How to Work in the Art World Without Selling Out Your Politics

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Photo: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

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Here’s a thought experiment: What if you realized in high school that an entire community of people were underrepresented in the arts, so you created your own area of study in college to push their work to the forefront? What if you spent the next 30 years trying to change the ratio? But as a reward, at age 57, you were given a half a million dollars — no strings attached — for your continued commitment to those voices. Would you have the perseverance to get there? Would you realize how important your work was and never give it up?

Enter Kellie Jones. In the early ’70s, as a student at what is now known as La Guardia High School for the Arts, Jones realized that, even though her New York City public school was a very diverse place and she knew many living artists of color (some through her parents, who were poets), they were not represented in her art-history books unless they were very ancient. “They were Egyptians, they were Aztecs, they were Ancient Chinese people. There were no contemporary people. I thought hmm, this is not right,” she told the Cut. “I was going to school with all these people. This was just a mistake from the beginning.”

Jones decided to invest in fixing this problem, pursuing self-directed study at Amherst College, then a PhD at Yale, curating a number of popular exhibitions of African-American art and art of the African diaspora along the way. She’s now a tenured professor of art history at Columbia University and the recent recipient of the MacArthur Genius Grant, which means $625,000 to do with what she likes. First things first: “I’m going to buy a desk,” she said. Here is her guidance on how to persist in her field.

Don’t underestimate the ability of art to change the world.
I grew up in the East Village and I always knew a world with artists, and I started noticing certain things in high school. I knew there was some kind of disconnect between what is written and what the reality was. When I went to college, I was able to pursue this further: in classes, in self-directed study, taking classes in South America, taking classes in California, where more Latin American art was taught at that time. I became interested in representation as a question in high school, but I was able to really pursue it in college. I actually wanted to be a diplomat, and I had a dream of working at the U.N. I wanted to change the world. I’m not so naive to think that art is the only thing that can change the world, but art allows us to dream, to think, to imagine something different. I think that’s one of the origins of where change develops. In college, during my time, everything wasn’t so career-focused as it is now. It was more: “Is this a valid area of study?” and it absolutely was.

Engage with people from all generations and backgrounds.
One thing about teaching is that you always have students, whereas in a museum setting, you don’t. You don’t have the same critical mass of new minds every semester. It’s been great to learn from students, to be around younger people who teach you all sorts of things. With this MacArthur grant, I want to collaborate more with younger scholars, younger curators, younger people. What the award signaled to me is to take more risks. Think bigger. What could we come up with that would make things look different? How can we really look to the future? Collaborating with younger people is my way of focusing on things in the future, by working with people who the future is their now.

Remember that the canon can be what you make it.
In doing this work, you’re just expanding what art history is. Everybody has a different take on it. Every professor has a different take on what is in the canon. There are certain things that are thought of as “Okay, this is representative,” but I do think that the idea of a canon is shifting, and it’s also personal.

Take your eyes off your phone and go out to see art in person.
Information can come out now much more rapidly. People can self-publish. You don’t have to wait to be backed by a big publishing house. Information has the potential to circulate quicker. You see the curatorial world really being more embracing because of this. But I would disagree about one thing, which is — for me, at least — the best way to experience art is in its presence. If you’re just consuming art in the digital form, I don’t think you’re getting the full impact of what art can be in your life. You really have to be around these things and go to galleries, go to art museums, go to parks. You can walk in New York and go down to see Martin Puryear’s “Big Bling” at Madison Square Park, which is fantastic. That’s really the way to experience art in the way artists wanted you to. Always try to be in the presence of art. You cannot just rely on it as a digital interface.

It’s easier to persevere if you enjoy the work.
I never found anything so difficult that I would give up on this work. I enjoy it too much. You’ll find resistance to change everywhere and you just have to keep moving at it. People have been asking me a lot about resistance lately. I enjoyed the work so much that I kept working at it. I think a lot about the people who had come before me: If they could do something then I could, too. It’s about the work. You do the work. I would be doing this whether or not I got the award. I like to say that I’m kind of a boring person because I’ve been doing the same thing all these years, but the wonderful part is that I’m still very excited about it. I’m still very excited about the things I can say about history. The things I can say about artists now, how I can connect those histories. As long are you’re excited, there’s no problem.

Take the long view.
In the ’60s, African-American artists, and other artists generally, were protesting at these museums to make them more open to the general public, which is why we have late nights now, it’s why we have free nights now. It’s because people protested. African American artists were protesting to be in these collections because they were taxpayers, too, because our artists were not represented. It took a while for us to get there, 40 years, but I think the change that people really wanted in those days, in the ’60s, has really come to bear now. It just shows you that you have to have the long view of history sometimes.

If you look at the history of the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, that’s been in process for 100 years. People never gave up. It started out as veterans of the Civil War who were saying, “We want a monument, too,” and it turned into a quest for a museum. Twenty years ago, Congressman John Lewis raised this and he never gave up. And now that museum is standing.