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MacArthur fellow Kellie Jones is curating black artists’ rightful place in art history

“How are students going to write about works by artists they've never really seen that never come on view?”

John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Kellie Jones is a curator, an art historian at Columbia University, and, as of last Thursday, one of this year’s 23 recipients of the MacArthur Foundation’s Genius Grant.

The foundation recognized Jones for “deepening our understanding of contemporary art of the African Diaspora and securing its place in the canons of modern and contemporary art.”

Jones, who grew up around black artists in New York City, seeks to make the art world reflect the one she knows intimately — one in which black artists exist even when their work has been overlooked and excluded from art history textbooks.

“How are students going to write about works by artists they've never really seen that never come on view?” Jones said to Vox shortly after being named a fellow last week.

I spoke with Jones about her journey to art history, the idea that art “offer[s] us the most reliable evidence of history,” and the significance of recognizing black artists as a product of their time and not just for the art they produce. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Victoria Massie: What drew you to art history?

Kellie Jones: I grew up around art, artists, and culture. I grew up in the East Village, then called the Lower East Side. I grew up around many artists. My parents are poets; my sister's a writer and journalist. I grew up around artists such as Jack Whitten, William T. Williams, Al Loving. Art was just always a part of my world.

I went to a New York City high school, then called the High School of Music and Art, now called the LaGuardia School of the Arts. One of my great high school classmates, who's still a close friend, is Whitfield Lovell, another MacArthur winner. I went to high school with people like Hilton Als, another amazing writer and critic and now my colleague at Columbia.

I didn't think I wanted to be an artist. But one of the things I started seeing in high school is that when you study art history, even though you're going to a very incredibly diverse New York City high school, where you have a lot of people of color who are artists, and you don't even think about it, look at the books, certainly back in that time period — this is in the ’70s — and you don't see anybody of color except for people who are very ancient, like Egyptians. Or Mayans. And you know, somehow, it doesn't seem right that the people you are working with are never going to be famous and never going to be in a book. Never going to be important.

So when I got to college, I started thinking more about that, and I started kind of building my major. I went to a wonderful school, Amherst College, of the liberal arts tradition in western Massachusetts.

And it was a combination of what we call black studies, Latin American studies, and fine arts, because, guess what: we couldn't really study that in the curriculum. Now, all these years later, we're able to study these things. Not only am I teaching them but we have a whole cadre of people, from Krista Thompson at Northwestern University to Steven Nelson at UCLA to Cherise Smith at UT Austin to Deborah Willis at NYU — people who teach this as a field, as a discipline. The great Edward Sullivan, also at NYU, who is an incredible Latin Americanist. But even he starts out teaching Iberian art, teaching Spanish and Portuguese art in Europe.

So, you know, just a number of things led me to this, and I developed my own major, and I've been doing it ever since — and it's certainly paid off. Who knew?

But the main thing is that it's always been enjoyable. And it's been a lot of work. But it's been really a pleasure to work in a field with so many wonderful people, like Thelma Golden, like Lowery Sims, like Valerie Cassel Oliver, like Mary Schmidt Campbell, my first boss when I worked at Studio Museum in Harlem.

There's just — it's been a pleasure. It's been a lot of hard work over all these decades, but the pleasure and the fun keeps you going.

VM: As you mentioned in your story about becoming an art historian, it's a matter of bearing witness. In curating black people's stories, what kinds of things do you have to consider in that process?

KJ: It's a great question. Certainly what you have to consider is that it's going to be more work. These things are just not in everyday books. Let's think about how many books there are about [Pablo] Picasso or [Edgar] Degas. Or even Jackson Pollock or Andy Warhol.

But how many books are there about — okay we'll pick somebody easy: Lorna Simpson, who actually has quite a few books. But they're not that many. Or can we think of people like [James] Van Der Zee, who are basically roughly contemporaneous with somebody like Picasso. So you're going to have to do a lot of research, and you're going to have a lot of writing.

What I realized early on is that part of it was to get more people involved [and] interested, and to become enthusiastic. And [that was] one of my reasons, probably one of my top reasons, of moving from the museum field into the academic field, where every day your job is to go in and convince people that this is important, that they should be excited and enthusiastic about it. And hopefully you change people's lives. You get them enthusiastic, even if they aren't going to be art history majors ... you get them enthusiastic about art.

One of the most exciting things for me about being an academic is to teach art history in my hometown, New York City. And to be able to stand on the first day of class and say, "You are going to school in New York. You better take advantage of all the great museums here, because your ID lets you in free to most of these institutions. Take advantage." Go on a cheap date. Pay $1 to get into the Met and wow your date with what you know about sculptures and perspective and line. It's such a great resource.

VM: Between working in traditional museum spaces as well as in academia, how is talking about art different in those related, but distinct, spaces?

KJ: They are distinct, but they are certainly related. And, I think, more and more they are interrelated because in the scholarly academic world, it's kind of clear that we don't just train people to get PhDs to continue to say come back into academia. That's certainly part of it. But we're training MA students. We're training people to be gallerists. We're training people to be teachers on an elementary school level and secondary school level. We're training people also to be lawyers and doctors. Academia isn't seen as being as self-contained as it has been in the past.

