Photo of Michelle J. Wilkinson, PhD by frank talk
This is the second post in a two-part series about Black collectors and curators in the Diamond District. I hope that you will join me in making noise in the DC arts scene and dispelling myths about who is and who isn’t a part of our creative economy. My first interview with art collector, Darryl Atwell, can be found here. Again, my appreciation to one of my favorite schol(artists), Fred Joiner, for introducing me to such inspiring, complex interviewees.
Dr. Michelle J. Wilkinson is a woman to be admired. Currently Director of Collections and Exhibitions at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, Dr. Wilkinson is an innovative curator and scholar who approaches her work in a nuanced yet eye-level fashion with the non-scholar in mind. This amazing curator and I met at Renée Stout‘s art opening at Hemphill Fine Arts and shared some fleur de sel tartes at ACKC (best chocolate in DC, hands down). Here’s what she taught me–enjoy the knowledge, fam.
Could you tell me what your role is at the museum and any other relationship you have to curating and collecting?
My role at the museum is Director of Collections and Exhibitions and under that falls all the curatorial duties for the museum and managing and really guiding what collections come into the museum. The museum is the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of African American History & Culture, also known as “The Lewis,” in Baltimore and we’re the largest museum of African American history and culture on the East Coast. Our collections range from visual art to material objects to photography–basically the kinds of things that people would have in their homes that have value to them that help tell the story of what African American life and experience is in the United States.
My role is to be the visionary in those areas of collecting as well as how we exhibit, whether from the collection or bringing in an exhibition that’s been curated elsewhere that fits with the mission of the museum or developing new exhibitions that expand the Maryland story and make it more global and have a diaspora focus as well so that we can understand the stories that intersect nationally, globally, etc.
Have you done curating elsewhere? Do you only work at the museum now?
I did work as an independent scholar and curator as a consultant on curatorial project before joining museum. I have not done as much [independently] since coming to the museum because of the job. It’s curatorial, but it’s so much more than that. I would say on an average day, actual curatorial work might be 5-10% of what I actually do. A lot of it is really problem-solving, decision-making on a scale that involves when the lights are not working in the gallery the way that they’re supposed to. Or, when different vendors and contractors are coming in. So, it’s a lot of details that are involved in the big picture people see when they come into the museum that no one really thinks about. Also, I think, even with the curatorial aspect, often I’ll work either from home or off-site on days I really need to get curatorial work done. As a scholar, I kind of need that time and space and no interruptions. The challenge of working as a curator in a museum is that there are often lots of interruptions, so I think I was able to [focus] better when I was working independently as opposed to having to manage the project.
What kind of projects did you do independently?
I was a curatorial consultant for the Romare Bearden exhibition that was at the National Gallery of Art in 2003, and my sole focus was just that exhibition, working in tandem with the exhibition staff and the curator, Ruth Fine, and helping to develop and edit some of the wall text, and some of the interpretive material and brochures. It was very research-oriented, I did a lot of work assisting with the research for the film. The National Gallery of Art produced a film, also titled The Art of Romare Bearden, and there were no real subject specialists in the department where I was working. Of course the curator was [a specialist], but the department that produces a lot of the interpretive material, they really needed someone to come in and assist with that process.
So, it was just kind of wonderful because I was able to do research at the National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian, trying to understand how Bearden used reproductions of African masks and which kinds of masks he used, and what his influences were in creating his collages. So it was very specific, you know, here’s a question, you find the answer and you do the research. And that’s really what I love. Foremost, I’m a scholar and so those are the kinds of things that excite me most.
What’s your field of study?
African American culture.
Where did you study?
I did my undergrad at Bryn Mawr College. I have a BA in Comparative Literature with a concentration in Africana Studies. I did my PhD at Emory University in Atlanta.
Did you choose The Lewis, or did it choose you?
