Meet The Curators of the North Carolina Museum of Art

Have you ever wondered what goes into curating each individual piece to reflect an exhibit’s dialogue with the cultural moment? The North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA), located in Raleigh, North Carolina, is home to all kinds of art, from European Renaissance paintings, 19th century paintings, Egyptian funerary art, Grecian and Roman sculptures and vases, historical American art, to international contemporary art, among many other unique cultural pieces. How did these powerhouse works end up in North Carolina?

We sat down with the NCMA (Contemporary Art) curatorial team – Linda Dougherty, Maya Brooks, and Jared Ledesma – to go behind the curtain at one of the most multicultural, most informed and most exciting contemporary art programs in the United States.

Linda Dougherty
Photo credit: The North Carolina Museum of Art (Raleigh)

 

The process of acquiring and presenting works for the museum seems opaque. Does it begin with your teams seeking out artists and dialogues? Is it a board of directors who asks what could be new or, in some cases, old? What is the balance between your decision-making and that of the museum’s executive sphere, or those within the museum’s leadership?

Linda: First, I have a question. Do you think it’s our museum specifically that is opaque about acquiring works of art, or are you just talking about museums in general?

I refer generally to the process of acquisitions in all large institutions. How does an artwork get here? What’s the process from A to B? 

Linda: Internally, we have a collections document that is generated by the curators and is updated, maybe every five years. It is basically an evaluation of the existing collection. Each curator writes a section, about 20th century art, about contemporary art, about African art, etc., and says these are the strengths of the collection, this is how it has been built over time, and this is how we’re looking to develop it. Then, whenever an acquisition is coming up, we refer back to that and say: this is our strategy, these are our priorities at this moment in time for these reasons. Then I say it’s right place, right time.

Maya: One of the best ways I’ve found that I’ve been introduced to artists is honestly social media. Social media is a big one in contemporary art because people are always sharing their story. I love the narratives people share with us. Being able to see some of that is really interesting to me. Publications, such as yours, are big ones. You get to meet people by reading about the entire context of their work, and that’s really helpful. Also, meeting them in person. I’ve been introduced to a lot of artists by attending different things. Being out in person at art fairs or at dinners that we get invited to, [going] to events we get invited to; then I can hear that story, I can hear who [the artists] are as people, and then bring that back with the artwork itself. 

Jared Ledesma
Photo credit: The North Carolina Museum of Art (Raleigh)

 

When writing the [wall] texts, how do you all go about it? 

Linda: I would say it was a combination of individual efforts and much more collaborative group efforts. Basically, it was a thousand works of art, so not everybody read every label. The way we approached it was kind as a thematic collection text. We got feedback from each other, from outside consultants, and from our interpretation and education staff… We had overarching goals and ideas and guidelines that we all kept in mind. There’s a lot of back and forth with our editors who are part of our staff– who are thinking about accessibility in terms of reading level. 

Jared: When I write labels, I’m most interested in telling a story… That aspect of storytelling, especially if it relates to the gallery’s theme, is what attracts me to an object as far as including it in a gallery that I’m presenting. I think that helps grab readers and their attention. So, I’m always interested in the story behind the artwork or the object.

Maya: With that, I tend to think of the cultural context, so what’s surrounding the pieces, especially working in contemporary art. It’s a lot of understanding history and the present and even the future all at the same time. 

Linda: I don’t know if you noticed when you were here that we had done a series of community labels. Did you see those?

I did, yes.

Linda: So that was all of us thinking about whose voice is on the wall and that interpretation of an art object is pretty subjective. I think bringing in these outside voices brings that home. Ten different people can look at this work of art and have ten completely different interpretations of it. That’s also been really important to us– being able to bring in other voices into the gallery;  that it’s not just this kind of institutional voice or the curator’s voice telling you what to think.

Maya Brooks
Photo credit: The North Carolina Museum of Art (Raleigh)

 

When thinking about this type of inclusivity, how has the landscape changed for you all over the time that you’ve been curators? What’s changed in the cultural landscape and the way audiences respond to works like that?

Maya: We’re all working in these different aspects across race, gender, sexuality, history, time, and space… A big thing is that not only is the work becoming more diverse, but we as a team, as a collective, are becoming more diverse in our study and in our collaboration. As you probably have heard now, we are all having these conversations together, so that it isn’t so siloed, and so that marginalized people aren’t tasked with always having to tell that story by ourselves. We are able to share our spaces and come together in a very interesting way. 

Jared: I agree with Maya. I studied queer history at San Francisco State in 2006, seven-ish, eight-ish. Back then folks were [saying], “queer history, what’s that? And how are you going to get a job with that?” It didn’t seem very promising. Now, I feel there’s a huge interest in queer art, especially contemporary queer art, but going back to the 20th century and even beyond that, so that to me is really promising. 

