Curator in the Classroom: The Artistic Eye of Prof. Kellie Jones

Editor's note:

The video was originally published in December 2011 when Prof. Kellie Jones' exhibit debuted in Los Angeles. Fresh off that acclaimed run, Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960–1980, opens in October at MoMA PS1 in Queens. The exhibition features 140 works by 33 artists including Charles White, Melvin Edwards, David Hammons, John Outterbridge and Betye Saar. Now Dig This! will be on view in NYC from Oct. 21 through March 11, 2013.

John Uhl
December 20, 2011

It’s been a busy year for Kellie Jones. She has just published an anthology of her essays from the past 20 years and curated a well-regarded exhibition at UCLA’s Hammer Museum exploring the legacy of African American artists in Southern California.

For the career-spanning EyeMinded: Living and Writing Contemporary Art, Jones, an associate professor of art history and archaeology, took a somewhat unusual tack, including essays about herself and her work contributed by her family. Not surprising, perhaps, when you consider her literary pedigree.

Jones is the oldest daughter of the poets and writers Amiri Baraka and Hettie Jones, significant figures in the Beat movement whose respective archives recently found a home at Columbia’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library. Her sister, Lisa Jones, is a writer and filmmaker, and her husband, Guthrie P. Ramsey Jr., is a music professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

That unique family history was on display at a recent packed event at Faculty House sponsored by theInstitute for Research in African-American Studies and Columbia Libraries, where Kellie and her sister discussed how their shared upbringing shaped some of the ideas in EyeMinded.

Jones included her family’s perspective to complement one of the book’s central themes: how artists form different kinds of kinship, connections and communities. This theme has been central to the exhibits Jones has organized over the course of her career as an art curator, including shows for the Johannesburg Biennale in 1997 and the São Paulo Bienal in 1989. The latter, featuring the work of sculptor Martin Puryear, won a grand prize for best individual exhibition. Much of the writing collected inEyeMinded was first published in the catalogs of these shows.

The sisters also talked about their years growing up in lower Manhattan in the 1960s and ‘70s, surrounded by artists, musicians and activists. Lisa remembered her big sister as a precocious “visionary” who in one of their earliest creative collaborations, “had us do paper dolls that were multi-culti superstars before there were multi-culti superstars. She was so attuned to organizing the world in our own image, even when we were children.”

“People talk about globalization,” Kellie said, “but if you grew up on the Lower East Side, you experienced that on every block.”

Jones’ latest curatorial project, Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980, is part of a sprawling series of Southern California-based exhibitions, Pacific Standard Time, that chart the development of the Los Angeles art scene after World War II. Her show, which features 140 artworks by mostly African American artists, explores the changing sense of black identity and American culture in the aftermath of the civil rights and black power movements.

Q. How is your new book, EyeMinded, connected to your curatorial practice?

Putting together your own essays and then throwing a few other people into the mix—that is curating. One of the things that I realized in putting together the book was that curating for me had been a way to research. I would do a show and then I’d write for that catalog. Then I’d write other essays after that based on meeting those artists. EyeMinded is a good place to ask, “What is another way to research and go about writing?” I’m not saying I won’t do exhibitions anymore, but I think my work going forward will be different.

Q. As a scholar, you have written about archives. What do they mean to you? How do you feel now that the archives of your parents are at Columbia?

It’s been very exciting. It’s also a little bit daunting to know that your baby pictures are right there in the library. But you get over that because when you grow up around people whose lives are public, you know your life is public. When I think about archives, I think about how people make their own archives. They have their own documents that narrate their lives—for instance, a painting your daughter made when she was 3. Some people are privileged to be collectors of great art or even the works of local people in their neighborhood. Their lives are perhaps not the stuff of history while they’re living, but maybe later they become emblems of certain classes of society.

Q. How did growing up in downtown New York in the 1960s and ’70s affect your own choices and interests?

When you’re a child, you think your world is what the whole world is. It was surprising to me when I went to college that people didn’t personally know artists. I just thought the world was full of people who were creative and that everybody’s goal in life was to be creative in whatever they did. I think that’s what I got from growing up around artists—that life was very passionate. Having said that, I knew that I didn’t want to be an artist. I wanted to be a diplomat. I studied French and Spanish, but after a while I said, “This is not working out.” So I went back to what I knew—art. Then I realized that there are a lot of artists but not a lot of people who write about them and help them—the curator, the writer, the critic. I said, “Wow, I could actually do this.” You’re kind of the go-between between the artist and the institution. It was the same kind of life that I imagined the diplomatic life to be.

