Interviews

INCLUSIVE & EXCLUSIVE NARRATIVES: IN CONVERSATION WITH JUANA WILLIAMS

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Juana Williams is a curator and art historian from Detroit, MI. Williams is the Exhibitions Curator at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Art in Grand Rapids, MI, as well as the former Assistant to the Chair of Art History at Wayne State University.

What are the social and political responsibilities of a curator? Are they universal across time and space or temporal/site-specific?

Curatorial work is very subjective. There are some responsibilities that I would argue are universal but generally speaking it depends on the goals of the curator. In my own work as a contemporary art curator, I try to focus on presenting important information regarding current cultural events and connections to history. Art history is an inherently interdisciplinary subject that spans time and space but individual curators choose focuses that are particularly relevant based on a plethora of elements. I consider the responsibility of telling stories that are true, relevant, and significant, while considering the audience the exhibitions and programming are being presented to. I also place a substantial amount of importance on creating space for and promoting diverse voices and ideas.

 

Does your approach to curating change at all as you work in a city that you may not necessarily identify with as “‘your own”?

Absolutely! I have no desire to come into a new city and try to tell their story or dictate what information would be beneficial to them. I’ve been making a conscious effort to dive deeply into the community of Grand Rapids, as well as West Michigan. The culture here is drastically different than that of Detroit. Grand Rapids has an interested history, which has significantly informed the cultural aspect of the city today. I plan exhibitions and programming with that in mind. Being a native Detroiter, I felt I had a finger on the pulse of the city.  Overtime, I formed relationships within and outside of the arts community. I’m working on forming similar relationships in Grand Rapids, yet the connectedness I feel to Detroit, I could never feel in another city. That connection feels innate; in Grand Rapids, I have to work for it. Overall, it’s important to curate from the understanding of my position as a transplant and to be inclusive of the Grand Rapids community.

 

What are some strategies you believe art institutions can take to become more accessible to the public?

There are literal physical barriers and invisible barriers. Of course, making the space physically accessible is the most obvious barrier. There are also issues such as barriers in ways we communicate via text. Providing text in multiple languages and braille can help to alleviate some of those issues. Free or discounted admission is another example of providing tangible ways that make institutions more accessible.

 

What’s particularly interesting to me are the invisible barriers. Historically art institutions have not been inclusive or inviting to minority communities, for example. The art-historical narrative that has traditionally been presented has almost exclusively been dominated by white, upper middle class men. Presenting more inclusive narratives either through the lens of art historians or through the artwork of artists focusing on the voices of underrepresented minorities is a vessel of accessibility. There are multiple avenues through which these goals can be somewhat achieved. Giving opportunities to artists of underrepresented groups, taking heed of innovative art critics, and diversifying leadership positions are some ways of shifting the narrative to a more inclusive one.

 

Community engagement is also a drastically important strategy, especially in small communities. In small and mid-sized cities where there are stark divisions between different races, as well as differing socio-economic classes, it’s important to engage with the community in genuine ways and continuously make the effort to promote an institution as inclusive and accessible, to deplete the stigma that sometimes shrouds spaces that are seemingly exclusive and elitist.

 

Art history is both a field of study- the history of art- but also a discipline in which history at a broader level is analyzed via art objects. In your opinion, does the discipline of art history offer a particular perspective that may not be found in other historical methodologies?

The discipline of art history gives a unique perspective of history because of the power of visuality. Visual art, in particular, has played many roles in dictating and documenting history. For example, studying the architecture of medieval churches and frescoes provides crucial information about medieval Rome that is not always understood through other means. The addition of visual aspects also complements historical text with information that is not perceived otherwise.

 

With the history of museum collections being rooted in colonial conquest and the taxonomical and hierarchical classification of cultures, do you believe it is possible to decolonize museum spaces? If so what do you believe are effective strategies for this?

 

There are definitely ways to work toward decolonization but the complex nature of the art industry, especially from a financial standpoint, makes it a complicated task. Individual institutions can make efforts toward decolonizing museums by adjusting the voices that are presented and the ways in which they are promoted. However, museum are part of a larger system that is dominated by wealth and steered by the prevailing narrative based in a Eurocentric framework. The narrative needs to be altered to be more inclusive of voices that have been ignored. Placing people from underrepresented groups in positions of leadership, as well as providing opportunities for minorities to gain access to knowledge, paid internships, and mentorships are other ways of working toward decolonization.

 

Do you believe art institutions can serve as models for institutions on a broader level? What do you believe are the social and political responsibilities of art institutions?

At present, not necessarily. Art institutions should be reflective of society, educational, inclusive, and accessible to all. Art institutions also need someone in place that understands historical content and how to relevantly place it in contemporary culture. They need to be dynamic, continuously changing to represent the ever-changing realities. These characteristics are not always reflected in art institutions.

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