Linda: Absolutely. I would say I’ve always been interested in bringing more women into the picture– who have been missing in art history and missing at our museum on the walls. I’ve been here for 18 years, and when I started, I was working with a group of curatorial colleagues who had been here for decades. Over the past five years they have all retired, and I have a new department of young curators and scholars, like Maya and Jared. To me, it’s very interesting to see how art historical scholarship has changed over the generations and what this new generation of art historians and scholars are studying in school and being taught and what they’re interested in. It’s a huge cultural shift. I think you see it in museums all over the world that are all reinstalling their collections with this idea of highlighting and bringing in and representing artists [who] up until now have either just been ignored or purposely not represented.

I’m sure it’s known among you about the recent spate of climate activists that have targeted a very specific type of artwork – you can call it action, you can call it vandalism, whatever the terms may be. There’s been a meme circulating through (formerly known as) Twitter, which I took a little bit of umbrage at. The meme generated a caption that said, “Funny how these people don’t attack contemporary art.” Jerry Saltz had written an op-ed for New York Magazine, [saying] that these activists were making conscious choices about which works they were targeting because they “ranked high on the Global Cultural Treasure Index,” and they were purchased or traded by companies or proxies that they were protesting against. Specifically, the National Gallery here in London; one of the galleries is sponsored by BP. It’s almost as if to say that contemporary art doesn’t fall into that category. I’d like to hear your reaction to that.

Linda: I’m aware of what’s going on, but I never connected it with, [that] BP sponsored this or helped them buy this or whatever. I just thought that these objects were targeted or chosen because they’re valuable and it would get people’s attention, not because the work of art represented anything in particular or had been funded by anyone. I just thought it was a way to get your attention because it’s so sensational. It never once crossed my mind that no one was paying attention to contemporary art… A lot of contemporary artists are actually dealing with things like climate change in their work and thinking about it. A lot of them are not under glass or in a vitrine, so if they were really going to do something, they would seriously damage it. Whereas most of these other things are always so heavily protected that they’re either under glass or in a plexi box, that even with this statement or act, they’re not actually going to damage the work of art.

Devorah Sperber
After the Mona Lisa 2
Mixed Media
85 x 87 in.
Photo credit: The North Carolina Museum of Art (Raleigh)

 

Maya: I feel there’s an oversimplification of a lot of the nuances to this kind of work. Having existed in activist spaces and being very close to cultural activists especially, there’s very rarely things that are done without intention– things are thought out well in advance. There’s a strategy; there’s a plan… I think there’s an oversimplification with thinking that people just don’t care about contemporary art the same or don’t value it, but also there’s a certain level of understanding that contemporary artists are oftentimes on the rise. So you’re not going to go for someone who’s also coming up in the world now versus very well established names that have been around for centuries that people know globally… Then [as] Linda said, [many contemporary artists] are already doing that response in their work. They’re already responding to climate change. They’re already challenging these things. So you’re not going to go after someone who’s already having the conversation because the point is to start the conversation… It’s not that contemporary art isn’t valued culturally or socially, it’s that there are a lot of over and underlying factors to it.

All three of you sound like you do a great deal of fieldwork, especially within the community. Is it a combination of being out there, social media, and word of mouth? Is it all of these things? Do each of you have a preferred method of interacting with local artists?

Linda: I don’t have a preferred method, and I am always impressed by local artists who just cold call me, and they’ll  [ask], “will you do a studio visit?”[…] I figure if you’re willing to make the effort to get in touch with me, then I’m willing to look at your work… An artist will tell me about another artist, or another curator will tell me about someone I should look at because they know I’m working on a certain kind of show. I think it’s about being generous with your time, and the art world is really hard to break into. You have to be talented, of course. You have to be really driven and really persistent. Then it’s the right place at the right time that someone happens to see your work. 

If you had a choice, having art magazines in front of you, what do you think could be better about them? 

Jared: As far as the critical essays that are more obtuse, I could do less with. Pieces that are engaging and accessible, I would like to see that.

Maya: I’ve been getting a lot of my stuff digitally lately, so I guess I need to put more effort into getting physical copies again, because I do miss that. I do miss being able to flip through a magazine and touch it and see it, cut out the pictures and really engage with it versus now.

Linda: The only thing I consistently read are the articles and reviews in The New York Times because I like certain writers and art critics. I would say that even when I was actually looking at physical magazines, I would just flip through and look at the pictures because, as Jared said, I would read the articles and I would [think] “this person is just talking to themselves. This means nothing to me.” And I think one of the things I have really embraced after working in museums for several decades now is this: thinking about who your audience is, who you actually want to reach, and how you talk to them.

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