Q. You decided to pursue a Ph.D. instead of an M.B.A., which could have led to a career in museums. Why did you go the academic route?

At the time, people were getting M.B.A.s and becoming directors of museums. Get an M.B.A., direct the Guggenheim. My interest in art was really in the ideas, not so much in the selling. At the end of the dissertation process, I realized that I had grown to really like teaching and the life of the mind. The ability to explore with other people. I always joke with my students, “You think you’re learning from me. I’m learning from you, too.”

Q. How does your curatorial and scholarly work find its way into the classroom?

My students always ask me, “Why are you in the classroom? You’ve had shows in South Africa, Brazil, London.” And I say, “I have done that. It was very exciting, and it’s your turn to do that now.” All the information and the connections I have to that world I pass on to them. For the last five to 10 years, students have worked with me on my projects. They get to do something that goes on their resume. People always say to me, “What can I do with a degree in art history?” I’ve had students who’ve become lawyers, editors, filmmakers. There are a lot of skills that you get—being able to analyze things visually; being able to write critically; being able to research effectively, and not just on Google. Skills that can translate into a career.

Q. Can you tell us about some of the artists in your latest exhibition, Now Dig This!, and why you included their work?

There are basically four areas in the show. “Front Runners” looks at people who were influential in bringing attention to the L.A. art scene. People like Charles White, Melvin Edwards, William Pajaud and others, who were there breaking ground. The second section is called “Assembling,” about the art of assemblage, which is making sculpture from found objects. Some of the impetus for that was the Watts rebellion. In the aftermath, artists like Noah Purifoy and John Outterbridge used objects to mobilize communities and young artists. The third section, “Los Angeles Snapshot,” is a snapshot of African American artists and their friends. White artists, Latino artists, Asian American artists. Because in my experience, art moves across racial lines. The fourth section, “Post-Minimalism and Performance,” moves into performance video and other more contemporary styles. In that section is David Hammons, who has influenced global art for the last 30 years. He’s always been identified as a New York artist. But California is where he started. He has always identified his community as the people who nurtured his art—Maren Hassinger and Senga Nengudi and Charles White, who was his teacher. To end with that is to show what goes into the making of a great artist. The show also focuses on artists who dedicated themselves to showing the work of their colleagues: Samella Lewis, who started a magazine, had three galleries and started a museum; the brothers Dale Davis and Alonzo Davis, who ran the Brockman Gallery for 22 years. I really wanted to pay homage to these people.

Q. Is there any tension within the exhibit between its identity as a show about “contemporary black artists” versus a show about “contemporary artists?”

When you put the word “black” in, there’s a tension. The show is called Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960 to 1980. You’ll notice I don’t say “black artists” because I wanted to include a variety of people who were influenced by African American culture. This is a historical show about what people were making at a certain time. The show is about African American artists, but it’s also about their influence on the rest of the country and the world, and their neighborhood. The show also has non-African American artists in it because I was interested in tracking influence through friendship.

Q. You’ve quoted Nelson Mandela, who once called for museums to “reflect history in a way that respects the heritage of all our citizens.” Have museums lived up to that challenge?

The museum world really tries to live up to the challenge that it should be open to all citizens. I’m really speaking about the U.S., but you can also see the role of museums in other countries. When France was trying to grapple with diverse populations in its suburbs, one of the go-to places was the museum—where you can display people’s culture and celebrate diversity. I think again that goes back to the diplomatic role of museums. In the ’60s, American artists were protesting to have younger artists included in museums like the Museum of Modern Art. They were protesting for access. Out of those protests came the free nights. Also at that time, women artists, African American artists, Latino artists, were saying, “The art of our people is not on display.” The museums responded and then went back to business as usual, but I think there’s still that push to keep museums open. One of the other things people were agitating for in the ’60s was having curators of color. They wanted a diversity of people to be able to frame the discussions. It’s been slow, but now at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the head of contemporary art is an African American, Franklin Sirmans. They have people who are specialists in Latino art like Rita Gonzalez and also Christine Kim, who used to work at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Naomi Beckwith, who was also with the Studio Museum, is now a curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. Eventually, things have happened, and that’s why I remain optimistic.