Image – From left, Valerie Cassel Oliver co-organized “Howardena Pindell: What Remains to be Seen”; Rujeko-Hockley was appointed co-curator of the 2019 Whitney Biennial; and Jamillah James has been tapped to co-curate the 2021 New Museum triennial.
Black Curators Have Been Making Significant Strides, Art Museums are Finally Getting on Board to Aid Their Progress
First publihed August 11, 2018
THE FOURTH ITERATION of Made in L.A. was recently on view at the Hammer Museum. The biennial features 33 emerging and under-recognized artists, some of the most interesting and thought-provoking figures working in the Los Angeles area. Spanning nearly four generations, the diverse group includes African American artists Diedrick Brackens, Aaron Fowler, Lauren Halsey, EJ Hill, Christina Quarles, Michael Queenland, taisha paggett, and Suné Woods.
Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight called Made in L.A. 2018 “the best one yet.” In his review of the biennial, which opened June 3 and ran through Sept. 2, Knight credits the exhibition’s curators for its success.
The artists, Knight said, “were chosen with a keen attention to the resonance of their work within our socially disturbed time. Rather than art with partisan political agendas, Hammer curators Anne Ellegood and Erin Christovale have chosen smart work that, for the most part, feels acutely attuned to our beleaguered moment.”
The Hammer Museum announced the curators for Made in L.A. in February 2017. Christovale was a Los Angeles-based independent curator and film programmer at the time. A few months later, in June, she was named assistant curator at the museum.
CHRISTOVALE IS AMONG A WAVE of black curators hired over the past several years to fill plum posts at major American art museums. They are relatively young—mostly in their 30s and 40s—and responsible for some of the most anticipated and groundbreaking exhibitions of 2018.
Erin Christovale is among a wave of black curators hired over the past several years to fill plum posts at major American art museums.
The first-ever survey of multidisciplinary artist Howardena Pindell was co-curated by Naomi Beckwith and Valerie Cassel Oliver, who worked closely with the New York-based artist to present the comprehensive exploration of her five-decade practice. “Howardena Pindell: What Remains to be Seen” opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago earlier this year and is traveling to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) where it will be on view beginning Aug. 25.
Since 2011, Beckwith has been a curator at MCA Chicago. She came to the institution from the Studio Museum in Harlem. This week, MCA Chicago announced Beckwith’s promotion to senior curator. When they began organizing the Pindell show, Cassel Oliver was a senior curator at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston. In June 2017, she was hired at VMFA as curator of modern and contemporary art.
“Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” was developed at the Tate Modern by curators Mark Godfrey and Zoe Whitley. In London, the sprawling exhibition featured more than 200 works made by about 60 African American artists made between 1963-1983 in response to the Civil Rights, Black Power, and Black Feminism movements. Given the show’s high profile and focus on American racial, political and social justice issues, its arrival in the United States was much anticipated. The U.S. tour is scheduled for venues in Bentonville, Ark., Brooklyn, N.Y., and Los Angeles (a late addition, announced last week).
Lauren Haynes curated “Soul of a Nation” at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville (Feb. 3-April 23, 2018). She was appointed curator of contemporary art at Crystal Bridges in 2016, joining the museum after a decade at the Studio Museum in Harlem, where she served as an associate curator.
At the Brooklyn Museum, “Soul of the Nation” opens Sept. 14 and is curated by Ashley James, the museum’s assistant curator for contemporary art. She was hired in June 2017 after serving as a Mellon Research Consortium fellow in the Department of Drawings and Prints at the Museum of Modern Art. James filled a vacancy left by Rujeko Hockley who joined the Whitney Museum of American Art in March 2017.
A veteran of the Studio Museum in Harlem, Hockley served as assistant curator for contemporary art at the Brooklyn Museum for four years, where she co-curated “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85” at the end of her tenure. When “We Wanted a Revolution” opened, she was already working at the Whitney, where she is an assistant curator. Thus far, Hockley has curated “Toyin Ojih Odutola: To Wander Determined” (Oct. 20, 2017-Feb. 25, 2018), the artist’s first solo museum exhibition in New York.
