Johanna Burton is an art historian, critic, curator, and the Maurice Marciano Director of The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA). Before taking part in the Zócalo, Thomas Mann House, and L.A. Review of Books program “How Should Arts Institutions Navigate the Culture Wars?”—part of the two-day conference “Arts in Times of Crises”—Burton joined us in the green room to talk about barrel racing, growing up in Nevada, and what makes a good museum object label.
What’s your earliest creative memory?
Making chicken pot pie as a 7-year-old with a kid’s cookbook.
What’s some advice you have for up-and-coming critics?
I don’t have any advice except to keep doing the work, even though it’s difficult when you often find yourself in the line of fire for taking or having a position that, at the end of the day, you may also want to be limber and nimble about. Be brave about it, but also be willing to go back and talk about things if your thoughts have changed.
What makes a good object label in a museum?
Short, efficient, and open-ended so people can have their own interpretation.
You’re from Lemmon Valley, Nevada. What’s one thing about growing up there that’s influenced the way you do your work today?
Everything. I miss the incredible, sort of spiritual and philosophical openness, but I wanted to find a community of people to share those thoughts with, and so I spent my decades away from that place finding those people, but I always reflect back on how the landscape and freedom of that place defined me.
What’s the last book you read that you loved?
I reread a biography of the critic Roland Barthes. I go back to his work often when I need some recalibration.
What’s your hidden talent?
I don’t know if I can still do it. But I used to be able to barrel race. I grew up riding horses and barrel racing is a kind of high-intensity sport that you do on horseback where you race around barrels.