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LOS ANGELES — Jamillah James wasn’t always on track to be a curator. “I didn’t actively become interested in visual art until I was in my late teens,” she told Artslant last fall, “and I certainly didn’t think of working in the arts until my early-to-mid twenties. I’m a bit of a late bloomer.” She even failed drawing in college. “My big secret is that I don’t have a master’s degree,” she confided to Hyperallergic, which is a rarity in the highly professionalized arena that curatorial studies has become. Despite her unorthodox path, however, James has established herself as a curator to watch. With her recent jump from assistant curator at the Hammer Museum to head curator at the ICA, the revamped Santa Monica Museum of Art slated to open this fall in Downtown LA, she is poised to make an even bigger splash.
Coming from a musical background, James’s first experience curating was with a cross-disciplinary show while studying at Columbia College in Chicago. “With some encouragement from professors at school, I began working on what would become my first exhibition,” she told NYArts. “It was a sound and homemade instruments show, coalescing both my interest in art and music.” After graduating, she stayed in Chicago, organizing music and performance shows focused primarily on the experimental noise scene, even playing drums and touring with her own band. “I booked Lightning Bolt, Mindflayer, Wolf Eyes, Hair Police, Neon Hunk, Metalux — all those weirdos,” she jokes.
A stint working in publishing in New York was followed by a move to Baltimore, where she started curating more visual arts–centered exhibitions at nonprofit institutions and artist-run DIY spaces. Her curating career with more traditional arts institutions began in 2010 when she became a curatorial fellow at the Queens Museum, working on their Queens International biennial. Then, from 2012 to 2014, she was a curatorial fellow at the Studio Museum in Harlem, where she worked on an exhibition of early work by LA-based conceptualist Charles Gaines, which would travel to the Hammer Museum.
Her move west was spurred by a trip she made to LA in the winter of 2014. “I booked a ticket and came out here in January. I wanted see the Forest Bess show that had come from the Menil, and that was my first time at the Hammer. I was blown away by the show, and I’m a total sucker for marble,” she says of the Hammer’s palatial building. “The way things look here is so different. Everything is elongated, spread out, low to the ground. I’m used to galleries that are the size of this table. I went back to New York and it was cold and dreary. My mind was blown from being here.”
She was in the process of applying to a doctoral program at the University of Rochester, to study with Douglas Crimp, “a personal hero,” when a position opened up at the Hammer. “I thought maybe after grad school I would go to LA, but the opportunity to do so came a lot sooner. I knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing.”
At the Hammer, James was responsible for organizing shows at Art + Practice, a Leimert Park–based nonprofit focused on art, education, and social services founded by artist Mark Bradford. The two institutions had a unique relationship whereby the Hammer would provide curatorial support to Art + Practice for its first couple of years. “It was a learning experience for both organizations,” James says. “And I got to build a good relationship with Mark Bradford, one of the most important American artists working today. He was incredibly generous to take a chance on a young curator like me, trusting in my abilities to make programs that would be relevant to their audience.”
These exhibitions included A Shape that Stands Up, a group show of painting and sculpture that toe the line between abstraction and figuration, and an ambitious solo show by Alex Da Corte that featured room-sized installations incorporating colored lights, video, sculpture, and even scents. “I think it’s an honor, a privilege, and a challenge making exhibitions that are relatable and feel important and that aren’t just this insular thing where I’m only talking to five people. I don’t want my exhibitions to be preaching to the choir,” she says. “I want people to feel welcome when they go to see an exhibition that I’ve worked on, but I also want people to be challenged. With Alex’s show, that was the first time we staged installations at A+P. I wanted to push the envelope and up the ante in terms of what art can be, and what it can look like, and who can make it.”
With her new role at the ICA — the non-collecting kunsthalle with more than 12,000 square feet of space — James plans to continue pushing those boundaries, building off of the Santa Monica Museum’s history. “One of the main things that is to our benefit is that we have years of history supporting emerging, under-recognized artists and allowing established artists to take new directions by supporting more experimental exhibitions,” she says. “We’re putting our money, time and intellect where out mouths are and really advocating for artists who may not ordinarily have opportunities to show in an institutional setting.”
James locates her own work as a curator, and the ICA’s vision, within a larger context of opening up an art world that has been insular and exclusionary for far too long. “I want to see us get to a point where museums aren’t just having one black artist a year, one Latino artist a year — that every season there is an artist of color, women artists, queer artists, and that we are all actively working against the canon. We have to work against this cult of genius and allow there to be a diversity of voices, especially at this moment in time where civil liberties are going to be trampled upon and people are really going to experience oppression in a whole new way.”
ICA director Elsa Longhauser put it succinctly when she told Artforum: “[James] champions the values that ICA LA holds in highest regard — critique of the familiar and empathy with the different.”
This broadening of opportunities and diversity of voices extends not just to the artists James works with, but to the audiences she hopes to draw to her exhibitions. “I like to think of curatorial practice as a pedagogical practice. Curators are the conduit between artists and publics. I would love to see there be more direct interaction, but I’m happy to be in that go-between role to assist artists as they realize ambitious projects, to help with cultivating a language around the work that they’re doing for a general audience, and to be there as a resource for visitors who have certain questions about the work. At the end of the day, allowing people to experience an experience and letting them do it on their own and come to their own conclusions is just as important as the blood, sweat, and tears — and Red Bull — that I pour into writing about an exhibition,” James says. “It’s all valid.”