The viewer of an art exhibition usually focuses his attention on the works of art. Some read the information on the wall maps and blackboards. But the work of the curators, the people who select and arrange these works, who research and write those words, has a huge, if less visible, impact on how we experience art.
Black Refractions: Highlights from the Studio Museum in Harlem is an overview of works from this museum’s permanent collection that were on view at the Frye Art Museum this summer. The Studio Museum was founded over 50 years ago to exhibit and support the work of artists of African descent. Today recognized internationally among culture-specific institutions, it is building a new home at its original location in New York City. During construction, Black refractions tours six US museums.
Connie Choi is Assistant Curator of the Studio Museum’s permanent collection. Trained as an art historian and teacher, she has extensive knowledge of the museum’s collection of over 2,500 objects. As Black refractions“, Senior Curator, it was her job to select the over 100 works to be shown in museums from New England to the West Coast to different audiences in different rooms. The show opened a year before the COVID pandemic began. Several months after the pandemic, the murder of George Floyd sparked protests and confrontations around the repression of African Americans. The works of art that the Studio Museum has collected over half a century appear more topical than ever.
Black refractions was one of Choi’s first projects when she joined Studio Museum in 2017. Her PhD thesis and curatorial work to date have focused on African American art, which makes her career path seem like a straight line to her current position. In an interview, however, she described a rather random route. Although Choi’s parents immigrated from Korea, they were not stereotypical Asian-American “tiger” parents who pushed their children into science, math, and professions.
“My parents really encouraged us to pursue our passions because it was part of their understanding of the ‘American Dream’: giving their children the opportunity to do the things they wanted.” Choi and her siblings played and accepted sports Music, dance and art classes. Her mother loved art and instilled this love into Choi at an early age. A freshman at Yale University, she was out with a friend who wanted to take an art history class. Choi majored in art history; Her academic achievements spanned a range of time periods and subjects. The head of her residential college was Robert Farris Thompson, an eminent scholar of African art. His teaching introduced her to a way of thinking about art and artistic production that contrasted sharply with Western art history. Choi described his teaching as “life changing”. At first she saw herself as an educator. While still a student, she worked at ArtSpace, a non-profit gallery in New Haven, on a program to inspire young people with contemporary art. There she saw analogies with her own adolescent entry into art. She wanted her students to be able to connect the art they saw with their own life and the world around them.
“I actually believe curatorial work is education,” she says. After earning a master’s degree in art education from Harvard and an internship in the Education Department of the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, Choi began a doctorate in art history at Columbia University, still focused on a career in education. At the same time, she worked at the Brooklyn Museum, initially as a research assistant and later as a deputy curator.
The Brooklyn Museum is a great and venerable institution; the Studio Museum is smaller, with a more focused mission. While Choi sees education, artists and community as central elements of every curator, she knows that the possibilities vary depending on the size of the organization.
“If you work on a smaller institution, you probably have the opportunity to work on more projects,” she notes. “That, in turn, allows you to … go to a larger institution if you want to. While in larger institutions, due to the number of employees and the number of curators, you don’t always have the opportunity to work on so many exhibitions and, above all, to organize your own exhibition. “
However, a larger institution can provide access to specialized expertise and experience. Choi’s interactions with the Brooklyn Museum restoration staff prepared her to work with freelance restorers at the Studio Museum, which does not have its own conservation department. Choi also highlighted the important role mentors have played in their careers.
“I was very fortunate to have mentors who supported me all along. It wasn’t just mentors of color … there were a multitude of professors in Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees who were willing to speak to me, to encourage me, who opened up opportunities for me. “
She particularly praises Teresa Carbone, then Andrew W. Mellon Curator of American Art at the Brooklyn Museum, who entrusted her with research and writing assignments and sought her input on exhibitions. While in Brooklyn, Choi worked on the exhibition Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties with Carbone and Kellie Jones, a curator and historian whom Choi also names as an important mentor.
While she admits that this support is not available to everyone who enters the museum area, Choi is optimistic about the possibilities for young colored people. It is less dependent on unpaid or underfunded internships than in the past.
“Something that the Studio Museum takes very seriously is its internship and scholarship programs: A lot is invested in working with young people of color so that they understand what the museum field is, so that they get a broader understanding of what they need. “As a field, because it won’t be easy.”
About the field in general, she believes, “We are making a lot of strides… In the past few years, hiring practices have changed tremendously. We see so many more color curators in leadership roles. Not just in aspiring or junior level positions, but really in leadership positions. I think it will be different in the future. This is of course a necessary and welcome change. “