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Film: Kimberly Drew on becoming an advocate for artists of color

In this talk, Kimberly Drew, who currently serves as The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Social Media Manager discusses her blog Black Contemporary Art, her work as part of the Black Art Incubator, and becoming an advocate for artists of color.

So, one thing that I’ve started to do, especially because I’m American and post-election one of the things I started to do at the top of my lectures is just invite everyone to just take a collective breath, and shake it out, get the wiggles out, leave the things that you brought with you in this morning outside of this room, and to just invite you here into this space with me and to just express my extreme gratitude for your presence and attention this morning.

So, as Oonagh said, my name is Kimberley, and today I’m going to talk you guys a little bit about my work both inside of institutions and outside of institutions, and talk you guys through what my journey has been. One thing that I want to acknowledge before I really get started is that my career has spanned about six years now, and so I am very well-aware, especially working at the Metropolitan Museum, that some people work on exhibitions for six years at a time, so a lot of the things I’ll present today are to be taken as more enquiries than conclusions, as more expirations than just the final say on things. I encourage you guys also during the Q&A if there is anything that is expressed that you have questions about to feel free to ask me freely. I’m more than happy to talk through some of the ideas that I have because I definitely don’t have it all figured out.

So. Let’s get started. First of all I wanted to just start with the work that I’m doing on a day-to-day basis; the work that is largely why I am here to talk to you guys today. I work at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, at the main building, on the south side, on the far right over there is where my office is housed. I’ve been working at the Metropolitan Museum now for about two years as a social media manager. It’s been such a unique experience because the Metropolitan Museum, as much as it is a cultural institution, a house for 5,000 years of art, it also is a brand. So there is this is constant mediation process between talking about what the Museum does and what the Museum stands for.

One thing that people often don’t recognise about the Metropolitan Museum, and which I think is really important to know, is that the Met is actually technically four different spaces. There is the Met Fifth Avenue, which is the main steps where the Met Gala was, where the grander part of the collection is. That space has been open for some years now. Then there’s the Met Cloisters, which is in Fort Tyron Park, which is our house for medieval art. Then there is of course the Met Breuer, which opened just over a year ago, and has been doing really radical programming, especially with respect to showing artists’ exhibitions that are artists who are identified as female. If you are coming to New York, I highly recommend a visit. Then of course the fourth, which is my wheelhouse, is the digital sphere. In our radical revisioning of the mission and how we can better – our catch phrase right now is actually how to bring art to life. We have been thinking about the fourth space, the digital sphere, as kind of the foreground of how to reach to our general public and to provide relevancy for our collection to people who are visiting the institution.

Personally, one of the things that I think is most often, not exactly a mistake, is a tough word to use, but a concede that we often make in cultural institutions is that we don’t understand that though we commit our lives to the study of these objects and these histories, that oftentimes people who are visitors – and the Met sees over 6 million visitors a year, they may not have the same general interest in what we have going on, and so our job as social media folks and as conservators and directors and curators is to really think about how to provide as many avenues for access as possible.

So what does that look like for me? By the numbers, the Met reaches about 6 million people across platforms. On Facebook we have nearly 2 million likes, on Instagram, similarly, 2 million followers; Twitter 2 million; Pinterest 640,000 followers and on YouTube we have over 20 million views on our videos. These numbers mean a lot. I think these numbers are important as we’re thinking about grant writing, as we’re thinking about how to properly fund the work that we’re doing as a digital department but for me personally, the numbers are just kind of a reflection of the hard work, a good pat on the back; but those aren’t really an exchange on actual people who are engaging. It’s really difficult to scale from these numbers to actually see the true impact of what’s going on.

Another thing I think that happens, especially in the digital sphere, is that we focus a lot on the numbers and not on the actual individuals. So, for me, one of the things that I’ve tried to spend more time focusing on is honing in on four primary objectives. The first being sharing 5,000 years of art, of course, right? So, we want to through these channels be able to present the work that’s being done with respect to both the objects, the history around them and then also the Met is really lucky to have both departments of scientific research and also conservation. There is a lot of magic that happens right on site.

The second being connecting users with objects in the collection that inspire, educate and expand the way that they view the world around them. It’s not just saying, “Here’s this really dope phase,” it’s in what way does this phase from this culture in this time inspire the life that you’re living outside of the institution. It’s really the principle of thinking about what happens when someone comes into the collection, interacts with it and what they take away with them.

