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These Chicago Curators Are Expanding the Cultural Conversation from the Inside Out
by Lee Ann Norman

Chicago—despite being famously referred to as The Second City—has made critical contributions to American jazz and blues music, architecture and design, theater, and visual art, proving time and again that this city can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes as New York and London as an influential center of cultural production. Crucial to both the historic and present dissemination of this artistic legacy are the city’s cultural institutions. With arts spaces ranging from traditional museums and galleries, to apartment and alternative spaces, plus a number of academia-affiliated organizations, Chicago provides a wealth of diversity in the ways it presents and frames how people talk about and engage with art objects and ideas.

But as a city equally famous for its strict geographic and social boundaries, one whose cultural ecosystem is also deeply enmeshed in tradition and institutional hierarchy, Chicago’s art scene can sometimes feel stifling and difficult to navigate. How do artists and other cultural producers new to the city, or those looking to make their mark here find their way? How does one go about creating culture in a scene that is not only loud and proud about its local character, but also seeks to have impact in larger art market structures?

In the last five years, a few curators across some of the city’s arts institutions have been quietly working to address those issues. Using skills and connections gained in places as far flung as the Southwestern United States, New York City, Nigeria, and the UK, Janet Dees, Yesomi Umolu, Erin Gilbert, and Naomi Beckwith have been expanding notions of what impact curatorial practice can have in a dynamic, yet seemingly conservative landscape. Carving out niches across institutional terrain—from academia and one of the city’s biggest art museums and into the commercial realm—each woman has drawn on her own experiences to broaden conversations about culture in the city, as well as expand ideas about who participates.


Janet Dees, The Block Museum, Northwestern University 


Janet Dees. Photo: Kate Russell

Janet Dees joined the Mary & Leigh Block Museum of Art’s curatorial team in September 2015 after spending several years working at SITE Santa Fe, an innovative platform for expanding the traditional museum experience. The Block is embedded within the larger structure of Northwestern University. Working at the museum not only requires understanding the structure of that institution, but also how an exhibition space functions within it. “The mission of the museum is to be really integrated into the teaching and learning that happens at Northwestern. I was excited to think about how I could engage both students and faculty in different ways,” Dees said.

At SITE, Dees worked on Unsettled Landscapes, the inaugural edition SITElines, the art space's signature biennial for New Perspectives on Art of the Americas. Her experience of living and working in Santa Fe, a city that hosts and fosters deep conversations about contemporary Native American art, benefitted her work at Northwestern and the Block almost immediately. She, along with other faculty and staff, has supported recently developed initiatives focused on Native American and Indigenous Studies, and she is currently organizing the exhibition, If You Remember, I’ll Remember, opening in February 2017. Of the exhibition, she said:  

I’m thinking about how we can put issues together that are spoken about in isolation in art history. For example, there’s an artist who is presenting work around Native American boarding schools, and another who is looking at Japanese American internment camps—two potentially connected histories that aren’t often in dialogue with each other. With my colleague, Susy Bielak, the Block’s Associate Director of Engagement/Curator of Public Practice, we’re reaching out to faculty and seeing what connections can be made [to the themes in this exhibition] to integrate curriculum and develop programming with a broad reach.


Yesomi Umolu, The Logan Center, University of Chicago 


Yesomi Umolu
Photo: Courtesy Trumpie Photography

Across town, the University of Chicago is also making a concerted effort to expand conversations around the ways in which Chicagoans talk about the arts, and the appointment of Yesomi Umolu as curator of exhibitions at the Logan Center has been critical to those efforts.

Art practice and cultural discourse have always been an important part of Umolu’s life, both professionally and personally. She grew up in London’s Southwark neighborhood (home to the Tate Modern) during a time when the UK was experiencing a renaissance in thinking about cultural work and creative citizenship.

“What was great about the Tate was that I could have a conversation with anybody about art practice, from a seasoned art historian to a young person coming into the gallery for the first time. It gave me a great sense of literacy about how we [can] speak about creative work that cuts across economic, social, and political designations,” she said. Umolu has always seen her practice as being aligned with pedagogical goals, and after leaving the Tate and working for Serpentine Gallery, the European biennial Manifesta, and the Walker Art Center, an institution known for its innovative multidisciplinary programming, she moved to the Broad Museum at Michigan State University, where she was able to continue thinking about creating exhibitions in scholarly and discursive ways that are integrated with the white cube rather than separate from it.

