Podcast

“Art Does Change Things”: A Conversation with Curator and Art Historian Kellie Jones

Kellie Jones, a curator, Columbia University professor, and 2016 MacArthur Fellow, spoke to Hyperallergic about her work, life, and the evolving world of contemporary art.

Kellie Jones (photo credit: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)
Kellie Jones (photo courtesy John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

Curator and art historian Kellie Jones is the guest for our latest episode. A 2016 MacArthur Fellow, Jones is a lifelong New Yorker and an associate professor at Columbia University.

Her scholarly and curatorial work has been instrumental in introducing the work of many black artists who are very well known today, including Martin Puryear, David Hammons, and Lorna Simpson. Exhibitions she curated — including Energy/Experimentation: Black Artists and Abstraction, 1964–1980 (2006), Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles, 1960–1980 (2011), and Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties (2014) — worked to unearth and give context to histories that were long overlooked or ignored. She is undoubtedly an important voice in art history.

Her book, EyeMinded: Living and Writing Contemporary Art (2011), is a collection of essays and writing by family members (including her parents, Hettie Jones and Amiri Baraka) that explores the contours of diasporic history, the challenges of recording art history, and in-depth considerations of many important artists, including Puryear, Simpson, Dawoud Bey, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Norman Lewis, Al Loving, Betye Saar, and Pat Ward Williams.

Here are some highlights from Jones’s comments during our conversation:

  • “I went to a public high school … in the art history classes there what I notice is that all the people of color were ancient, now you are sitting … in a diverse New York City school, you know what that looks like … but nobody was in the … history books, now, of course, this was many years ago in the 1970s. But I asked myself, ‘why are all the people of color very ancient?’ They’re Egyptians, they’re Aztecs, but after that you don’t see people and I thought this was wrong. Because here are I am with all these people in high school, but also I grew up on the Lower East Side, and I grew up with all these artists … and I knew this was wrong.”
  • “Every generation is part of its world, every generation of artists responds to the world they live in.”
  • “When I went off to college, I was kind of surprised that people didn’t know living artists. When you’re a kid you think the whole world is like your world. They thought all artists were dead. And I was like , ‘are you kidding, all artists are alive.’ That’s why it was strange for me, art history books, because these people were walking down the street.”
  • “A lot of women artists don’t get any recognition … their early years are really their 50s or 60s.”
  • “Both of my parents believed in art, they believed in art that changes lives.”
  • “Art was supposed to change things … after studying art history, you realize that’s not always the case, but I love that spirit about what art is supposed to be. Art is part of our larger world so it’s not just by itself trying to do that … yeah, so art does change things.”
  • “People are hungry for these stories that break the conservative art history.”
  • “[T]hings we thought were out of bounds for diverse audiences or diverse artists are not the case anymore, these institutions are seeing the light and changing, but my question is, ‘how long will this last?'”
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