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Former Met Curator Lowery Sims

Discusses African American Art and Jaune Quick To See Smith

By: Charles Giuliano - 09/21/2013

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Lowery Sims. Giuliano photo.
Lowery Sims. Giuliano photo.

After exchanges of e mail, Lowery Sims, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, arranged to meet with me at the Flomenhaft Gallery in Chelsea to view the exhibition “Jaune Quick-To-See-Smith, Connections: New Work/Old Work” an artist she has followed for many years. I arrived early in order to observe and photograph. Recently, Astrid and I had visited her studio in New Mexico and the LewAllen Gallery in Santa Fe but this was an opportunity to see the paintings and collages in depth particularly with a concise historical overview.

When Lowery arrived at noon I allowed her some time to view the exhibition before we initiated a dialogue. My involvement with Jaune’s work is relatively recent so I appreciated the insights of a contemporary curator who has followed its development. Eventually, we settled on a bench before a broad, sweeping recent panorama, created with several joined canvases, of a canoe densely packed with a complex cast of characters from contemporary individuals through pastiches of art history from Picasso’s “Guernica” through archaic Greek figures. There is a kind of frenzy and turmoil to the group of disparate figures. Significantly, there are no paddles so they are up a creek. “Perhaps she is implying that we are all in the same boat, but it is her canoe, so hence her Native American view of the human condition,” I offered. Lowery seemed to agree with that interpretation and added that she found the recent work “much more personal.”

As we toured the exhibition she pointed out the use of provocative collaged newspaper headlines and other vignettes in a well know piece, an earlier profile of a buffalo. These vintage works often included text from a variety of publications including Native American newspapers that the artist then responded to. None of that collage element is evident in the recent work which is more involved with the pure process of figurative painting. Also, there is more development of a personal iconography of symbols including standing figures devoid of heads and arms over which giant ants and insects are crawling. These evoke early Kouros and Kore forms, signifying humanity in general, and there are also images of buckskin dresses with tiny stick figures scurrying around the outer edges of the garment such as a work titled “”Who leads who follows?”

In a follow-up phone call to Jaune, she responded that, “After 9/11 you couldn’t do irony any more. To use collage headlines and other quotes in the work would be viewed as unpatriotic. So I had to go much more internal. The ants, for example, eat us when we die and so we return to and become a part of the earth, which is the cycle that goes on forever. The earth has been here and will remain long after we are gone.” So the post 9/11 work is more about the human condition; threats and uncertainty that we all feel. Her concerns for Native American social and political issues are now more abstracted into her own iconography of signifiers. She is conveying to us the full range of her knowledge of art and life experience. It embodies but reaches beyond a grounding in race, identity and gender.

From the gallery we walked rather slowly to Bottino a nearby restaurant. There is gray in her fluffy crown of hair. Large designer glasses accent a very expressive, handsome and mobile face. Although she is somewhat younger, I was surprised to find someone who walked at a slower and more labored pace. Both of us could loose some pounds. When I commented on that she embraced my arm warmly, as she would do intermittently to make a point, and with some humor reeled off a list of ailments. It was a warm but comfortable day and there was no rush.

We settled into a courtyard area which was quite delightful and ordered salads with ice tea. I pulled out notepad and pen and explained that I was going to ask a combination of dumb and hopefully smart questions. The first, quite obviously dumb question was “Why did you leave a position as curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, one of the most powerful posts in the art world, to become director of the small and struggling Studio Museum in Harlem?” The smart question, hopefully, was “Who are you today, what is the future, and what would you like to tell me?” Neither question surprised or fazed her. Other tough questions, to the best of my ability, would follow. She fielded everything with remarkable candor, wonderfully earthy humor including occasional emphatic expletives, and incredibly sharp insight. I found myself both stunned and enthralled. At times, I almost fell off my seat with raucous laughter. She can be just hilarious. Lowery was the primary source for so many issues and concerns. She invited a rare chance to engage in tough talk with straight answers. Most of all she felt like an old friend. Someone I had known and been comfortable with for years rather than meeting for the first time. She has a way of putting people at ease. Like the toddler that wandered over to our table and enjoyed her undivided attention. Or the charming waiter from rural Louisiana who recommended and talked us into sharing the outrageous bread pudding and ice cream. It reminded him of the cooking down home that he hadn’t been able to find in the city. Lowery recommended a restaurant in Harlem and he wrote down the information. He drew a map and located his small town in northern Louisiana. Lowery seemed intently interested and involved in just about everything. During the remarkable three hours we shared on a June afternoon she was totally involved. I wondered why and was surprised to learn the simple answer, “You are doing what I would love to do. To write my own newsletter and say what I have to say.” Good heavens.

“Five and a half years ago, I got the offer to become director of the Studio Museum,” she said. “I had turned fifty and felt that I had done all that I wanted to do at the Met (Metropolitan Museum of Art). My father had died and I realized it was time to take a chance. I call the Studio Museum my midlife crisis job.