Then of course highlighting the ways the Museum is in service of art and art history. As I mentioned, there is a wide variety of ways that people will participate in the Met’s project, in this interest in education and sharing the collection and so I wanted to think about how, and I will continue to want to think about how, my work on social is an avenue for showing different ways. I think a lot of times as well, when you’re thinking about institutions especially, if you’re not within the museum kind of sphere, you think about curators or directors, right? But being able to separate and, leading onto the fourth point, humanise what’s going on within the four walls of the institution gives people more perspective on how to participate, gives people more of an understanding that museums aren’t just houses for dead things and old things, that it’s really a kinetic space.

So how did I end up at the Met is kind of what this next part of the presentation is about. Because for me a lot of times, especially if you follow me on social media, you’ll see that a lot of the work that I’m doing outside of institutions is vibrant and wide, but I really am a person who was raised and manicured and curated, for lack of a better word, through these institutional structures. One of the guiding principles for me has been this quote by Dr. Carter G Woodson, “If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.”

I always like to start lectures with this quote because I think it really does totally sum up my crazy interest in working in institutions and a continued interest in existing in these spaces as opposed to outside of them. One of the things that I think is really important, especially as a black American, is being able to tell our own stories. It’s because for so long we’ve been a people who are marginalised within our country and largely black people around the world have been marginalised. For me what’s most important in the work that I do, both inside of institutions and outside of it, is being a voice, is being a person who is interested in etching these stories whether it be my own or those around me into the annals of history and trying to find creative digital ways to do it has been my path that I have chosen.

My story really started at the Studio Museum in Harlem, which is a medium sized institution with a huge impact globally that was started in the late 60s in Harlem with an interest in sharing the work of artists of African descent. When I was studying undergrad at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, I was finishing up my sophomore year and was faced with this decision on where I would spend my summer, which many young people understand that pressure of trying to figure out what you’re going to do with your summer to make your resume look good, or your CV rather.

I decided to take an internship at the Studio Museum because I felt like it was a place where I could learn a lot of new things. Just generally kind of curious about what working in museums would look like. When I arrived at the Studio Museum I was totally blown away by the process. I could not have anticipated the impact that it would have on the rest of my life and career. I was working in the director’s office, under the tutelage of Thelma Golden, and every day that I went into the office, I was learning the names of new artists, learning the names of different cultural practitioners, learning all the things that I hadn’t been exposed to in my standard art history discourse. When I was finished I had this moment where, one, I was just kind of in crisis at the end of my internship because I love information, I’ve always been a total nerd for new information and I also knew immediately that there weren’t a lot of other locations for finding out this information.

When I got back to campus at Smith College, I was faced with this deep need to find a site or two where I could figure out how to learn more about the things that I was learning and also that kind of bloodthirst, turned into wanting to pay homage to what I’d been taught during my internship. I didn’t want that experience over those ten weeks to go to waste because I know that that happens; you have this really intensive period and then you go back to your normal every day state and there can be this kind of spill off that happens, and so I wanted to find a new place to take in this information. Being a person of the internet, being a millennial, a classic, cold millennial, I went immediately to the internet to try to find something that could be a source for this information.

I looked at different Wikipedia pages, I looked at different blogs, I kind of scoured the internet trying to find something that could in any way mimic the experience that I had of walking through the doors at the Studio Museum and being faced with these new bits of information and I totally was drawing blanks. I found one or two blogs and I hated the graphic design of them, and was really turned off. It was just kind of sad, because I was just like, “Wow.” There’s this incredible history, this incredible wealth of information and I knew very quickly that I had only scraped the surface of it.

Through some weird turn of events, I decided that I needed to start my own thing. I also knew very early on that, though I was interested in learning this information that I didn’t know, I think that the most important part of understanding my journey and the thing that I always try to communicate, especially to people who are in universities, is that I really was never an expert. I still stand before you not an expert on any of these things. If there is anything that I knew super well, it was that I didn’t know everything. I knew that I needed to do something about that and so I reached out to a friend.