Installation view of So-called Utopias, the first show Umolu curated at the Logan Center. Photo: Clare Britt


She sees the space the University of Chicago occupies—on the geographic edge of Chicago, and as one of the centers for intellectual life in the city and beyond—as productive. “I’ve only been [in the US] for five years, but I bring with me other histories and narratives that lie on the edges of cultural discourse here,” she said. This fall, Umolu will present the first international solo exhibition of London-based artist Larry Achiampong, whose work explores shifting notions of identity and belonging in a post-colonial, post-digital world.

“My aim with the program I am developing at the Logan Center is to add another node to the scene. Chicago has an incredibly rich and complex arts landscape, but like other cities, it is not without its blind spots, or sites that could benefit from cultivation. I have the potential to cultivate those conversations because they form the backbone of my curatorial work,” she said. 


Naomi Beckwith, Museum of Contemporary Art


Naomi Beckwith
Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago

While university affiliation might encourage an institution to make connections to scholarship, the contemporary art museum can move among ideas and perspectives more fluidly. Naomi Beckwith joined the curatorial department at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in 2011. Coming to the MCA was a homecoming of sorts: Beckwith was born and raised in Chicago and attended Northwestern University as an undergraduate student.

“Chicago has shaped me as a person,” she said. “And it’s an exciting city to be in. There is a distinct neighborhood character, but one of the challenges that even I struggle to overcome is that it’s really hard to move between those spaces. It’s hard to get from neighborhood to neighborhood, and that engenders a very psychological sense of navigating the city. It goes back to a central concern of mine: how you expect the public to receive your show.”

In its latest audience participation survey released in 2015, the NEA found that attendance rates remained steady in live and performing arts during that time period, while visual arts attendance actually grew, even though the growth demographics skewed older and whiter. Armed with this information, many museums and cultural institutions have begun to reconsider ways to engage new and younger audiences, employing more inclusive strategies. In 2012, Beckwith curated an exhibition of the British artist and musician Martin Creed. In a nod to Chicago’s deep history of public and socially engaged art, the installation Work No. 210, Half the air in a given space (1999) was realized in four different versions across the city: north, south, west, and in the Water Tower near the lakefront (east). “It was really important for me to have these installations free and open to the public,” she explained. “I wanted to think about how we could make the museum accessible to different audiences, people who may never come to our building.”

Installation view, Martin Creed, Work No. 210, MCA Chicago, September 12, 2012. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago


Before joining the MCA, Beckwith was, perhaps, best known for her work at the Studio Museum in Harlem, a culturally specific institution whose mission is to support artists of African descent. She stresses, though, that while that focus is an interest and philosophical guiding point for her, it exists independently of any institution she works with. The goal of telling the smartest story possible about the many ways to see cultural difference and the ways those differences overlap with other non-art narratives already, for her, is indistinguishable.

“As someone who has one foot in academia, I am really thinking about how to codify this in the language of the canon—I understand that change happens relatively slowly,” she said. “The purpose of museums is to be thoughtful [about presenting cultures and histories]. You can’t be hasty about it. You shouldn’t just do shows; you have to tell the best story possible about the art, for that artist.”


Erin Gilbert, Independent Gallerist


Erin Gilbert

Although nonprofit museums and cultural centers typically spring to mind when we think of support structures for artists, Erin Gilbert, formerly director of Kruger Gallery Chicago, wants to expand that notion. Her work across nonprofit and for-profit institutions, including the Art Institute of Chicago and Sotheby’s, has helped her gain an intimate understanding of how artists, particularly women and artists of color, can learn to navigate the cultural ecosystem—and also how cultural workers assist them.

“When I left the Art Institute in 2010, there were no [museum] curators of African descent in the city outside of university spaces,” she remembers. “Hamza Walker was still at the Renaissance Society; Darby English was working more as a scholar and writer than curator; Romi Crawford and Kymberly Pinder were at the School of the Art Institute, but there was no full time person solely dedicated to curating exhibitions.”

