‘The capacity to be almost anything’: An interview with Lawrence Rinder, departing director of BAMPFA

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Lawrence “Larry” Rinder announced Sept. 24 that he will be stepping down from his current position as director of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, or BAMPFA — and he’s leaving with a proud heart and high hopes for the future of this Berkeley-based cultural center.

Rinder will officially secede the title in March of next year, and as of now, his successor remains unknown. But the art enthusiast –– who also claims titles of curator and author –– has some key characteristics in mind that the institution should be looking for in its search. “I would look for someone who loves art and film, who is stimulated by the university environment, and who has a deep commitment to the museum as a space of social, cultural, and political engagement for people of diverse backgrounds,” Rinder said in an email interview with The Daily Californian. “Of course, the person needs to be a good manager and a successful fundraiser.”

If the coming director meets these criteria, their tenure is positioned to reflect that of Rinder himself. The latter oversaw various veritable watersheds in the museum’s evolution — most visibly its move from its blocky home on Bancroft Way to its sleek Diller Scofidio + Renfro-designed building. The transition proved an essential step to making the museum a more accessible and attractive site of interest for students and the broader public alike; BAMPFA’s attendance has doubled since the relocation. 

 For all the flashiness of the museum’s current aesthetic, and its quantifiable success over the past years, Rinder seems to ground his pride in the institution in its foundational history — and all that it continues to stand for more than what changed under his tutelage. 

Rinder provided an earnest snapshot into the museum’s past, he wrote, “BAMPFA’s history is much older than people realize.” Some of the museum’s earliest collections, he noted, were displayed on campus beginning as far back as the 1880s.

It wasn’t until some hundred years later that Rinder entered the scene. In 1988, he joined the museum in capacities ranging from curator to assistant director for audience and programs. Ten years later, Rinder left his post as the dean of graduate studies at the California College of the Arts to succeed Jacquelynn Baas as BAMPFA’s sixth director. 

During his years as the museum’s face and compass, Rinder has consistently emphasized community and campus engagement. These efforts are especially commendable, because so many museums remain out of reach for wide swaths of potential audiences. “It is true that museums carry a lot of cultural baggage, but they have the capacity to be almost anything we want them to be,” Rinder wrote. And, at least over the past 12 years, this has appeared to be true for BAMPFA, as the museum has worked to mould itself to the needs and desires of viewers, especially that of the trove of intellectual young people milling about just a block or so away. “Over the past decade, the museum has launched a number of significant initiatives to renew our role as an essential resource for this campus,” Rinder said. Such efforts have culminated in, Rinder explained, a partnership between the museum and Berkeley Connect, with the availability of its collection to students for research as well as the use of its facilities for UC Berkeley classes.

After nearly 25 years of service to BAMPFA, what does Rinder feel most gratified by? In addition to his efforts to tie the museum more closely to the campus and the Berkeley community at large, he pointed to his curatorial work. Each exhibition he’s curated — of which there have been over a hundred — has left its mark on him in one way or another. Rinder cited “In A Different Light,” a collection he spearheaded with mixed media artist Nayland Blake in 1995, as his proudest. “It was one of the first museum exhibitions in the US devoted to exploring the resonance of gay and lesbian experience in 20th century American art,” he wrote. “It was really lively, interesting and beautiful.” 

The same spirit of authenticity and focus on dynamism applies Rinder’s vision for the museum at large. BAMPFA, he noted, doesn’t rely on precedents or past fame in shaping its programs and exhibitions, and he voiced hopes that the director to come continues this momentum. “I hope that the new person feels a deep resonance with our unique spirit of independence, integrity, and innovation,” he said. “We have avoided chasing art stars, instead relying on our own critical capacities to see talent wherever it is, even if the artist is completely unknown or forgotten.”

As Rinder prepares to bid a bittersweet adieu to his Center St. base in March, he looks to the coming years with a sense of urgency and an inclination to apply his years of experience in the world of art to new realms. “Art matters because it taps into the core of our humanity. It creates a space where we can know each other and ourselves better,” he wrote. Moving forward, he hopes to explore its plethora of applications as a bonding agent — reinvigorating his work as an author (in addition to poetry, fiction and art criticism, Rinder published a full-length novel in 2009) and entering political discourses. “I also would like to do what I can to help with the 2020 election. This is such a dangerous time for our country and I can’t just sit by and do nothing,” he asserted. One potential manifestation of such action, he said, is continued work with the museum; Rinder already has plans to organize a show on Swedish-born farmer and textile artist Hannah Ryggen’s anti-fascist tapestries. 

Rinder himself may be substantially drawing back from his involvement with BAMPFA, but his fingerprints remain tattooed on the institution — its edifice, its art, its film and its community. 

Ryan Tuozzolo covers visual art. Contact her at [email protected].