who is retiring in June after 10 years as head of the art collections. When he begins at the Huntington this summer, Salatino will achieve a possibly unprecedented trifecta -- it appears that no other curator or director has served on the staffs of L.A.'s three biggest visual art institutions.

From 1991 to 2000, Salatino was curator of graphic arts at the Getty Research Institution, part of L.A.’s (and the world’s) richest visual art institution, the J. Paul Getty Trust. Then he spent nine years as curator and head of the prints and drawings department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, leaving to lead the Bowdoin museum in 2009.

Salatino said Thursday that he couldn’t think offhand of any other curators or directors who’ve worked at the Getty, LACMA and the Huntington. And Huntington spokeswoman Thea Page said that Shelley Bennett, a former art curator and now senior research associate who has been at the Huntington since 1980 -- two years before the Getty Trust was established -- could not recall a previous art curator or collections director of the Huntington who’d also worked at both the Getty and LACMA.

Raised in Stamford, Conn., and schooled at Columbia University in New York and the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Salatino spoke enthusiastically over the phone from Maine about his impending return to L.A.

“It took me about six years [as an Angeleno] to go from a love-hate relationship to a pure love relationship,” he said.  “After 19 years I said it would be nice to have a change. Maine is a wonderful place, but I’ve missed Los Angeles terribly. I feel like it’s a homecoming.”

Steven Koblik, the Huntington’s president, said that Murdoch has led a move toward more ambitious art exhibitions, and a big part of Salatino’s job will be carrying that forward while capitalizing on the extensive building improvements of the past decade. They include new galleries for changing exhibitions and American art, and the renovation of the Huntington Art Gallery, home to the collection's signature British paintings. 

“It’s a great opportunity for Kevin to come into this environment where space is not the big issue,” Koblik said. “Collection development, exhibitions and staff development are critical parts of what he’ll be addressing. We will be able to look at them in a way we haven’t before.”

Kevin Salatino art collections director of HuntingtonSalatino will bring a proven knack for scholarly showmanship.  At LACMA in 2008, he delivered a lecture about scatalogy and longing in the Art of James Ensor, which focused on the Belgian artisti's print, “Doctrinal Nourishment,” a rear view of religious and civil authorities defecating into the mouths of an eager populace.

“That’s the only lecture I’ve given without sex in the title,” Salatino said with a laugh. “I love to give very serious lectures with outrageous titles, because they bring people in.”

Among his talks have been “Sex and Death: One Curator’s Odyssey Through the Print (Under)World” at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, “Sex and the (Eternal) City: The Grand Tour as Erotic Pilgrimage” given in 2002 at the Getty, and “From Louis XIV to Grace of Monaco: Toward an Erotics of Fireworks” at the Louvre in 2003. The convergence of fireworks and art has been on Salatino’s mind since at least 1997, when he curated the exhibition “Incendiary Art: The Representation of Fireworks in Early Modern Europe” at the Getty.

Koblik said that while Salatino was at the Huntington for a job interview in December, he lectured on one of the portraits in its collection, “The Western Brothers" by John Singleton Copley. “There wasn’t any sex in the title, but there was plenty in the presentation,” Koblik said. “We know his penchant for that, and we think it’s a wonderful way to engage people.”

To that end, Salatino said, he can hardly wait to dig into the Huntington’s impressive collection of British 18th century portraiture (Copley included) -- with an eye toward exploiting the public’s neverending interest in sex to further its understanding of art.

“The 18th century is the great century of erotics," he said. "Those are the most rakish people anywhere. They’re fascinating portraits, highly sexualized in many ways, and they should be as fascinating to young people as to hoary old folks like me. Museum directors are always looking to bring the next generation in, and those are the kinds of pictures that can be made very accessible very quickly.”

Koblik noted that Salatino’s deep expertise in graphic art and works on paper dovetails well with another major department of the Huntington: the library, which houses many documents that are in themselves works of art. Exhibitions reflecting the combined scholarship of the art and library staffs are a goal.

“We’ve really begun to emphasize the cross-fertilization between all three of our collection areas,” Koblik said -- looking for tie-ins not only between artworks and historical books and documents, but with the gardens as well. Information placards might note which paintings or science books on display indoors deal with a given plant species that’s on view outside.


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For the record, 1:15 p.m. Feb. 10: An earlier version of this post had incorrect titles for two lectures and a partly mistaken description of Ensor's "Doctrinal Nourishment."

-- Mike Boehm

Photos: Thornton Portrait Gallery at Huntington Libary, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino; James Salatino, newly-named director of the Huntington's art collections. Credits: Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times (gallery); Huntington Library (Salatino).