Thought: To understand art, you have to first be open and willing to accept the possibility of not always being fulfilled with a definite answer.
Art is created to build conversation –– to engage and challenge the mind, which can lead to some discomfort. With lack of understanding, questions are raised — creating ongoing discussions and debates.
The challenge becomes thinking your way through what’s presented before you.
As the new curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), Naomi Beckwith’s job is to help people think through the visuals presented before them and address whatever confusion stirs in the process.
“I really feel that art is a way of thinking sometimes,” she states while sitting in MCA’s popular Puck’s Café. “There’s a mode about thinking that’s about articulating stuff that’s in complete sentences and there’s a mode sometimes about feeling or thinking … that’s about having shapes and colors and ideas in your head, but you can’t quite put language to it. There’s a big duty that I have which is helping people think through art, whether it’s the artist or audience.”
A common mentality of the MCA is that art represents complexity and ambiguity. While you are fascinated by the work, there’s never a definite in retrieving an answer.
Art takes you out of that comfort space and forces you to ask questions, to inquire and propel conversation.
“The idea is, as a curator, you have to create a show that just starts a conversation,” Beckwith says. “But you always have to be thinking long-term. This conversation will change well pass the time that you’re gone and the artist is gone.”
When it comes to art, the unknown is inevitable.
That’s where the museums and art history books come in to play. Museums preserve art and paintings for thousands of years and create ever-evolving dialogue. The space encourages all to engage and explore.
Art has its way of attracting its enthusiasts. Every inch of land is an artistic design. From the architectural structure of buildings to homemade creations of pictures, jewelry and music, whether or not you’re fully aware of it, art surrounds us.
Beckwith was appointed MCA curator in May of 2011 after returning to her native Chicago from New York as the associate curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem.
Naomi’s earliest engagement of art culture started at home in the Hyde Park neighborhood.
“My mother had this small collection of prints and small paintings; mainly from art fairs and little stuff around the city,” Beckwith says. “She didn’t fancy herself a collector at all, but she was interested in objects and supporting people, so she would buy really pretty and sometimes abstract things.”
Hyde Park is known for its historical buildings, notable residents and rich culture. Staples like the DuSable Museum and Washington Park are favorites in the South Side community.
Naomi and her family lived on the western side of Hyde Park, “so it wasn’t uncommon for us to go to the museum or Washington Park. Every year there was this big event, like an arts and culture fair whenever we went to Washington Park,” she recalls.
“I remember a lot of the work there was craft based-jewelry, clothes, musical instruments and so forth. Every once in a while, we would buy a print, a poster, or some painting from a vendor and that was kind of my first engagement with art.”
The annual fair provided a young Naomi with the exposure that would soon lead to a successful career in the study of the arts. “There was a moment … there was a trigger that definitely got me involved in the visual arts,” she expresses with bright eyes.
Art served as a creative freedom. Its abstract nature and oftentimes confusing narrative engaged Naomi, leading her to switch from wanting to become a doctor to graduating from Northwestern University Illinois with a bachelor’s degree in history and then moving on to receive her Master’s in “Postmodernism in the American Context” while at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London.
There, she stood out as a student presenting her dissertation on the works of Adrian Piper, a first generation conceptual artist and philosopher, and Carrie Mae Weems, whose works investigate and express the human condition from family and relationships to gender roles, sexism, racism and political systems.
Discussing her work as a curator, Naomi notes that, “I’m interested in conceptual work, performance work, artists of Black descent. They’re already beginning to frame the type of work that I’m gravitating toward in terms of making an exhibition. On the other hand, sometimes I just meet an artist that’s so compelling and has ideas that are so compelling that I’m like, okay this person needs a platform now!”
A curator oversees and is the keeper of a cultural heritage institution, i.e. a gallery or museum. With this comes an extensive schedule. Curators are constant researchers and interact with every aspect of the art and the artist. Their passion for the arts lies deep and the financial payoff is not always so golden.
“We work 24-7, so you’re always engaging in art in certain ways, but it’s not labor that’s compensated financially, so the love for it really feeds the way that you want to do it,” Naomi admits, adding, “It’s about interviews, conversations and seeing everything.
“If an artist says, “I had a show,” I want to know every work that was in that show, when it was made, under what conditions it was made, did you collaborate with anyone, what city was it made in, what else do you have, etc. You talk to the artist, you talk to some of their colleagues, you talk to the school they went to, the guys who collect their work, you travel, you see everything.”
Beckwith views her position as navigating and fostering curiosities through a series of new ideas and experiences with the artist and the audience.
Her in-depth technique and dedication to the field invites a passage where the artist and audience can co-exist absent of the stereotypical ideals that artists are crazy and locked up in a studio by themselves. She opens the view, so that artists are seen an humans, as well.
“Once I think an artist has this opportunity to engage more with people on a basic level, you’ll begin to understand and think of artists as an important part of our communities.”
The title from Chicago artist Hebru Brantley’s “Yesterday’s Losers, Tomorrow’s CEOs” exhibit comes to mind, as it frames the mentality of a lot of the work Naomi brings forth. Artists are our storytellers, depicting scenes of life and creating visual representations.
Naomi described her enjoyment of being a curator as such in a discussion she had while in Philadelphia, where she was selected as a 2004 Whitney Lauder Curatorial Fellow. “Curating gives me an immediate access to art as it is being produced and artists as they are working through aesthetic issues,” she explained.
