Cultural Comings and Goings: Artforum’s New Editor-in-Chief and More

Tina Rivers Ryan and Elizabeth Babcock are among the art insiders stepping into new roles.

The first quarter of 2024 has brought changes at many cultural institutions, with major resignations at both the Los Angeles Opera and San Francisco Symphony to new leadership at the Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum. What follows are some of the most notable moves recently announced in the art world.

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Tina Rivers Ryan appointed editor-in-chief at Artforum

Woman with blonde hair and tattoos
Tina Rivers Ryan. Photo: Ryan Arthurs

Contemporary art magazine Artforum has appointed Tina Rivers Ryan as its new top editor. A curator and art historian, Ryan will leave her current position at the Buffalo AKG Art Museum to helm the publication.

“For decades, the editors at Artforum have ensured that this historic magazine has remained a trusted and indispensable resource for conversations about contemporary art and its role in the broader culture,” said Ryan in a statement. She has been with the Buffalo institutions since 2017, in a curatorial role that emphasized explorations in video and digital art.

While initially critical of non-fungible tokens (NFTs), Ryan has notably become one of the most passionate advocates of their artistic potential through blockchain art exhibitions like the 2022 show “Peer to Peer.” She has also written numerous essays for publications including Artforum, and in 2022 received an Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant. In addition to overseeing the magazine’s long-form art criticism, Ryan will be responsible for expansions in digital growth and live events.

Her appointment comes five months after the firing of former Artforum editor-in-chief David Velasco, who was terminated after the magazine published an open letter supporting Palestinian liberation and calling for a ceasefire in the Israel-Palestine conflict. His dismissal led to controversy across the art world, leading to the resignation of numerous editors and causing artists like Nan Goldin to declare they would no longer work with Artforum.

The magazine’s publishers Danielle McConnell and Kate Koza alluded to this in a statement that emphasized Artforum’s editorial independence and dedication to activism. “We want to underscore that Artforum will remain an environment of dialogue and examination of the issues that face our world through the lens of art,” they said.

James Conlon steps down from the Los Angeles Opera

Man in black long sleeved shirt poses on chair
James Conlon. Photo: Bonnie Perkinson

The longtime music director of the Los Angeles Opera, James Conlon is preparing to step down from his role after the company’s 2025/2026 season. His resignation will coincide not only with his 20th year in the leadership role but also with the company’s 40th anniversary.

Conlon has conducted 68 operas and more than 460 performances during his time at the Los Angeles Opera—more than any other conductor in the company’s history. He took the position in 2006 and has also conducted at the Paris Opera, Metropolitan Opera and Vienna State Opera, among other institutions.

His tenure has been marked by an emphasis on education. “As a product of the public education system of New York City, at a time when music was a significant presence for young people, I am passionate about using my voice and influence to encourage and develop a new and growing audience for classical music across generations,” said Conlon in a statement. In addition to popular pre-show lectures that explained the historical context and relevance of works, Conlon launched the company’s Recovered Voices initiative to spotlight neglected masterpieces from composers suppressed by Nazi Germany.

While Conlon didn’t specify what he will do going forward, he noted a desire to enter a “phase of my professional activities” that will include “launching new projects of great importance to me, both musically and professionally.” In recognition of his contributions to the company and acknowledging plans for Conlon to return to the Los Angeles Opera as a guest conductor in the future, the company will give him the lifetime appointment of Conductor Laureate.

Elizabeth C. Babcock to lead the Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum

Woman with grey hair wearing grey blazer
Elizabeth C. Babcock. Photo: Debora Cartwright

As of this summer, Elizabeth C. Babcock will be the founding director of the forthcoming Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum. Currently the head of San Diego’s nonprofit Forever Balboa Park, she will bring more than two decades of museum experience to the role.

The museum was established by Congress in 2020 and is currently looking at two potential museum sites, with hopes to open a physical building in the next ten years. In the meantime, Babcock will be responsible for overseeing the acquisition of a founding collection, the curation of exhibitions, an expansion of digital education programs and the establishment of the museum’s overarching vision.

She is the second founding director to be named in two years—in 2023, the Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum tapped Nancy Yao as its leader. But after reports surfaced of Yao’s mishandling sexual harassment claims in her previous role as director of Manhattan’s Museum of Chinese in America, Yao withdrew from the position.

Babcock will take over from interim director Melanie Adams. During her tenure at Forever Balboa Park, which stewards a 1,200-acre park filled with cultural sites, Babcock led capital improvement projects that included multi-year strategic plans and a multi-million-dollar restoration campaign. She also previously served as chief public engagement officer at the California Academy of Sciences, in addition to acting as vice president of education and library collections at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.

“Having served as a founding director, I know how this position requires clear vision, leadership and endless enthusiasm to bring history to life,” said Lonnie G. Bunch III, secretary of the Smithsonian, in a statement. “Dr. Babcock has all three and so much more.”

Esa-Pekka Salonen resigns as music director of the San Francisco Symphony

Side profile of conductor in action
Esa-Pekka Salonen. Photo: Minna Hatinen

Esa-Pekka Salonen will depart the San Francisco Symphony in June of 2025 after a five-year stint as music director. Known for his experimental performances, the conductor will lead the orchestra in a dozen programs during his final season.

“I have decided not to continue as music director of the San Francisco Symphony because I do not share the same goals for the future of the institution as the Board of Governors does,” said Salonen in a statement. “I am sincerely looking forward to the many exciting programs we have planned for my final season as music director, and am proud to continue working with the world-class musicians of the San Francisco Symphony.”

The orchestra has been facing “significant financial pressures,” San Francisco Symphony CEO Matthew Spivey told The New York Times, adding that in light of the orchestra’s cost-cutting measures, “it’s understandable that Esa-Pekka would conclude his tenure as music director.”

Salonen, who has previously led the Los Angeles Philharmonic and acted as principal conductor for the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and London’s Philharmonia, joined the San Francisco Symphony in late 2018. He emphasized an innovative leadership style from the start, appointing eight artists as his collaborative partners.

Salonen also introduced new digital initiatives during the Covid-19 pandemic that included the online project Throughline—From Hall to Home. And he experimented with new technologies like artificial intelligence, presenting a digital performance of works by Gyòrgy Ligeti accompanied by visual interpretations from A.I. artist Refik Anadol.

Cultural Comings and Goings: Artforum’s New Editor-in-Chief and More