Curator Barbara O’Brien becomes Kemper’s director

The Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art has named Barbara O’Brien, the museum’s chief curator and director of exhibitions and collections, to be its new director. O’Brien succeeds Rachael Blackburn Cozad, who left the director’s post three weeks ago.

In a statement from the museum, R. Crosby Kemper, the museum’s founder and chairman of its board of trustees, said, “The museum’s trustees and I are excited to promote from within the organization.”

Reached at her office Thursday, O’Brien said, “Right now, I’m in a listening mode.”

She plans to spend three full days talking to “every employee, volunteer, docent and intern,” she said, and look at “how we keep our excellent visitor experience.”

The discussions also will focus on “who are we as an institution to one another as colleagues, to Kansas City as our base, and what kind of presence we want to have on the regional and national stage as we move toward the (Kemper’s) 20th anniversary.”

O’Brien ascends to the post of director at a time when the museum is keenly focused on controlling expenses.

Her appointment follows a series of staff reductions that included the positions of museum educator, adult programs; manager of corporate and foundation giving, assistant curator and preparator.

At the time, the museum did not announce a national search, but said it would “begin the search for a new director.”

“I wish her the best in her new role and look forward to being supportive to her in any way I can,” Cozad said Thursday.

O’Brien is the Kemper’s fourth director since it opened in 1994.

She joined the Kemper as curator in 2009 after serving as assistant professor of art at Simmons College in Boston, where she was also director of the college’s Trustman Art Gallery and head of its arts administration program. From 2003-06 she was editor-in-chief of Art New England magazine and earlier was director of the gallery and visiting artist program at Montserrat College of Art in Beverly, Mass.

At the Kemper, O’Brien organized the just-opened retrospective of New York and Maine-based painter Lois Dodd, and the ongoing “Eric Fertman: Here’s Your Hat, What’s Your Hurry” exhibit at Kemper at the Crossroads. Other exhibits include “Wilbur Niewald: The Studio Portrait,” “Jeanne Quinn: Ceramic In(ter)ventions,” and “Ana Maria Hernando: When the Women Sing.” She also has developed the museum’s travelling exhibition program.

A native of Bonner Springs, Kan., O’Brien earned a master’s degree in photography from the Rhode Island School of Design, and holds bachelor’s degrees in women’s studies and journalism from the University of Kansas.

O’Brien will serve as director and chief curator until the end of the year, overseeing planned exhibits of Frederick James Brown and “The Map as Art” and will think about exhibition programming for the museum’s 20th anniversary year.

The museum plans to fill the curator post this year, according to museum spokeswoman Margaret Keough.