In Conversation with Jessica Bell Brown: On Curating 'She Persists', Being a Badass Mom, and a Thriving Art Career
Jessica Bell Brown is an accomplished writer, curator, art historian and kick-ass new mother, based in New York City. Most recently, her work can be seen in She Persists, an exhibition of 44 female and women-identified artists at Gracie Mansion, a project spearheaded by New York City’s Mayoral First Lady, Chirlane McCray. Her impressive curatorial repertoire and groundbreaking collaborative projects champion the work of POC and women artists, while investigations into the canon of Black modern and contemporary art underline her academic work as a PhD candidate at Princeton University. Here, Bell Brown speaks to Gallery Gurls in her own words.
Kimberly Henderson: You've worked on projects like the Black Art Incubator with Recess, and written for publications like Hyperallergic. Tell us about your arts background and what led you to pursue a career in the arts.
Jessica Bell Brown: The High Museum in Atlanta was my introduction to the art world. As a kid, I treasured annual trips to see their collection. When I got to college at Northwestern, I took my first American art history course and never really looked back. I knew right away that I wanted to work directly with artists, to mount exhibitions, and uncover some of the narratives in art history that deserved greater attention. I’ve had some really incredible mentors and advocates along my path from my early days at Creative Time, my graduate work at Princeton, to my time at the Museum of Modern Art.
She Persists is a stellar exhibition of 44 female and women-identified artists, which you curated at Gracie Mansion in New York City. How did this opportunity come about and what was your vision or inspiration for this exhibition?
The First Lady had this incredible vision to reimagine all of the public spaces at the mayoral residence. After many conversations, she and the Conservancy invited me to bring the project to life, from selecting the artists and artworks to devising an installation strategy. Gracie Mansion is a living piece of New York history, and is thus adequately named the “People’s House”. We wanted to acknowledge the residence’s unique story, while at the same time, propose a more equitable sense of visual representation on its walls, one that reflected the lives of New Yorkers of all stripes. Given the recent visibility of women in the current social and political climate, we felt the timing was right to really be bold and step it up a notch. While I’m used to curating within a more conventional white cube context, I found this project super riveting! Everyone from state dignitaries and bureaucrats to children come to Gracie every day, so we didn’t feel beholden to any proscribed art historical chronology. I had this idea to work with pairings or “constellations” of artists who I wanted to see in new and surprising contexts, like Alice Neel and Jordan Casteel, Simone Leigh and Augusta Savage, or Lee Krasner and Cecily Brown. The exhibition spans a hundred years of art made between 1919 and 2019, and highlights just how women artists were documenting and illuminating the most pressing issues of our time, from suffrage to feminism, to LGBTQ activism to racial justice.
“Given the recent visibility of women in the current social and political climate, we felt the timing was right to really be bold and step it up a notch.”
You are currently working on a PhD in the Art and Archaeology Department at Princeton University (congrats!). Tell us a little bit about your current research and main areas of interest.
I’m a scholar of modern and contemporary art. My work at Princeton underscores the history of African-American painters who doubled down on their commitment to abstraction at a time when figurative representation was thought to be more aligned with social and political advancements in civil rights. I look at the ways that painters like Sam Gilliam and Joe Overstreet were taking canvas off of the stretcher bars and intervening and experimenting with the actual environment of display. Their work further cultivated the gap between painting and sculpture, and they developed a specific vocabulary that could speak to radical and sometimes divergent ideas about what it means to be human.
“Women are badasses hands down. To juggle family and be at the top of our game career-wise, my hat goes off to us because we really know how to get things done!“
On top of all of your exciting projects and the many hats you wear, you're a new mother. How has motherhood informed your work?
Wow. Being a mom is amazing. It’s a big hat to wear, but I wear it proudly! Steele (my son and deputy curator) is an absolute joy, and he’s made me all the better. There’s a meme that is going around the internet about how our society expects women to work as if they don’t have children and to raise children as if they don’t work, and it rings so true. But I try to change that culture of mom guilt or shaming moms by not hiding that part of my identity. I take him to all of my studio visits. You might find us in the basement of Avery Library. He and First Lady McCray are besties. Women are badasses hands down. To juggle family and be at the top of our game career-wise, my hat goes off to us because we really know how to get things done!
So, what is on the horizon for 2019? Any upcoming projects or exhibitions you'd like to share?
Yes! I’m dissertating of course, and preparing a manuscript on Beverly Buchanan. I’m working on a piece for Lubaina Himid’s New Museum show this summer. My next big curatorial project will be a group show that deals with caricature and the body. In the midst of all of that, we’re working on getting Steele to take his first steps!
Follow Jessica Bell Brown @teacherbell