From left, Kelli Morgan accepted a position at the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields; Ndubuisi C. Ezeluomba recently joined the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA); and Vera Grant is headed to the University of Michigan Museum of Art. | Photos: Courtesy Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields, Courtesy NOMA, Courtesy University of Michigan
CULTURE TYPE DOCUMENTS appointments of black curators. Just this week, art museums in Detroit, Chicago and New York made new staff announcements. Larry Ossei-Mensah was named senior curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD). At MCA Chicago, Beckwith was elevated to senior curator. And on Thursday, the Studio Museum in Harlem announced Legacy Russell is joining the museum as associate curator.
Last month (July 2018), there were at least three more curatorial hires. Vera Grant was named deputy director of curatorial affairs and curator of modern and contemporary art at the University of Michigan Museum of Art in Ann Arbor. Kelli Morgan was appointed associate curator of American Art at the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields. Also, the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) named Ndubuisi C. Ezeluomba curator of African art.
Just this week, art museums in Detroit, Chicago and New York made new staff announcements. …Last month, at least three more black curators were hired.
In 2016, Culture Type noted 18 new appointments at museums and cultural institutions and, in 2017, published a list of 23 curators named to new positions, including posts leading programming at biennials and art fairs.
Curatorial roles at biennials and art fairs, such as the Made in L.A. biennial, allow curators to spread their wings, raise their profile, and pursue grand visions—projects that may not be conducive to the standard museum exhibition and programming environment. These seasonal events provide curators with opportunities to work with a variety of artists, commission new works, collaborate with new peers and colleagues, and often step outside their institutions to reach wider audiences in new locations.
In May of this year, Adrienne Edwards (pictured below, at left) served as the inaugural curator of the new Artist Award at Frieze New York at Randall’s Island Park, and she also directed “Assembly,” the fair’s Live section featuring time-based programming that focused on protest and collectivity. Assembly featured nine artists, including Renée Green, Dave McKenzie, Hank Willis Thomas, and Adam Pendleton, who flew an artwork titled “Black Dada Flag (Black Lives Matter)” over Randall’s Island. Kapwani Kiwanga, a Canadian artist based in Paris, won the artist award.
Edwards joined the Whitney Museum as curator of performance in May. Prior to the appointment, she was a longtime curator at Performa, which presents New York City’s biennial of visual art performance, and curator at-large at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. At the Walker, Edwards curated the first museum exhibition of Jason, the multidisciplinary artist, musician, and composer, which is on view through Aug. 26.
This summer, the New Museum in New York made announcements about two of its key initiatives. Jamillah James was named co-curator of the next New Museum Triennial, scheduled to open in 2021. A veteran of the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Hammer Museum, James joined the then-forthcoming Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (ICA LA) as curator in 2016. (Formerly the Santa Monica Museum of Art, ICA LA opened in 2017.)
V. Mitch McEwen was appointed curator of the New Museum’s IdeasCity, an annual initiative that “explores the future of cities with culture as a driving force” through enterprising gatherings, projects, and exhibitions. McEwen is principal and cofounder of A(n) Office, a collaborative of design studios based in Detroit and New York and she is also a professor of architecture at Princeton University.
Other curators have been tapped for prime biennial and art fair opportunities. In March, Beckwith of MCA Chicago, chaired a new Curatorial Leadership Summit at the Armory Show in New York. Hockley was recently named co-curator of the 2019 Whitney Biennial. And Naima Keith, deputy director and chief curator at the California African American Museum (CAAM) in Los Angeles, is co-curating the next New Orleans triennial, Prospect.5 in 2020. Keith joined CAAM in 2016, after serving as an associate curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem.
AFTER OVERLOOKING African American artists for generations, many American art museums have revisited their collections and are attempting to correct the canon. They are broadening their holdings to more accurately reflect the nation’s art history with new acquisitions by important, often under-recognized African American figures and a new generation of critically recognized black artists, an exercise that extends to other artists of color, as well as women artists.
This re-calculation is also evidenced in a more diverse slate of exhibitions presented at museums across the United States. In addition to solo exhibitions featuring black artists and topical shows such as “Soul of a Nation,” works by African American artists are increasingly integrated into group exhibitions based on the style and genre of their work (portraiture, for example, contemporary painting, modern sculpture, or women working in abstraction) and is also being brought out of storage and displayed in collection galleries.
Now some museums are finally entering a new stage of diversifying their institutions, turning their attention to curatorial staffing. They are prioritizing curator training, hiring, and advancement, through a series of special programs and fellowships, foundation funded-grants, and collaborations with universities.