Both… [giggles] that’s a great question! The Lewis was I guess about 2 1/2 years old in terms of being open at the time that I joined and I’ve been there almost three years. We just celebrated our fifth birthday in June. But of course, as you know, museums are in the planning stages many more years before the public often realizes. So, the staff that was there had worked extremely hard to get the museum open and they had some staff shifts and changes. For example, our current executive director, David T. Terry, had previously held the position of Direction of Collections and Exhibitions, which is my position now. So, he kind of moved up from being director of a department to director of the museum. The slot that I’m in now had been vacant for probably about a year. After being open and all the madness that ensues when a new museum is open, they realized they needed to get that position filled. I actually didn’t even really know about the position; I got a call from folks who knew about the position and thought I would make a good match and it worked out well.
My purpose in writing this series of this articles is to encourage young people to engage in the arts as either appreciators, collectors, curators, or actually making this into a career. At what point did you know that this was going to be your career and how would you advise people, now that you’re a little further along in your career, to do something different in order to become curators?
For me it’s actually still one day at a time [laughs]. I’m not really sure what my career is! My graduate degree was really interdisciplinary so it was focused on African American studies more from a literature and cultural studies and visual culture perspective and I actually taught for three years at Bard College in New York. While I was teaching, I was also finishing my dissertation. The chapter in my dissertation that was most specifically about visual art was to me the most exciting to write. I started thinking, ‘What would it be like to do more of that?’ The other chapters were more about poetry and literature, so when I was teaching, I was Assistant Professor of Literature at Bard College, so focusing more on African American literature, Puerto Rican literature, Caribbean literature, and I love all those things. I still love all those things. But, as I was writing about arts movements in the 1960s and visual art, I felt very passionate and excited and it was something that wasn’t new to me but some of the writing of it was new to me. I had read a lot at that point, but this was the first time that I had taken a stab at it in my own words interpreting from my own perspective what that movement was in terms of visual arts. Something about that experience made me consider what it would be like maybe not to continue teaching literature, but to go into a field that would allow me to continue writing about art, thinking about art. And of course, I started thinking maybe museum work would be a good match. I wasn’t one of those kids that when I was little I wanted to be a teacher. It was just one of those things that you get a PhD, that’s sort of the natural step that people imagine. The whole idea of curatorial work, even though I was a grad student, it was still a little bit off the radar for me. So, I actually got to the point where the writing motivated me to see what other career options were there. From being an assistant professor at Bard, I decided um…[laughs] I wanted to take a leave of absence and really explore something else and that was working at the Studio Museum in New York, in Harlem.
What did you do there?
I was a curatorial intern at first because I really didn’t have any museum experience. I had done some archival work, I had done a lot of writing and editing. I was a curatorial intern at the museum and I was also doing some freelance editing for them. Lowery Stokes Sims was the director at that time. Thelma Golden was then chief curator. They had a library upstairs on one of their floors that wasn’t open to the public that wasn’t that well organized at the time. It wasn’t something that could be a real resource. One day I was up there and I was thinking, ‘Why not?’ I could see the possibility. Having been so immersed in books and reading and writing, I thought it’d be great as a researcher if I knew or someone else knew that those materials were there. Old exhibitions catalogs, tons of art historical books that you probably couldn’t find many other places. And I remember sending Lowery an e-mail saying, ‘Have you thought about what you might wanna do with the library? I’d love to do something with it.’ She wrote me back almost immediately and said, ‘Yea! Let’s talk,’ because there was something there waiting to be done. As a scholar herself, I think she knew the importance of that collection being available. So I went from being a curatorial intern to being a consultant for them, working as editor and library coordinator trying to get that collection more accessible to the public. In the end, there really wasn’t the funding to make that a reality, but I organized it enough that at least staff could have better access.
How do you identify as a professional?