The MCA is an open canvas where a collage of intellectual ideas begins to mix with no certainty of ever achieving an answer.
One can conclude that the collection is engaging in nature, yet abstract in tone. Naomi expresses that we need to become comfortable with abstractions.
“I think we do need to make people comfortable with the fact that you can approach something and never have an answer,” she says.
At first glance, an art exhibit may appear not to have a structural medium. However, structure is highly used in art classes; included in the make-up of museums and art works.
“Art school is a very structured place. But the nice thing about these structures is that they’re literally designed to allow something that’s very obstructive to exist. The discovery I made is that the art is open, abstract, sometimes opaque, difficult to understand, but the sort of structures around it are very structural. The museum is a structural place,” confirms Beckwith.
Re-designed by German architect Josef Paul Kleinhues in the mid-‘90s, the five-story building exudes structural clarity while offering an innovative spirit to present itself. Above is a central glass atrium allowing the rays of sun to hit that is absolutely beautiful.
Aesthetic draws attention in the way an object is constructed and flows with a visual and/or auditory concept. That, in fact, may even be what initially draws us in to art – noticing and adapting the beauty of it. We may not quite understand the meaning, but we feel that we do understand what constitutes “beauty.”
Oddly, beauty is even spotted in what’s meant to be painted as dark, sad, and disturbing. But another thing that’s fascinating about even the aesthetic of art is that it, at times, presents a sense of reflection.
In a 1980’s interview, famed neo-expressionist painter Jean-Michel Basquiat was asked why the people in his paintings were depicted and drawn in a disfigured nature with a cruel tone.
His response was that most people he’d come across were pretty cruel; he even thought himself to be quite crude or “awful.” In that response, people to this day love the creations he contributed to the world. It was said then that the generation for his artwork hadn’t even arrived during the height of his popularity; his audience lives now.
“Art is not there to make you feel better about yourself and it’s not about beauty in the world,” Beckwith strongly expresses. “There’s plenty of beauty in art, of course, and I love that it starts with beauty, but it’s to make you think and sometimes think critically.”
Perhaps that lends to people’s refrain from visiting museums as well. Bluntly, Naomi states, “The reality is most people are absolutely intimidated by the museums and they don’t believe that this work belongs to them.”
Once an artist makes it to the museum, which is something they strive to do at a point in their career, the idea is for the museum to protect their work. This does not make the art less available for the community, rather it offers safety and preservation for the art. It is an issue Beckwith identifies as a great challenge for museums to articulate to a broader audience.
Art collections are public; they belong to us. In fact, most museums have some form of public funding, meaning our tax dollars have a major hand in keeping the museum alive. So, in reality, we all have a literal investment in museums. Do not allow fear of art conversation intimidate you.
With art comes a diverse and wide range of conversation, as the works channel experience and tell the history of so many objects, people, and cultures.
That brings up the discussion surrounding the idea of people being intimidated when it comes to actually talking art.
“I think aside from the fact that people are literally intimidated by museums, they’re also very intimidated by art and don’t think that somehow they can have a conversation around art,” Naomi surmises.
“People are trained to think that they have to know something, that they have to know it completely and that there’s only one way to enter. Art never has one way to enter and I think that’s when people start getting confused. It’s okay to be confused. I’m confused,” Naomi laughs.
Art conversation is free. Figuratively speaking, it’s a melting pot of perception ––works may mean one thing to you now and have a totally different meaning to you five years from now. It all comes from somewhere, but the meanings can change continuously.
“My favorite people to talk to about art are high school students,” Naomi says. “It’s weird, but they get it, especially contemporary art. High school students are honest about their assessments. If they think it’s ugly, they’ll say so.”
The reward, though, comes in the form of open dialogue. “They’re also open enough to engage in the conversations when I say, “What if the artist wanted it to be ugly?’ “
Studying contemporary art is really taking in the exploratory measures of the “now.” There are conversations to be had surrounding artistic claims and longevity. When observing these works, there’s a high probability of asking, “Why now?” What makes this painting or this work of art relevant at this time?
“So, for instance, as soon as a photograph sells for over a million dollars in an auction, all of a sudden there’s a series of shows on the world’s greatest photography. Why is it so important now?
“And the same thing can happen with paintings. In the ‘80s, everyone thought painting was dead and then 10 years later, everyone’s painting again.”
She adds, “That’s why I’m really happy to work in the museum context, because this is where the biggest conversations start about art history!
“I feel that most good shows are about ‘why is this compelling now?’ We are all seeing something happen, let’s put it together. Or this person is making really interesting claims now, let’s put it to the floor.”
Art has the tenacity to be threatening. Through strokes of color, the use of objects, paintings and the inner-looks of one’s creative mind, it is safe to say that at times, art can be a dangerous space, tackling the inner mentality of its creators and trying to reach a point of discovery and understanding.
Perhaps, this is what most people fear about art.
“Art can be dangerous and it should be,” states Beckwith. “ But I think its danger is the fact that people should understand that this is to make you think.”
In essence, art is what you take away from it. How you sense it, see it, feel it, and discuss it. There’s the reality that there may be a non-existent, or even a sensible answer and not everything is set up as a tell-all.
Though art can be beautiful, even within the constraints of its darkest palettes, its most prized possession is that of thought and how it allows its audience to react.
“You just have to get comfortable with not understanding,” Beckwith says. “There is no one way to art.”