Curator Spotlight: Jamillah James

Q&A | Jun 2017 | BY Alexandra Pechman

For Jamillah James, recently named the curator of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, contemporary art and community-minded action go hand in hand. Her work as a curator started in warehouse spaces in Chicago, and has taken her from the Queens Museum to the Studio Museum in Harlem, to the Hammer and now to her new post, formulating the new ICA identity for the former Santa Monica Museum of Art, now located in downtown L.A. James spoke with us about how she got here, her work with the Hammer and Mark Bradford’s Art + Practice, and why L.A.’s art scene offers more opportunity than most.

How did your time in Chicago shape your practice?  I moved to Chicago in 2001 as a transfer from Emerson in Boston to Columbia College Chicago and really started to experiment. I was a creative writing major, then film, then transitioned into sound, but the program pushed in a certain way where you could only do film. All the while, I was taking media studies and art history classes. That was a lot more interesting to me. I initially thought I’d do something along the lines of being an artist. I focused on sculpture, but I wasn’t very good at it. I like to joke that you can’t really be a good artist and be a B-student in drawing.

Alice Aycock really pushed me to thinking more about the academic side of the arts because I demonstrated some possibility of ability in that way. I’ve always enjoyed research and writing, so I redirected my attention to art history courses and made a self-designed major that would be called visual studies now. I also lived in various warehouses in Chicago, in Bridgeport and Pilsen, living and working with artists and musicians. We would often do programs in our house: music, screenings, exhibitions, dance parties. For a short while, I was living in a loft with a friend booking music in the basement.

Later, I was working in Providence, and hanging out at places like Fort Thunder and the Dirt Palace and seeing this melding of art and music. I thought I would want to continue on that trajectory. It was partly doing things DIY or in the spirit of DIY that I fell into curating.

Who are your mentors? Professors like Debra Parr and Amy Mooney in art history at Columbia College Chicago. In my career: Thelma Golden, Tom Finklepearl, Ann Philbin, and Larissa Harris. Naima Keith
is really my peer but really took me under her wing when we were at the Studio Museum.

How did working at the Hammer, where you last worked, influenced you? I like to think of each experience as a cumulative thing. I came to the Hammer from the Studio Museum which was a really important formative experience for me, and came there from the Queens Museum. At the Hammer was I was working at a larger institution and working with a multitude of curators. I learned a little bit more about how institutions are structured. Beginning relationships with Connie Butler and Ali Subotnick that were professional but also friendly was really affirming. So was working outside of the walls of the museum and working with Art + Practice and Mark Bradford–getting to work with a very important American artist who is at the top of his game but is doing this very smart, community-minded project. Getting to know John Outterbridge, Brockman Gallery, and Ben Caldwell, an important LA filmmaker. It really opened my eyes to being more community-facing in the work that I do.

What do you consider your biggest accomplishment to date?  I don’t like to think of things as biggest accomplishments– all of this is work in progress. I’m a young curator even though I’ve been doing this for 14 years. But the most challenging thing I’ve done, which was actually also successful, was one of the shows I did at Art + Practice. The shape that stands up was 16 artists of different backgrounds at different places in their careers. The thesis was artists working between figuration and abstraction, but focusing on a very small cross section of that.

Can you talk more about your exhibitions with Art + Practice?  The project with Alex da Corte was something I’d wanted to do for several years, to work with an artist whose practice is really, really complex. A lot of things had to come together to make the show possible. It was a very demanding installation, just working pretty much up to the very last minute. Even the morning of the opening some flooding had happened. We had to get that cleaned up before the opening. We really pushed ourselves, and its something Mark really wanted. It was my first time working with someone who works so intensively with installation.

And at ICA you’re the sole curator, correct? Capital C, Curator. We’re in the process of restaffing. Right now I’m the lead with director Elsa Longhauser. My role is really to be a managing curator to make sure they have everything they need to execute an exhibition, doing the behind the scenes things. ICA has three galleries and then there’s a project room and outdoor space, and I’ve lined up all the shows in the project space. September 2018 is when the schedule is fully my planning.

What is coming up?  One thing is a presentation of B. Wurtz which will be his first museum survey in the US. It’s kind of a smaller, more focused presentation of work from the 1980s about how he approaches portraiture. We also will have shows from Rafa Esparza, Abigail Deville, and Skip Arnold. And we have a big show with Nayland Blake in 2019.

Anything else people should know about the new ICA Los Angeles? While we’re new in the landscape in Los Angeles, we’re giving space to artists who haven’t had the institutional space that they deserve. What we’re really thinking about as an institution is changing how publics interface with museums, which is a heavy task. We’re in this really interesting geographic space. There’s a significant homeless population so we’re thinking creatively about what resources we can provide to organizations that are providing support to Skid Row. There are limitations to what an institution can do but we’re hoping to give it a all-college try in our new location.

What do you think makes the LA audience unique?  There’s an openness and willingness to be supportive. There’s a collaborative spirit. It’s a more artist-centered city, unlike other cities that are really focused on the market. What’s special about LA is there’s this relaxed approach to commodity or capital, and an emphasis on production and sustaining the artist community. I feel that it’s a lot less competitive here than in New York. There’s plenty of spaces opening up. Just the sheer volume of space definitely bests what you can find in NYC unless you’re fabulously wealthy. It’s a bit more egalitarian. I think anyone can move here…well, I don’t want to say anyone because people will start running here!

What shows are you looking forward to this fall?  I’m pretty excited for Radical Women at the Hammer and really everything for Pacific Standard Time, as well as David Lamelas at Long Beach University Art Museum.

Who are five artists on your mind right now? Sondra Perry, Thea Djordjadze, Ana Mendieta, Tony Feher, and definitely Kerry James Marshall. Because that show, Mastry, is just so brilliant. As someone who went to school in Chicago and has known his work for such a long time, it’s really nice to see him get his due.

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