Issues of representation and the relationship between art, power, and politics have always intrigued Gilbert, and from 2011 to 2013, she worked at the Studio Museum in Harlem, organizing talks addressing those issues with artists, historians, and curators such as Wangechi Mutu, Yashua Klos, Ebony G. Patterson, David Hartt, Dr. Krista Thompson, Tim Griffin, Naima J. Keith, and Elizabeth Alexander. After moving to London to earn advanced degrees at the University of Manchester, Gilbert’s curatorial projects continued a deep exploration of her core scholarly issues. Before returning to Chicago to lead Kruger’s Chicago space in July 2015, Gilbert presented the first solo exhibition of Wura-Natasha Ogunji in London, where the Austin-based visual and performing artist showed delicate stitch drawings reflecting the surprising moments of beauty to be found in the midst of the congestion and chaos of Lagos, her other home.

In Chicago, Gilbert has been able to provide similar platforms for underrepresented artists to gain increased exposure. The Kruger exhibition Invisible Woman (January 6–February 7, 2016) featured paintings and sculptures by New York-based artist and The Yams Collective member Sienna Shields. Much of Shields’ practice centers on issues relating to her identity as an African American woman whose family migrated to Alaska when she was a child, and Invisible Woman provided her with the first international commercial gallery exhibition of her career.

Sienna Shields, Invisible Woman, Installation view at Kruger Gallery Chicago, January 6–February 7, 2016
Curated by Erin Gilber. Courtesy of Kruger Gallery


Gilbert has always maintained an interest in marginalized perspectives and narratives in contemporary art even though the majority of her career has been spent in museums. Shifting her focus to galleries and the commercial realm has underscored the importance of being a champion, intermediary, and advocate for underrepresented artists.

“When I returned to Chicago to work at Kruger, I found that although so many things on the nonprofit side [of cultural institutions] changed, many artists [still] need support. There are things that happen on a regular basis outside of nonprofit institutional spaces that are important for an artist’s career—Art Basel, Frieze, the Armory Show. The gallery can be critical to moving artists through [the layers of] that institutional ecosystem,” she said.

“We love the conservative side of Chicago that doesn’t require us to participate in those [New York “scenester”] party ways. I love our galas, the fundraisers—but I love what happens when you kick off your heels and put your feet up,” she continued. “Some of us who have moved back to Chicago have gained a sensibility that the casual nature [of making connections in the art world] does not mean that the work we do is any less serious. If anything, there’s more at stake. I think it is essential to have structures—formal and informal—that enable emerging artists to move from MFA programs and residencies into a space where their work can enter into conversation with more established artists, curators, and collectors,” she added. 

“Making these connections becomes important since we don’t really have a blue chip gallery that is focused on presenting underrepresented artists and engaging the local scene in that international dialogue [around representation].”

These women are using curatorial practice to make their local work relevant and meaningful in the global context of contemporary art. Their work of affirms that Chicago’s visual arts scene can be nimble, vibrant, and global rather than merely stifling or difficult. By working within the institutions that make up the city’s cultural infrastructure, Dees, Umolu, Beckwith, and Gilbert have been able to alter the ways in which that infrastructure functions, in turn increasing the institution’s effectiveness as a steward of culture and history.

As Chicago continues to make meaningful artistic offerings both locally and internationally, the organizations and systems that make up is backbone must continue to adapt and respond: The Block and the Logan Center have stretched the geographic locus of arts in Chicago; and the MCA continues to embrace the notion of art in the everyday by expanding into spaces beyond its physical plant; more galleries continue to embrace an intermediary role that connects a broader range of artists to collectors, the international art market, and the art historical canon as represented by the museum.

While cultural institutions provide structure for these activities, it does not mean that their role or function cannot evolve in a way that better reflects and supports their missions. The fight for increased equity and access to culture—particularly in a city like Chicago whose history is rife with examples demonstrating the power of combining art and activism—is traditionally one that is considered subversive or rebellious, an agitation from the outside. But these curators are providing crucial evidence that sometimes in order to change systems, we must first start to fight from within.


Lee Ann Norman


Posted by Lee Ann Norman on 7/11 | tags: Logan Center block museum Yesomi Umolu Naomi Beckwith Janet Dees Erin Gilbert Kruger Gallery chicago art scene woman curators MCA Chicago

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