I would say I’m a scholar first. I think, as a scholar I can really become involved in many different projects and take on different roles. For one project I might just be the editor, in another project I might be the curator, in another project I might be there coordinating people’s efforts. I think definitely that’s my first way of approaching almost any situation, what I’m comfortable doing. I also see myself as a writer. A lot of what I do as Director of Collections and Exhibitions involves writing. I do a lot of the writing for exhibition narratives, exhibition text, interpretive text in the gallery. To me, that’s the most fun part of the job. It’s figuring out in my mind what the artist is doing, having conversations with them, then making it accessible for a general public coming in that might not have any idea who these artists are. They can appreciate it just by looking at it, but then there’s this other tool, which is someone writing a couple of words that can bring something out of it that they might not see upon first sight.
Do you feel that you’re an anomaly in this field? Young, Black, female…
I don’t, actually. I think when I was 25 I didn’t realize really what the opportunities were in terms of museum and curatorial work. It’s not something I really thought about. I think it’s interesting you’re writing this article because if I had maybe read more articles about young curators, it would have been on my radar as a [good career fit]. I knew about art, I enjoyed going to exhibitions and seeing art, but I never really thought: I want to be a curator. I never really sat down and said those words. It wasn’t until much later, I guess being in grad school and almost being at the end of my program and thinking what are the other opportunities out there other than being a professor?
What is the difference between being a curator and a scholar?
They’re the same. I think, for the most part a curator has to be a scholar. It doesn’t mean you have to have a PhD or a Masters, but you have to read and do kind of your own self-study of what your field is, what you’re collecting in, what you’re exhibiting, what you’re editing. I think one of the reasons I’m attracted to both curating and editing is that to me they’re very similar processes. As an editor, not just a copy editor but as someone who’s taking texts and thinking about ways to make them more precise, more cogent, more illuminating, easier to understand, that’s the same thing you do as a curator. You’re putting things together. It’s an editing and selecting process. You’re trying to, I think, create a whole piece that is vibrant, has some motion, has some clarity and is easy for the viewer or reader to ingest and engage with. I see those two as really similar. For me, the scholarly mind is at the root of both of those. You have to have good critical thinking skills, you have to be able to listen, you have to be able to write. All of those things are at the root of being a curator or editor; you have to have a scholarly mind.
Who are your mentors?
I need some more [laughs]! I need some more… um, I would definitely say Lowery Stokes Sims is one of my mentors. She was, as I said, the director of the museum when I worked there and is still someone that, when I have a tough question or I’m thinking about career options [I can go to her]. She’s currently a curator at the Museum of Arts & Design in New York City. The chair of our board is Leslie King-Hammond and Lowery and Leslie are very good friends. I also see Leslie as someone who’s been a trailblazer in art and curatorial work, and just being a supporter of African American cultural and artistic production. She is at MICA, Maryland Institute College of Art. One of my dissertation committee members was Dr. Richard Long at Emory University and he’s just kind of a scholar par excellence. He focuses on literature, art, dance and is someone who does the whole gamut. As a young person being in graduate school seeing how broad but deep his interests and knowledge were was exciting to me and something that I wanted to emulate.
What are your three favorite pieces of art right now?
One piece that I’m really excited about, and have been, is called This Incredible Journey and it’s by a Baltimore-based artist named Loring Cornish and it’s glass and mosaic-colored glass piece. What he does is kind of cast footprints so it’s a 3-dimensional piece but it hangs on the wall so you don’t necessarily need to walk all the way around it. It is footprints on each side kind of just cascading up, then in the middle there’s a path. It could be grass, it could be water, or just a pathway. What it looks like is footprints, actually footsteps. As opposed to the print of a foot, it’s more of a shoe form. It’s like the Underground Railroad, walking to Heaven, they’re kind of very real African American cultural references as well as more spiritual, transcendent references. The motto of the museum is ‘take the journey,’ so when I saw this piece, it just perfectly pulled together what we say the museum experience is. We’re taking this journey through African American history as well as a journey through American history really, but through an African American lens. Then, the museum’s graphic logo has this winding path and this art piece has this winding path, so it was the perfect piece for us to acquire. It was in an exhibition I curated in 2008 called A People’s Geography about African American life and cultural geography.