“I was surprised to find that it was actually a step up,” she said. “It increased my public profile and created more opportunities. Recognition came to me that I never would have had at the Met. I learned a lot. As proof that it was a step up I was recently nominated to the Board of Trustees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art representing the Borough of Manhattan. The museum sits on city land and gets city money. So my role on the Board is to bring information and savvy know how. I had that because through the Studio Museum I had been a member of the Cultural Institutions Group (CIG) which includes 34 museums, zoos, botanical gardens and performing arts groups that are located on city owned property and receive city funds for operations. At the Studio Museum we own our own building but have a long term lease from the city for our sculpture garden which qualifies us for city support and membership in CIG. We were chartered in 1967 and opened in 1968. So we are now some 37 years old.”

Leaning forward, with some concern, I confessed that I had never visited the museum. In the city on weekends, a few times each year, it is tough to cover a tight schedule of galleries on Saturday and museums on Sunday. During this trip, for example, I had a three hour studio visit on Sunday morning and knocked off four museums in the afternoon. But I was sorely tempted to make it uptown to see the widely covered Chris Ofili show.

“We are a small to mid size museum with mainstream ambitions,” she said. “In the beginning our mandate was to show African American art but now it is to show black art globally.”

A bit star struck I asked what Ofili is like? Yes, of course, she knew him but explained that the shows are curated by Thelma Golden and accordingly she has less contact with the artists. But she did discuss the work which caused a “Sensation” when included in the exhibition from the British collection of Charles Saatchi at the Brooklyn Museum. Which, interestingly enough, sits on city owned land and caused the ire of former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and threats to shut off city funds. She described the “beauty” of the work and his exotic use of elephant dung as a metaphor. Currently he has relocated from London to Trinidad and she talked a bit about that significance. Clearly, showing work on that level elevates the programming of the Studio Museum from niche to global status.

While the art world wondered about, and may have second guessed her decision to leave the prestigious Met for the downsized Studio Museum, it would appear that she has made her point by dramatically raising the profile of the institution. But, once again, she is restless and anxious to move on. Perhaps, this is post midlife crisis as she progresses from that to the legacy phase of one’s life and career.

“I am now plodding my way out of the museum,” she conveyed. “I saw it through a lot of growth and renovation. When I hired Thelma Golden that proved to be a good move. I also stole Sandra Jackson, our director of education, from the Whitney Museum and she is doing a terrific job for us.”

At the time when Sims hired Thelma Golden, formerly a controversial curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, there was some head scratching. Her major show at the Whitney “The Black Male” was widely panned. Loaded exhibitions addressing race often stir up controversy. I asked Lowery about former director Tom Hoving’s notorious Met show “Harlem on My Mind.” “I am often asked about that and invited to discuss it on panels,” she said, “But it was before my time. I saw the show of course and it was alright. People had expected to see paintings and fine arts and instead it was a show of photo mural images of Harlem and most people felt that didn’t belong in a museum.”

I wondered if in some way her being hired as a curator at the Met was part of a “blacklash” to the Hoving exhibition and negative publicity. It certainly marked the downward turning point in the career of a flamboyant director. Hoving discusses that controversy in his provocative and absorbing book “Making the Mummies Dance.”

“I am still the first and only African American curator at the Met,” she responded. “Just as Thelma is the first and only African American curator at the Whitney. I joined the Met in 1972 through Affirmative Action. They told me so when I was hired.”

How did she feel about that and did it bother her? “Not really,” she said, “I was just glad to have a job. I didn’t care how I got the position. And I was sure that with time I would prove myself and show that I was smart. I graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Queens College and hold a Master’s from Johns Hopkins as well as a Ph.D. from CUNY.”

Her dissertation topic was the Cuban artist Wilfredo Lam, an interest she shares with her friend the critic, John Yau. “It took me fifteen years to write the dissertation,” she explained with a great burst of relief. Later, I asked if she had spent time in Africa. “Not really,” she said, “Because for all those years I was flying back and forth to Paris to do research on Lam.”

Other than her dissertation and catalogues on Stuart Davis, Richard Pousette-Dart, Romare Bearden, Howardena Pindell, Ida Appleborg, and Hans Hofmann, as well as a variety of thematic exhibitions, considering the length and prominence of her career, she is viewed as underpublished. To which she responded, “I agree,” and this is one of the primary reasons why, “I plan to resign in a year from this July. I hope to go back to a life of writing and research. And I will do some teaching. As to what I really want to do I am still trying to figure that out. I have worked in institutions for 35 years and have had a great career but I have to find out what I can do if I didn’t have those day to day demands on my time. One of the hallmarks of my move to the Studio Museum was to get past the need for security. At the Met I depended upon that paycheck coming regularly every two weeks. At the Studio Museum I quickly realized that I didn’t get paid, in fact nobody got paid, unless I brought the money in. So that has given me the confidence that I can take care of myself.” A project which has been in process for some time is to complete a monograph on the artist Robert Colescott.

