Arif Khan migrated home to head the largest art collection in the state.
The University of New Mexico Art Museum’s 35,000 works of art have been valued at $35 million, Dean of the College of Arts Kymberly Pinder said.
Its platinum-framed names include Georgia O’Keeffe, Ansel Adams, Andy Warhol, the Taos artists, Raymond Jonson, Agnes Martin, Paul Strand, Alfred Steiglitz, Clinton Adams, Marsden Hartley, Jim Dine and examples of Spanish colonial art.
A first-generation American, Khan moved to Albuquerque with his family at age 2. His father, retired radiation oncologist Dr. Kutub Khan,is from India; his mother is English.
His La Cueva High School art teacher encouraged a budding interest in photography. But Khan’s passion was more rooted in becoming part of an institution that houses art.
His résumé is a 14-year road map in museum administration, fundraising, exhibition development and museum education mixed with collections management and strategic planning. He always wanted to come home. He hopscotched from the Santa Fe Indian Market to the Governor’s Gallery, before leaping south to the Tamarind Institute and gliding east to the Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences in Charleston, W.Va.
Khan majored in American history at Wisconsin’s Lawrence University, then returned to UNM for a master’s degree in American studies. After a stint as a photo archivist at an Atlanta gallery, he crossed the ocean for his MBA at Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London.
There he learned about insurance, shipping, marketing and the law. He led the Clay Center’s art museum for five years. But he longed to return to New Mexico.
“Obviously, my family is here, and a lot of old friends,” he said. “This institution, being a former grad student, has some meaning for me.”
Since the museum’s 1962 inception, the director position has resembled an unmoored carousel. Three interim and two permanent directors have cycled through its offices since 2007, Pinder said. She waited two years before hiring Khan, acting as interim director during the search. It’s been a lot of transition,” she acknowledged. “I think it’s a combination of personal situations (health issues), as well as the challenges of operating a museum within the university structure.”
The art museum falls under university restrictions and their attendant bureaucracies designed more for academics than a gallery, she said.
When the university shuts down during holiday breaks, workers dim the lights and lower the heat to save money, Pinder said. But artwork can deteriorate from fluctuating heat and humidity.
The job requires someone willing to negotiate and fight for the museum, she added. Candidates from private museums don’t have to abide by those rules.
Khan was one of “four or five” finalists,” Pinder said.
“Arif was great because he had already been in this particular system” at Tamarind, a division of UNM, Pinder said. “And then his being from New Mexico and really wanting to come back here. He had maintained so many contacts with artists and curators everywhere he had gone. And all of these people loved Arif.
“The constant change has been very disruptive,” she acknowledged. “It’s very important to have that stability for the museum to go forward. It makes me sad when I go up to Santa Fe and people don’t even know we exist.”
Khan leaned back in his chair, his hands relaxed across his lap, the calm demeanor of a man who has found his place. Ahead stretch 2017 shows of photographs of Frida Kahlo (a traveling exhibition) and an exhibit of works from the permanent collection.
Much of Khan’s position will revolve around interacting with museum newcomers unfamiliar with the works.
“A lot of my job is seeing new people who invest their time and their money,” he said. “When they see the end results of that work; when you see someone get it — especially if it’s abstract work — click on it, it’s great,” he said. “It’s just that big smile on their face. Then they become ambassadors to your organization. That’s something I hope to bring to UNM.”