Harry Cooper takes on new role as Bunny Mellon Curator of Modern Art at The National Gallery of Art

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Harry Cooper takes on new role as Bunny Mellon Curator of Modern Art at The National Gallery of Art
Harry Cooper. Photo: National Gallery of Art.

WASHINGTON, DC.- The National Gallery of Art announced that Harry Cooper, head of the department of modern and contemporary art, will step down after 16 years in the role. Cooper will remain on our staff in a newly endowed position, the Bunny Mellon Curator of Modern Art, thanks to the generous gift of the Gerard B. Lambert Foundation.

As the inaugural Bunny Mellon Curator of Modern Art, Cooper will oversee paintings and sculptures from the first decades of the 20th century as well as later works that engage with the legacies of modernism. Among other projects, he will continue to steward the Robert and Jane Meyerhoff Collection, a world-class assemblage of postwar American art. Cooper will also focus on expanding our stellar collection of early modernism, both European and American, to embrace underrepresented artists and movements. Molly Donovan, curator of contemporary art, will serve as acting head of modern and contemporary art.

For years Cooper has shared his excitement about art with visitors and staff alike. “I have loved my time leading the department of modern and contemporary art at the National Gallery,” he said. “Some of my proudest work has been as a mentor and facilitator, encouraging the talents of colleagues and, in recent years, implementing our new mission, vision, and values. I look forward to focusing on deep curatorial work, including an upcoming retrospective of the American artist Helen Frankenthaler.”

“As head of modern and contemporary art, Harry has put an indelible and unique mark on the National Gallery, for which we will be forever grateful,” said director Kaywin Feldman. “From his role in acquiring incredible new works for the nation’s collection to his help developing our East Building’s signature Towers, creating dedicated spaces there for the beloved works of Alexander Calder, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko, Harry has been integral to our growth, and we eagerly await his contributions in this new role.”

Cooper’s Career as Department Head

During his tenure at the National Gallery, Cooper has acquired more than 500 works of art and presented some 40 exhibitions on behalf of the museum. He curated or cocurated several of these, including The Robert and Jane Meyerhoff Collection: Selected Works (2009), In the Tower: Nam June Paik (2011), Stuart Davis: In Full Swing (2016), Oliver Lee Jackson: Recent Paintings (2019), Called to Create: Black Artists of the American South (2022), and Philip Guston Now (2023). When the East Building galleries reopened in 2016 after several years of renovation and expansion, Cooper reimagined the permanent collection as a continuous historical narrative with explanatory texts in an acclaimed installation that remains on view today.

Cooper has overseen the acquisition of numerous important collections, including German expressionist painting and sculpture from Arnold and Joan Saltzman, avant-garde American and European art of the 1960s and beyond from Virginia Dwan, contemporary art from the 1970s onward from the Corcoran Gallery of Art, African American art of the South, including Gee’s Bend quilts, from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, African American modern art from P. Bruce Marine and Donald Hardy, and, most recently, a world-class collection of Joseph Cornell boxes and collages from Robert and Aimee Lehrman. As for individual works, many acquired by the Collectors Committee, Cooper brought the National Gallery our first paintings by Cecily Brown, Simon Hantaï, Oliver Lee Jackson, Alex Katz, Norman Lewis, Yoshitomo Nara, Amy Sillman, Marjorie Strider, Joaquín Torres-García, Lee Ufan, and Jack Whitten, and our first sculptures by Thornton Dial, Sonia Gomes, Henri Matisse, John McCracken, Mario Merz, and Kiki Smith.

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