I found this – you know that awful Facebook “On This Day” feature that reminds you how terrible you were once a year ago? I found this really tacky post that I put on one of my good friend’s walls and asked them to come and participate with me as he actually – we were interns together the summer that I was at the Studio Museum and working very closely together, and he actually after the internship got a job there and so I was like, “I know that you’re super busy but do you want to do this crazy thing with me?” This was on February 24th, and I actually ending up starting the blog on March 10th. I reached out to him and also reached out to a couple of other people within my community because, like I said, I knew I didn’t know everything, but I did know that I had a community of people who perhaps wanted to participate in this project.

For all the Tumblr heads out there, I tried to make this slide look like the archive feature. So, I started Black Contemporary Art. I first started with just some of the artists I generally knew from that internship, so I started with Kerry James Marshall and Jacob Lawrence, just a few of the names to try to fill in – at least to put a record up of the things that I knew. I chose to do it on Tumblr because I feel like, and continue to feel like, Tumblr is such an amazing community of folks who, one, want to participate in each other’s projects. I think that the DM game on Tumblr circa 2011, trumps anything that’s going on anywhere now. I had so many best friends around the world immediately and was writing love poems to people. I was totally inundated within this community and it felt right to take this journey there, because like I said, I wasn’t fully confident in everything that I knew. I started to pour myself into this project, and this is more representative of what it looks like today.

On the site I share digital and still images, film and performance-based works and then links and resources. It’s really simple, it is a really simply project because, like I said when I started it I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Or I knew what I didn’t know, rather. One of the things that is really important to note about the inception of the project was that when I started it, I knew that there were artists that I wanted to share, but I also had this general understanding of art history that basically in my mind was that there wasn’t an art historical discourse that could support these artists. I had very immediately come to this conclusion that I wanted to create a blog that didn’t have any written word. One, because I was a little bit insecure about my writing at the time and continue to be. I think anybody in this room can just admit that writing is literally the most painful thing in the world.

At that time I wasn’t really ready to do the work of getting better at it. I am more mature now. At that time I decided to just present the images, just present the video, just present the links and resources that I came across. I – day in and day out as I was working on the blog – would spend – I was so obsessed, and I continue to be obsessed with it, but every – there wouldn’t be two hours that passed that I wasn’t finding something new and unravelling these things. I think also I have to give a big shout out to just the general algorithm of the platform because as I was coming up with names of artists, it would feed me others or feed me other blogs that were doing similar things.

To this day I still keep the blog the way that it is, and every once in a while if I find a good essay or I find a good link or resource, like I said, I’ll share things, but one of the things that for me, especially as I’ve matured and been able to come into contact with more people who are working in the field, I’ve come to learn that there are other people who are very committed to this work and have been for a very long time. There are people like Dr. Deborah Willis, Dr. Sarah Lewis who have been writing these histories into the text books, into pop cultural spaces and have been really diligent about telling the stories of black artists.

For me, one thing that I think as I look back on it, especially with this new knowledge, is that I created the blog in a way that hopefully could just be a primary encounter with these artists as well. I think a lot of times too, when we think about institutions, there is a conversation about, “Well, why aren’t people coming? Why aren’t people participating? We have this Black History Month programme or this Women’s History Month programme, or this Asian-Pacific American Month programme, why aren’t people walking through the doors?” I think that we don’t understand that sometimes people just need an invitation. People need a one-to-one opportunity to engage and I think that one of the grandest successes of Black Contemporary Art as a project is that it gave people an avenue to entry.

Also, one of the other things that I found to be really successful about the project was that it was on that was totally unapologetic. For me at the time when I was building it, I didn’t think about how other people might not like it, or how other people may read it as this radical act, because it wasn’t a particularly radical gesture; it was an interest in recording what I’d learned, it was an interest in participating in a dialogue on a platform about these things that I found to be valuable. It also – as I look back on myself at that time, where I wasn’t nearly as confident as I am now, it was definitely a gesture that was unapologetic, was this really sincere interest in feeding my brain and the things that I needed in the world as a young person.

Another thing that I try to impart on other people is that I created Black Contemporary Art because those were the things that I found to be valuable but I think if there is anything that has been a grand success if that hopefully it’s model for other people to build the repositories that they think need to exist in the world. I don’t think everybody out there needs to go and make this exact thing, but I do think that there is something to be said for being passionate about something and using digital technologies as a means of reporting and recording and sharing those things that you find to be valuable.