In the museum field, certainly academics have always been called on to bear witness, to give scholarly evidence about artists, so that's not new. But I think acknowledging that there's a lot more give and take in this is perhaps what's new.

The other thing is that in my field, I started out being a curator, working with living artists, researching some historical things, and bringing those things into view for the public. Why I have continued to be a curator is because sometimes that's the only way I can get these objects into view, to be able to see them for myself and my students. How are students going to write about works by artists they've never really seen that never come on view?

A great example is when I was working on Now Dig This! and there was a picture of a sculpture I had seen for years and years by Noah Purifoy. It was at the Whitney. So finally, because I'm working on Now Dig This!, I go to the Whitney, and I get to have them pull it out for me from storage. Well, the picture was black and white. I had no idea, for years, that this is actually a sculpture that had color. So it was a completely different object in many ways.

So that's what I mean. You can't really, especially in a field where you can't just walk into MoMA and always see “[Les] Demoiselles d'Avignon” ... it's not the same. You're not always going to see a David Hammons. Maybe. But you're not always going to see this particular one called “Bird.” You're not always going to see that on view. So to be able to have an opportunity to actually put exhibitions together so that people can really write about these works — scholarly on the one hand, and then, on the other hand, have people appreciate them.

At the exhibition I did called “Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the ’60s” that I co-curated with Teresa Carbone, a curator at the Brooklyn Museum at the time, we had 75,000 people come to that show. And these were not art-world aficionados, necessarily. These were people who had an interest in civil rights, and [...] people actually told me, "We didn't know people were making art about this. We thought there was photography. We thought there was television coverage. But we'd never really seen some of these objects."

VM: Even with the way we've been talking about it thus far, representation in black art includes talking about how it has been marginalized from the typical artistic canon. Yet focusing on exclusion runs the risk of defining black art as a rarity. How do you find ways to recognize black artists and their work without falling into the trap of defining either in terms of absence? How do you find ways to bear witness to what hasn't been seen while bearing witness to the fullness of what black art is and can be?

KJ: Well, I think in my experience, just write about it. Talk about how great it is. Talk about what you're seeing. This is where art historical training, critical training, comes in. You can talk about not only what the object looks like but how it was a part of its time. I really feel that art is evidence. I believe in the evidence that objects give us. Sometimes they offer us the most reliable evidence of history.

Art bears witness to its time. People are working. They are creatures of their time. Whether or not we know them well or we don't know them, they are still going to bear witness to their time period. And that certainly is the way I feel that I've always talked about the work of African-American artists, and others.

VM: Part of your interests is exploring the ties between art and social justice. Today, as the movement for black lives unfolds, what kind of lessons can black millennial artists learn from the artwork of their predecessors? And how is a new generation of artists inspiring new ways to look at what was so salient about artists of the past in fighting for racial justice?

KJ: Well, as artists, as I said, the real issue is artists are products of their time. They use the tools that are available for them. If you see someone painting with acrylic, you know it has to be after the late '50s, because acrylic paint wasn't invented until the late 1950s. If you see someone using social media, you know it's probably in the 21st century. Because even if it's available earlier on, the idea of using social media in such pervasive ways really [came] to view recently. So I think artists use the tools that are available.

They give voice to the issues of their times in various ways. And certainly in the “Witness” exhibition, I think one of the important lessons of that show, and of a lot of my work, is that art is not always didactic. It speaks to the time, whether it's figurative or abstract. It speaks to the time in different ways. And it actually makes us more attentive as viewers, as listeners, to be able to really figure out the complex messages that artists are offering us. So we just have to stay tuned and stay tuned in.

VM: Considering digital media, platforms like Tumblr have become a kind of curation space for art and making art more accessible. How does that affect who is recognized as an artist and how?

KJ: For me, the word “curate” is really pervasive right now. The way I'm doing it is not the way people understand it as a Facebook page or as a digital page. For me, curating is also about research and history. I think social media is a great tool. Digital media in general, to reach so many people and to offer different platforms of experience.

But it won't replace, at least for me, actually being in a room, in a space, with objects. Being in a sculpture garden. Being at the Venice Biennale with great shows that somebody has put together. So those are very different things. And I think there's a different kind of historical approach, and research, and just different kinds of needs for curating in real time in the oxygen world, as my partner would say, and digital platforms. Equally important but very, very different.

VM: What advice do you have for aspiring black art historians?

KJ: I would just say be a voice for your time. Be a voice for the issues of your time, the creativity of your time. One of the great things, as a teacher, that I get to do is when I actually have artists — visual artists or performance artists — that take a class with art historians, to really have them interact. And I always have the artists present their work, because that is a cohort. That is the generation.

When I started working with people like Lorna Simpson, Glenn Ligon, Gary Simmons, Whitfield Lovell, these were people of my generation. And they're still, for me, Lorna Simpson is one of the great artists, because I just feel like [I] connect with her voice and her vision, her method, so much. It's just a part of my being. And that's because she's a part of my generation. And I think to have the opportunity to give voice to your time period is really an honor, and it's going to be a lot of fun.

VM: Last but not least, what are you planning to do next with the fellowship?

KJ: Well, I think the fellowship challenges me to take more risks and think bigger and to think collaboratively. So I'm really looking forward to that.