One piece that’s hanging up right now that I really love is a piece by Anderson Pigatt. It’s a kind of reinterpretation of a Picasso piece. I think the Picasso piece is called Bull’s Head. It’s basically just the seat of the bicycle and the handle bars, but it’s made to look like this kind of anthropomorphic animal head with the horns sticking up. Very simple, recycled objects. He didn’t really do a lot to it, just put it up there, and you can see what it came from. But, you can also see the references in it. It’s just kind of brilliant, easy, simple. A kid could get it and understand.
A third piece is also up now called Blood of Our Ancestors by Maya Freelon Asante. She is a very young, contemporary artist also now based in Baltimore. Her work is with tissue paper. So, she does sculptures with tissue paper, colored tissue paper, she uses the color from tissue paper, wets it through a process that kind of lets water saturate the color and lets it drip onto another surface to make prints.
It sounds like a complicated process…
It’s a complicated process and it’s time-consuming. She had found some colored tissue paper in her grandmother’s basement that had gotten damaged from water stains. But they were so beautiful and she kept thinking, ‘How, through my own art-making process, can I get the same effect?’ She tried different things but she realized you couldn’t just wet it. It had to be wet kind of slowly over time to get these beautiful patterns. If you just wet it all at one time, it wouldn’t look the same, it would wash it out or it wouldn’t saturate it at the gradual state it needed to be. So after experimenting she was able to kind of recreate the effect. Even though it’s fragile, she glued them together and they became more unified. She talks about that being like the vulnerability of the human spirit and makes a lot of connections to the African American experience. She also does these tissue ink prints. It’s the ink from the tissue paper that makes this print called Blood of Our Ancestors. The top portion of it is like red and green and vibrant and has all these colors that you think of as African flags or Pan-Africanism but in an almost Jackson Pollack-y, Frank Bowling (the Caribbean artist), kind of way, very color-saturated. And at the bottom, it gets a little kind of muddy, a little bit messy. It’s not as, quote-unquote, “beautiful.” Again here’s this work, which is maybe about 9 or 10 feet tall. It’s [shows] all of our beauty, but it also [shows] the tragedy in it. You look at it and it’s compelling because there’s something that is, ‘Wow! Look at all those colors,’ it’s bright, it’s shiny. But, then you look at the bottom and there’s something hard in there also. That’s one of my favorite pieces that’s hanging right now.
Who is someone you’d love to work with but haven’t yet?
I would say Barbara Chase-Riboud. I’m really interested in the way she puts materials together. She uses metal, she uses fabric. There’s a kind of monumental quality to her work, but she uses so many references. You know, African American culture to African American history. She’s lived outside of the U.S. for many years now and I know that there’s a great appreciation for her art already in this country. But, it would be wonderful to work more closely and see her work represented here more than it has been in the last couple of years. Right now, I’m working on a show about contemporary African American women artists who are using materials in interesting ways. For example, Maya Freelon Asante with the tissue paper is one of them. Renee Stout is in that same exhibition. I’ve not worked with Renee before, so I’m really excited about the opportunity. I think the dialogue that will happen between the artists will be great in this show and if I could get a Barbara Chase-Riboud piece in there I think it would help illuminate the conversations between the artists.
Three favorite places to see art in the DMV area?
Woooow! Ummm… That’s hard! It could be anywhere, anytime. I love the National Museum of African Art. I think they’ve done a great job of highlighting a lot of contemporary African artists. I definitely think they’ve put themselves on the map in a new way in the last couple of years… This is tough for me! I feel like I go everywhere. 14th Street Corridor with all the galleries up and down here. And, I would say just talking to Juliette Bethea (collector). You don’t necessarily see her collection just talking to her, but she kind of just carries art with her and every time you see her she’s telling you about some place else that she went or some place else you need to be. Just having conversations with her or running into her is where your next stop is.