Making Art Her Life: Kim Kanatani Embraces New Role at UCI

Artwork pictured: Ronald Davis, “Horse Shoe Slab,” 1986, Vinyl-acrylic copolymer on linen, 84 x 96 x 1 1/2 in. The Buck Collection at the UCI Institute and Museum of California Art, © 1986, Ronald Davis. Photo credit: Ralph Palumbo

After serving as director of education at the Guggenheim Museum, Kim Kanatani is undertaking her most ambitious project yet: the new Institute and Museum of California Art on UC Irvine’s campus.

Kanatani’s ties to UC Irvine formed in the 1970s. At the L.A. Municipal Art Gallery during and after graduate school, Kanatani curated exhibits from many California artists, including those of her future husband, contemporary artist and UC Irvine alum Bruce Richards. “He was (there) at a very pivotal and formative period with the art school, which was in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Back then, it was called ‘the best-kept secret.’ One of the reasons I’m very interested in fostering and overseeing a museum of California art is because I still feel it’s the best-kept secret, and it’s a story that needs to be told. So much of the contributions that happened to the contemporary art world were birthed at UCI.”

Before she was a renowned art educator and museum director, Kanatani was a child from the Inland Empire with a passion for language. A Redlands native, Kanatani studied Japanese at UCLA before obtaining a master’s degree in art education at Cal State L.A. Fine art, she realized, had its own language. “I really think the importance in the process of being educated about art is that it teaches you a new language. And it’s a language that needs to be taught. When it comes to art, it’s more of a visual and conceptual language that can open up new ways of thinking and understanding the world around you.”

If you believe that art is a reflection of life, which I do—I believe art is life—then what California artists are creating is as unique and as global as this state is.

Kanatani has spent more than 30 years at some of the most influential museums in the country. She worked for 15 years at the Museum of Contemporary Art in L.A., and then for 18 years at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. “(The Guggenheim) really demonstrated to me how important and positive the impact can be when you have an architecturally significant museum. (People) who may not be enamored with contemporary art could be intrigued by architecture. I consider the building that we’re going to be building to be part of the museum collection.”

As director of IMCA, Kanatani will oversee two of the largest collections of California art in the world: nearly 4,500 pieces donated by the Irvine Museum and the Gerald Buck estate. “These two landmark gifts have already immediately made UCI a global magnet for the exhibition and the study of California art. I see IMCA as also being able to provide a vital platform for dialogue and debate on the timely and topical issues that artists and their work generate.”

Kanatani hopes to educate museum attendees through curated experiences. “Contemporary art is sometimes not the easiest subject, especially if you haven’t studied it formally. I think for us to be relevant, we really do have to engage the public in many different ways—not only through the presentation of art but through the interpretation of art in many different facets … through artist talks or through developing curriculum. I hope people (discover) that art and art museums are not elitist ventures only for (those) in the know.”

Living in Orange County gives her a sense of familiarity. “When I was in high school, Laguna Beach and Newport Beach were my go-to getaways during spring vacation. So I feel that I’m coming back to my own backyard.”

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