Outside of the blog, I also realised that I wanted to have more of a public persona, because I was able to share all these things and as the blog continued to grow. Initially I got my first 100 followers and texted my friend, Kendra, and was just like, “Oh, I’m super excited, people actually care about this thing.” As it’s continued to grow now, we have nearly 200,000 followers and for me I realised immediately – or not immediately but around 2013 – that I wanted to also have a voice of my own. I also at that time had been working in institutions. I started – my first job outside of college was working at Creative Time, which is a public art institution, and it is an institution that is very much invested in a social justice practice.

It is very much invested in having a very clear and conscious voice and also it was another opportunity to work under the tutelage of an amazing woman, who at the time the director was Anne Pasternak, and so at that time I’d had two really core examples of what it meant to be a public figure in the arts as well. I saw the power that Thelma Golden and Anne Pasternak could wage in that world and I wanted to have a piece of that on my own.

Because working on the blog was kind of quiet work, which I think is very important as well, but for me I knew that I could feel something in that I needed to be myself in the world too; I wanted to have an opinion, I wanted to be able to share some of the things that I was learning on a personal level and express my own levels of taste and things I was interested in. What I did not anticipate in this journey was that I would kind of become the poster child for diversity. A lot of times I hear from colleagues who are just like, “Oh you know, I was in a board meeting and people were saying, ‘How can we find another Kimberley Drew?’” which is a weird thing to hear.

For me, I definitely think that to a certain degree it’s important to ask those kinds of questions because I have been really successful in a way that is fairly unprecedented in such a short amount of time, especially if you look at the numbers. It’s bleak. There are not a lot of people who look like me who are doing the work that I’m doing. Something like – museum staff is 72 percent white and 28 percent minority, and 84 percent of curators, conservators and educators are white. Those numbers are very real, and for me I don’t know exactly how to – I mean, to just be completely honest – I don’t know how to deal with the weight of them. I think that that is something a lot of my colleagues and I, especially young colleagues of colour, are trying to come up against.

There’s a lot of issues because oftentimes you will find in institutions there are opportunities for fellowships or internships or temporary roles, but there is not a clear path towards success, there is not a clear path towards leadership. So for me what I’ve become obsessed with is more, instead of thinking about words like diversity, is actually thinking about access. Thinking about how there can be avenues made for more people who look like me, or not like me, to have participation and have a seat at the table in this discourse.

Some of the questions that I’ve become really obsessed with over the past few years have been these three, “What have I done to create an opportunity for someone else?” And that’s really vague and open. I think oftentimes it really does start with the small work and being a warrior of small battles, right? And then also thinking realistically, “What is my timeline for creating change in my community?” and I think what’s really most important about that question is my community because these battles are huge and long-fought. I think it’s really important to think about how you can do work incrementally. Then the third, “How are you caring for those around you, and how you can keep this practice of care sustainable?”

One of the big conversations right now, in the world of culture generally, is the discourse around self-care and what that looks like. I think that very much, self-care is a powerful discourse to try to understand and unpack, but I also think that it’s really important that whenever considering these conversations around self-care that we also think about sustainability. In my opinion, one of the greatest difficulties within institutions is how to build projects that serve certain communities in a way that feels genuine and isn’t just based around a funding schedule, right? I think that that definitely also triples over to thinking about care, especially for communities, and thinking about what minor changes can have, you know, grander and long-standing impact.

As I’ve been thinking through these three questions, they are questions I’ve brought to a lot of colleagues as well. One of the things that I have decided to take on last summer was this project called the Black Art Incubator, which I worked on with these three wonderful, life-saving individuals. To my left is Jessica Bell Brown who is a painting fellow right now, who worked on the Rauschenberg show which just opened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. To her left is Taylor Aldridge, who is an assistant curator at the DIA in Detroit, and then to her left is Jessica Lynne, who is currently communications officer at Recess Art Space, which is based in Tribeca.

The project started really with a conversation between Jessica and I. We started the conversation the way that many great art historical moments have started, over drinks. We sat down and wanted to just get to know each other better. We were both working in the arts and both at around the same point, trying to figure out what we can do with what we had to make a difference, right? That was really the conversation that created this project. So the Black Art Incubator was a social sculpture, which is, I realise now, the worst name for something, but it worked at the time, because we had to fill out the application to Recess to do the project.

