Christina Yang spent her formative years studying art and art history at UC Berkeley during times of strife when politics tried to censor expression. She brings that experience, and mountains of museum and gallery practice, to the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive as the institution’s new chief curator.
“I have never not been into art,” Yang said. “There’s an essential role of art in our day-to-day lives and in politics. It’s being engaged with our identity and values. The role of a curator has never been more urgent. I believe that art can save lives.”
Yang has an impressive record within the arts institution community, and she started young. She got lost inside the halls and galleries of the former BAMPFA building as an intern when it was called the University Art Museum.
“I had a glorious experience there,” she said. “I grew up there.”
Yang, whose passion is actually modern dance but whose library of knowledge is almost as vast as the BAMPFA 28,000-piece collection itself, really lived the Berkeley life when she attended the university, not only as an intern of the museum but as a student employee of the Art History/Classics Library at Cal and a neighbor of People’s Park. She wanted to be part of Berkeley’s rich humanities, arts and culture society, so she dived into “the world within the world” of her studies.
“I had early access to faculty, students and grad students,” she said. “That laid the groundwork for pursuing secondary degrees. The library and the museum propelled me to where I went in the future.”
Yang leaves Williams College in Massachusetts, a small, mostly undergrad college in the rural northwestern part of the state. It’s recognized as a strong teaching institution, with faculty actively engaged in their own scholarship, and sharing their ever-growing knowledge with students.
She’s also a student herself. She went to Williams College then moved to New York and eventually dug into a New York University Ph.D. program where she’s finishing her seventh year, and her last year on her dissertation.
While being a student, Yang is also a leader. She served a 14-year tenure at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City. She has previously held positions at The Kitchen and the Queens Museum.
Art is her thing.
If you ask what her first order of business will be at BAMPFA, Yang will say she wants to get to love the art inside the new building as she loved the collection inside the old one.
“For me, this space is actually super important,” she said. “(The former space) felt like a temple of art and a place I could go to have comfort and feel expression.”
Her love of the Berkeley collection did not go unnoticed when she applied for this position.
“I’m thrilled to welcome Christina Yang and her visionary thinking to BAMPFA, where I know she’ll be successful in applying her decades of experience to foster collaborations and lead our exhibitions, collections, and public programs in exciting new directions,” BAMPFA Director Julie Rodrigues Widholm said in a statement. “Christina stood out among an impressive applicant pool as a creative thinker who shares our passion for dynamic, socially relevant arts programming that has a lasting impact outside of museum spaces.”
Yang hopes the students, faculty and public get to know the museum in the way that she did when she was in Berkeley — as a contemplative and exciting place to learn and love.
“I hope future generations come to get to know that space that way and have pride in the collection,” she said.
She is also excited to work with BAMPFA staff, and get to know, in-depth and in minutiae, the works of the collection.
But, really, her background as a student and mentee of all the Bay Area artists she was surrounded by in the 1980s when she went to school in Berkeley leads her to a great desire to mentor students, faculty and the public.
“I am really excited to get to know the students and the greater campus community. I am excited to get to know the objects, the people and the space. Then I will have the foundation to do the work in a bold and powerful way,” she said.
When Yang was at UC Berkeley, it was a time when Chez Panisse was just getting off the ground. She is looking forward to exploring modern Berkeley, especially its yoga studios.
And she’s excited to personally explore experimental dance in the Bay Area. Experimental dance is truly one of her personal passions.
“There’s just something about dance that is thrilling and alive, and also visual, participatory and unpredictable. It’s when I lose a sense of myself and I just like being in the space of that work,” she said.
Time will tell how much dance she’ll bring to BAMPFA.
Laura Casey is a freelance writer covering Berkeley and the East Bay. A lifelong journalist, she has written for a number of local publications. She is also a full-time investigator at an East Bay law firm. Her hobbies include diving deep into the visual and performing arts scene and hiking. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org