Having been a curator all those years I asked what it had been like to give that up for a director’s position and turn the “fun” over to Thelma. It is always a tough transition which I have discussed with museum directors including David Ross, Milena Kalinovska, and Adam Weinberg. There is the impulse to want to keep your hand in.

“A few weeks after I had joined the Studio Museum,” she explained, “I was walking down the hall and encountered a clutch of staff discussing something. The minute I approached (the boss) they scattered. I thought, I used to do that.”

Shifting gears, I wanted to know just how she had become an art historian, curator and museum director. For an individual of her generation and heritage it would not seem to be an obvious career move. Was it significant that she was brought up in a middle class family? Her father was an architect and her mother, who grew up in Harlem, eventually earned an advanced degree in library science.

“In my family the consumption of culture was a part of growing up,” she explained. “We went to museums and sat or stood at the back of the opera, ballet, and symphony.”

Her interest in studying art history began at Queens College where there were no courses on African American Art. At the Met, where she worked under the difficult and complex William Lieberman, a relationship she recalls with conflict but much affection, she held her own on the turf of European art. To illustrate her point she recalled being grilled by Philippe de Montebello on the potential acquisition of an early Cubist painting by Georges Braque. Apparently, she impressed him with an understanding of the subtle and unique complexities of the piece. Unlike the new generation of theory driven curators, Lowery is of the old school who knows European art history in depth. This fall she will be jostling with students at Hunter College as she sticks her toe into teaching. We discussed some of the concerns and misgivings.
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When she came to the Met as its first African American curator she did not have a special knowledge of the field. That evolved over time. And she discusses how there were no real peers and mentors. She was pretty much on her own to invent herself and explore her heritage. I asked why, in African American culture, the visual arts had lagged far behind music, literature and the performing arts? The protest art of the 1960s and 1970s, for example, was strident and polemical when compared to the black rage of musicians like Archie Shepp, Max Roach, Alvin Ayler, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, Cecil Taylor, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and Ornette Coleman. These musicians were avant-garde and mainstream in a sense that black visual artists were not. It is a tough issue and I don’t really think there is an adequate answer. Today, one may discuss dozens of contemporary, cutting edge, African American artists who enjoy global reputations. Just how did we get from there to here?

“There was a shift in the 1960s and 1970s from the teaching of art exclusively in historically black colleges,” she explained. African Americans, often from middle class families, enrolled in and were recruited by the best colleges and art schools. She discussed how in slave traditions the making of art objects, carved idols associated with non Western religion and voodoo, was discouraged. If slaves made art and objects it was in the taste of and to please the masters. There were strong craft traditions such as quilt making and African influences in the baskets of the Sea Islands of Georgia and the Carolinas. Jefferson, for example, built and furnished his exquisite home Monticello using slave labor. She described the changes resulting from the migration and urbanization of blacks from the South to Northern cities from the 1930s through World War Two. She underscored the phenomenon of the Harlem Renaissance starting in the 1920s and 1930s and the importance of the philanthropy and exhibitions sponsored by the Harmon Foundation.

Fairly early on during her tenure at the Met she organized a show of black art owned by the museum. She recalled with dismay a reporter at the time asking her “Are there any black artists?”

“When I got to the Met,” she said. “There were works in the collection which had got there through gifts and purchases. Black artists had been included in an earlier Met show ‘Artists for Victory.’ There were donations to the collection through the WPA. Sometimes, when asked I say that my specialty includes: Artists of color, women, and overlooked white male artists.”

Even during her time at the Studio Museum she has accepted offers to jury and curate exhibitions. She described one such experience in Jamaica. After extensive field research she concluded that most of the obvious exhibitions had been done. Eventually, she proposed to do an exhibition of installations. When that theme was announced a number of artists came forward. “We ended up with sixteen installations,” she said. The resultant show that filled the National Gallery of Jamaica proved to be remarkable.

Over the coming year, as she completes her goals for the Studio Museum, it is time to look ahead. One would imagine limitless opportunities for positions and projects. “That’s what everyone tells me,” she said but added the issue of age. It’s legacy time with a mandate to pull things together.

It was the day before father’s day when I leaned forward and looked deeply into her. “What we have in common is that we have no children,” I said, although I am a step father and step grandfather. “Who are your children?”

Perhaps it was too personal but she knew what I meant and responded with passion. “The interns,” she said, “So many over the years.” It was precisely what wasn’t there for us. The mentoring that never happened when we were forced to invent ourselves. Each in our different way. That is a part of the legacy to be passed on. “In my time at the Studio Museum it has evolved from going uptown to see black artists to see some of the most interesting work being done today.”

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