At barely 41 years old, Naomi Beckwith is an African-American curator who is taking the other side of the Atlantic by storm thanks to her refreshing, all-embracing vision of today’s art. In Chicago, an interview with a woman whose social awareness underlines her inspiring take on her profession.
When the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Chicago recently celebrated its 50th year, Naomi Beckwith was part of the team that organised its three-part “We are Here” birthday exhibition. A jury member of the 2015 Venice Biennale, this young curator at the MCA Chicago since 2011 is the inaugural winner of the VIA Art Fund Curatorial Fellowship grant, aimed at promoting promising artistic projects. And let’s not forget that in March 2017, she chaired the first curatorial leadership summit at New York’s Armory Show. An opportunity for AMA to shed light on her current role at the MCA and to discover her singular perspective on curatorship.
Naomi Beckwith, what did you do before becoming curator at the MCA Chicago?
I was in New York, at the Studio Museum in Harlem. I managed the artist-residency programme and I worked on cultural projects relating to African-American identity, aesthetic minorities, but also current practices on a global scale.
The MCA Chicago is considered to be one of the most influential museums in the United States, with an extensive “historic” collection of contemporary art, ever since its creation in 1967. What were your goals when you arrived there in 2011?
I was coming home so to speak, because I was born and raised in the Windy City! I wanted to develop solo shows with established artists, but above all, to set up exhibitions on young emerging artists who have never been shown. But my current exhibition, “Howardena Pindell: What remains to be seen”, co-curated with Valerie Cassel Oliver, modern- and contemporary-art curator at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, highlights the first African-American artist to become a curator at the MoMA. It focuses on five decades, from modernism to today’s practices. This artist-teacher consistently produced political and poetic works, real critiques of sexism, racism and discrimination in the widest sense of these terms.
So you’re sensitive to the feminist cause… On this note, US art historian Linda Nochlin recently passed away. Reputed as a pioneer of feminist art, she pointed her finger at the “white, Western and male” vision that has prevailed in art. Did she play a special role along your path?
She left a deep impression on me. I should have listened to her when she offered to supervise my PhD! This woman who lent her ear to others and who never judged, overturned the history of art and the way we look at female artists.
You’re also interested in the “Black Lives Matter” movement. At Harlem Studio, you turned your attention to the role of coloured women in art. What conclusions have you drawn on the matter?
That there’s still a long way to go! As a female curator of colour, I’m interested in everything to do with women and artists of colour. What is the concept of négritude in art? The exhibitions that I’ve set up in the last seven years attempt to find answers to this question. And then, there are some things that really exasperate me. Lynette Yiadom-Boakye is an artist born in Britain, whom I defend passionately. But people always refer to her Ghanaian origins. Why don’t they consider her as a British artist?
Does Europe show artistic ethnocentrism?
Absolutely! Just like the United States, Europe seems to cast a somewhat self-centred gaze on creation. The history of art was born from their powerful discourse, but they aren’t the only ones around in the world. My projects question the dominant views in today’s art and convey relevant and transversal messages by showing art that isn’t necessarily American or European.
Let’s talk about your latest projects. You chaired the first curators’ summit at the Armory Show in New York. What was discussed here?
This summit invited 60 international curators from major museums to seminars and roundtables with artists and the directors of leading institutions. Olga Viso, director of the Walker Art Center, and Coco Fusco, exhibition curator and artist, launched the first day of discussions with debates on sensitivity, identity and censorship in the art world. Then, curator and art critic Hans Ulrich Obrist presented his personal vision of the issue, and the way he envisages cultural practices in his curating work. What’s more, in this age of globalisation, curators increasingly collaborate with artists from diverse cultures. We have to stay awake!
What were the underlying objectives of the summit?
You know, there’ve never been so many visitors in museums, who scrutinise and comment on exhibition choices, or the language used to speak about our projects. I wanted this summit to be inspiring for each curator, including myself. For it to question the way we select the artists we show and the way we design exhibitions.
Whose idea was this summit?
Over here, conferences are organised for curators at every edition of Expo Chicago. The Armory Show most certainly drew inspiration from this, but I personally wanted to add slots for discussions on the key issues we face in our work.
Do you, like the directors of some French contemporary-art centres, believe that some curators place more importance on their reflections about artists than on the artists themselves? In this light, artists aren’t considered for what they do or what they are…
I agree entirely! A curator should not content himself or herself with simply presenting an artist’s work; the curator should collaborate with the artist while taking into account the artist’s ideas and concepts. Why? Because a good artist is, in my opinion, a good art historian, from whom we have much to learn. In addition, the artist has the potential and imagination to create radical new forms and new objects that are very instructive for the public.
You’re a young contemporary-art curator. What major difficulties do you regularly face in your work?
It’s sometimes difficult for the public to differentiate between an artist’s creative value, their commercial value, and their renown – the latter being correlated with the art market. I set myself the mission of setting up projects on artists or themes that aren’t presented the way they ought to be. My aim isn’t to be seduced by projects that are easy to market or finance. I want to put forward persuasive statements.
On this note, how do you design your exhibitions? Do you start off with an idea or do you feed on your relationship with the artists?
Above all I try to never theorise too much. I spend time talking with the artists. These moments of sharing really foster my thinking.
Let’s go back to the MCA in Chicago, which recently celebrated its 50th birthday. How has the museum changed since it was established in 1967?
It’s been changed by the globalisation of art and its market… The exhibition “Takashi Murakami: The octopus eats its own leg” set a new attendance record by drawing 205,000 visitors. And then, like many institutions, the museum has become a living space where people come to see exhibitions but also to have lunch at the brand new restaurant, the Marisol, to listen to talks, to attend concerts and to see performances. A space for experiences combining architecture, design, art, live performance and cuisine…
What is the museum’s acquisition policy?
Every work demonstrates a significant moment in the history of art, from the 1960s up to the present day, from a political, historical and prospective perspective. As a museum set up in Chicago, the city that is home to many artists, we own a remarkable collection of works by local artists.
Can you name a few pieces that you consider to be especially significant in your collection?
Six Women, created in 1965-1966 by the sculptress Marisol. This piece was our first acquisition. But also Small Hybrid by local sculptor Richard Hunt, dating from 1964. Jeff Koons’ famous iconic work, Rabbit, is up there with our important series of photographs by Cindy Sherman. Finally, perhaps May the Arrogant Not Prevail by Michael Rokowitz, an Iraqi-American artist based in Chicago, on whom we held a first major exhibition, and whose social and political reach corresponds with the institution’s spirit. But there are so many others!
You were awarded the VIA Art Fund’s fellowship grant. How will you use this award?
I’m going to make a field trip to Dakar, to see the Dak’Art biennale in June, but I’ll also be going to Lagos and Marrakech, among other destinations. Africa, like every region of the globe, has so many stories to tell about culture and contemporary art!
“Howardena Pindell: What remains to be seen”, until 20 May. Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 East Chicago Avenue, Chicago, USA. www.mcachicago.org