It was designed to create an intervention in the art world through a series of public events that brought together artists, curators, community members, critics and scholars, using collaboration and public engagement as guiding methodologies. We wanted to provoke new understandings of the ways that the sectors comprise the contemporary art world as we know it.

We broke this programme down into four key parts. The first bit of programming was art and money. Because I’ve worked in institutions as well as the other women, and we knew that oftentimes you will see the same people who are buying works of art are the same people whose names are on the names of the galleries, are the same people who are attending these benefits, are the same foundations who are doing this work. So we wanted to have the art and money series to really inspect where the money was coming from, especially within the U.S. art system, and then also how to provide access to that money.

We invited programme officers from the Lambent Foundation, from Creative Capital, to just talk about the application process, to talk about what failure means within the funding process, to also think about the future of philanthropy. The second bit was art criticism, because we wanted to think about how within art discourse, especially right now, there are a lot of artists who operate outside of the MFA and BFA system, right? There are artists who operate within it, but oftentimes you’ll see that the space for criticism and for crit spaces often die within those institutions. We invited people to come in and have dialogue about art work or present about their own art work and those conversations would be led by critics within the field, leading critics from ARTNews or from MoMA in trying to democratise that process because having conversation about art work doesn’t have to just exist within particular spaces.

The third bit of programming was archiving, and that happened twofold. One, inviting archivists who work within the city, so folks from the Hemispheric Institute at NYU, which records performance art, to artists who have had rigorous archiving practices as part of the their work, to show and share just the methodologies that they’ve used to record. Then the last being office hours, so being able to provide critical feedback to people who are working in the arts about how to have more access to advancement through the examples of about five to six different cultural workers who are doing work throughout the field.

We wanted to break these four parts – bring these four parts together to, like I said, think about how the art work was working, and also just to be really honest about the fact that oftentimes people of colour don’t have access to these resources, and that it doesn’t have to be a game, it doesn’t have to be about, you know, which family you’re born into or which school you go to. It really was about bring people together, about having honest dialogue, trying to create and hold space for others. For me it was a particularly enlightening experience because it was moving out of the digital sphere. It was being in direct contact with folks, and let me tell you, they are very different things.

It taught me a lot about what you could do from just being radically generous within the arts. The amount of feedback that we got from folks from – whether people attended a grant making workshop, or we had a book swap at one point, or we had a pot-luck – people we realised within, especially the New York art scene specifically, just wanted to have a space where they felt like they could come and be themselves, and that there didn’t have to be a particular choreography. I think that those lessons are things that we can definitely enact personally, and to return to that big word ‘access’, for me I think, if there is anything that I want to bestow on all of you, is just to think about in what ways you can educate others about this field that we love so much.

I think a lot of times we can take for granted the access that we have, and also think about ourselves in ways that might be a little bit too small. So I think, if there is anything we can take away from today as we listen to the other speakers, is just how can we be able to translate what we’re doing, to create effective change in the world, right? Especially in this time where we don’t know, you know? As you watch the news and see all the things that are going on, on a really global scale, it just seems like everything is on fire, for me personally, I’ve been having kind of a crisis, to be quite honest with you guys, because I think especially working in the arts, it’s just not a sure game. There is nothing more difficult for me than when I was an undergraduate, because I actually started as pre-med and then turned into an engineer for a second, and my parents were like, “Yes, she’s going to be great, she’s making all this money,” and then I went home after working in the Studio Museum and said, “Yes, I’m going to work in the arts,” and my dad was just like, “Oh.”

It’s worked out so far, clearly, as I stand here in another country talking about what I do and love to do. But like I said, in this particular political climate there are not a lot of sure answers, especially within the American system. There is a lot of risk in thinking about how our institutions are going to remain healthy and functional. For me, as I think about how to remain confident in the work that I’m doing and how to just generally maintain a practice that’s based on optimism, I’ve been trying to think about what little things can be done and I think little and small gestures are the ones that have the lasting impact. Especially because we are working in a world that is particularly opaque, that is particularly intimidating; it’s really about being a warrior of small battles for folks.

Thinking about, when you’re in rooms like these, “Who isn’t there and why aren’t they there?” those questions will be what we are remembered for, for time on. And so, that is the close of my presentation. This is my information. Thank you guys so much for being here, and that’s all. Thanks.


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