The New York Times published an article about the concerted efforts being made under the headline “With New Urgency, Museums Cultivate Curators of Color.”
Despite some of the significant strides noted earlier, few curatorial positions are held by people of color. A demographic study of art museum staff conducted by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in 2015, revealed that among museum curators, conservators, educators and leaders, only 4 percent are African-American, and 3 percent are Hispanic. In terms of leadership at art museums, only 16 percent of positions are held by people of color.
“The situation was worse than in almost any sector I’ve seen,” Mariët Westermann, executive vice president of the Mellon Foundation, told the Times.
Despite some of the significant strides noted earlier, few curatorial positions are held by people of color. “The situation was worse than in almost any sector I’ve seen,” said Mariët Westermann of the Mellon Foundation.
THE COVERAGE CHARTS diversity at U.S. museums based on self reporting from the institutions. Thirteen museums shared information with the Times about full-time curators on staff who identify as people of color.
In terms of the general population, about 38 percent of Americans are black, Asian, Hispanic, or multiracial. By comparison, 11 percent of curators at the Metropolitan Museum of Art are non-white. Figures for the Art Institute of Chicago (19 percent), Museum of Modern Art (23 percent), Whitney Museum of American Art (25 percent), and Museum of Fine Arts Houston (32 percent), are higher. The composition of the curatorial staffs at the three most diverse participating museums closely reflects or exceeds representation in the population at-large: Los Angeles County Museum of Art (36 percent), Brooklyn Museum of Art (39 percent), and Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM), where the staff is 50 percent non-white.
Franklin Sirmans is director of PAMM now. He joined the Miami museum in October 2015 after serving as department head and curator of contemporary art at LACMA.
The article also includes insights from Thomas J. Lax, who serves as associate curator of media and performance art at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and is a veteran of the Studio Museum in Harlem. He elucidates the value of diversity among curatorial ranks.
The goal isn’t simply to hire more curators of color or to do more shows featuring diverse artists, experts say, but for museums to fundamentally alter the artwork they acquire and their approach to exhibitions, “shifting the way our stories are told,” said Thomas J. Lax, an associate curator at MoMA.
Challenging the canon is not a zero sum game that requires abandoning art historical standards, he added, but one that adds depth to programming. In presenting the narrative of modernism, for example, Mr. Lax suggested museums should include the history of artists throughout the world— like hanging a Jacob Lawrence next to a Mondrian. ”We don’t want to fuel the idea something is being taken away,” he said.
IN LOS ANGELES, Christovale worked with Anne Ellegood, senior curator at the Hammer Museum, to put together one of the more diverse biennials in the nation. The 33 artists in Made in L.A. 2018 range in age from 29 to 97, an incredible two-thirds are women, two-thirds are people of color, four address queer identity, and eight (about 25 percent) are African American.
Speaking with artnet News, Ellegood, who is white, emphasized that both she and Christovale are committed to diversity and supporting women artists. “I think that anyone who claims they can’t find enough good women artists around any subject or theme isn’t doing the research.” she said. “There’s no reason why a show of artists based in L.A. shouldn’t be diverse… We had a moment where the list was over 75 percent women and we were joking that we had to find more men!”
“There’s no reason why a show of artists based in L.A. shouldn’t be diverse… We had a moment where the list was over 75 percent women and we were joking that we had to find more men!” — Anne Ellegood, Senior Curator at Hammer Museum
For the Made in L.A. 2018 catalog, the curators co-wrote the opening essay, which introduces the biennial. They said in part:
“As an alternative to the polarizing and divisive thinking that has come to characterize much of what occurs in contemporary culture, this exhibition argues for complexity, thoughtfulness, and ambiguity, even as it endorses strong opinion and heartfelt belief when needed. The result, we believe, is a truly diverse group of artists whom we consider to be deeply engaged with vital aspects of our culture today—individuals who embrace the notion that art has a role to play in social discourse and make evident that artists are often some of our most active citizens.”
Recently Christovale was co-curating “Adrian Piper: Concepts and Intuitions, 1965-2016.” A Conceptual pioneer, Piper’s work has influenced generations of artists. The exhibition was the most comprehensive presentation of the New York City-born, Berlin-based artist’s work to date. The highly praised retrospective opened at the Hammer Museum on Oct. 7, 2018.