Valerie Cassel Oliver, senior curator at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, was at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art a few weeks ago to receive the prestigious Driskell Prize, named after Georgia-born African-American artist and scholar David C. Driskell. The annual award recognizes a scholar or artist in the beginning or middle of his or her career whose work makes an original and important contribution to the field of African-American art or art history. While Oliver, who has been at the Houston museum since 2000, was in Atlanta, I sat down with her to discuss the award, the importance of legacies, and how hers seems to be continually intertwined with the city of Atlanta.
Valerie Cassel Oliver (at left): When I was constructing my notes [for my acceptance speech], the thing that I kept coming back to was the issue of legacy that James A. Porter, who is arguably the father of African-American art history, and Howard University have played in Driskell’s life and now my life. Having gone to Howard makes this all the more special. It’s like the gift that keeps giving. And it is to me the trajectory along this one man’s vision who wanted to chronicle and continue creating a repository for people who study the realm of African-American art. (Photo by Eric Hester.)
Cochran: Is that how you would describe your focus?
Oliver: My focus has been about trying to tell the fullness of the story, from whatever vantage point that comes from. I think certainly that with exhibitions like “Double Consciousness: Black Conceptual Art Since 1970,” “Black Light/White Noise” and “Cinema Remixed & Reloaded: Black Women Artists and the Moving Image Since 1970,” I have been looking at where African-Americans are not necessarily sought after and bringing those stories to the forefront of practices like conceptual art and Fluxus.
So that has been a big part of it. It hasn’t been the only part of it, but even with “Splat Boom Pow! The Influence of Cartoons in Contemporary Art,” it was about understanding the trajectory from Pop to Japanese Anime but also to various practitioners who have done it — not just European-American artists but Asian-American, Latin American, African-American — because everyone has had a hand in producing the fullness of what we see in the landscape.…
Many young African-American artists don’t see anybody who looks like them, and they say, “How do I continue to shape my voice?” We’re all standing on someone else. I’m also trying to create a repository where artists can come and say, “This is my placement in the world, too.”
Cochran: Clearly you’ve found a place among predecessors who were curators before you. Who have you learned from and looked to?
Oliver: Of course, there is the Thelma Golden. Where would anyone be today if it hadn’t been for “Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art” [a 1994 show at the Whitney Museum]? That was such a seminal exhibition. But then I also look at people like Lowery Simms and Leslie King-Hammond and the “Art as a Verb” exhibition. I look at people like Linda Goode Bryant and Just Above Midtown [Gallery] in New York that was showing practices that were considered avant-garde for the time. Or people who worked at the Studio Museum like Kinshasa Conwill or Valerie Mercer or Sharon Patton. People like Rick Powell and his “Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance.” People who remain both in culturally specific and mainstream museums. Also my own academic adviser, Dr. Floyd Coleman, who instilled so much in me when I was a student at Howard. So there is a history there. There were definitely forerunners and people who made me believe that things are possible.
Cochran: Your first real curatorial project was working on the 2000 Whitney Biennial. I suggested a number of Atlanta artists and dragged you to 10 studio visits in two days. I’m curious to know what your original impression of Atlanta was at that time.
Oliver: When I came to Atlanta, I was surprised to see so many artists working in Atlanta and doing such interesting work, some really phenomenal work. People like Kojo Griffin, Chris Verene, Ruth Leitman and Robin Bernat. Just to see so many incredible artists who were living here and working here and creating was important. Working for the Biennial, I traveled a lot. I don’t even remember how many cities I went to. But it made me realize that there are artists all over the country who are doing incredible work who are not in the so-called centers of creativity.
Cochran: What’s interesting to me is that we have curators who come through and do a project and then leave. But your trajectory, for some reason, keeps coming back to Atlanta. You were here again to co-curate “Cinema Remixed & Reloaded” in 2007. I imagine the experience gave you a different perspective on the city, because instead of coming to see artists, you were meeting the students and patrons of the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art.
Oliver: That’s very true. It’s been very multi-layered. And I can’t tell you where the gravitational force is here in Atlanta, except it keeps bringing me back. [Laughs.]
Cochran: What was the genesis of that show?
Oliver: Andrea [Barnwell-Brownlee, director of the Spelman museum] and I talk all the time. It ranges from things in our personal life to things in our professional life, things that we are grappling with. We’ll oftentimes bounce ideas off one another: exhibition ideas, people, artists. She had a space in her calendar, and I suggested she do a video show. She said, “You know, I have been thinking about this artist and this artist and this artist,” and I said, “Well, what about such and such, such and such, and such and such.” … So suddenly, what we were thinking was much greater than just presenting three artists in a space. We were looking at intergenerational artists; we were looking at experimental filmmaking and video, at film installation and work on monitors.
We realized it was such an opportunity that it really would be problematic to not do it right. Andrea said, “I don’t have the personal capacity to do this by myself.” So I said, “You know what, it’s important. I’ll work with you on it.” Then [the Contemporary Art Museum in Houston] said, “You’re doing this project, and it is groundbreaking, and why not have CAM involved in it in some way?” So they brought the show to Houston and helped to do the book. So that’s how the publication came about, because to do a show of that magnitude and not have a document would have been very sad.
Oliver: I got to know Cinqué Hicks when he was working in Austin. Cinqué is someone who makes things happen; he has a very strong sense of vision. He approached me about the book that he, Jerry Cullum and Catherine Fox were working on because they wanted someone to come and write a preface. Since I’ve had these sorts of connections to Atlanta, it made sense to do it.…
I understand the value of having a book like this. In fact, Catherine Anspon has just published a book like this called “Texas Art Today.” So I get the concept of it and the sense that Atlanta, for whatever reason, feels dislocated from the national or international dialog. But I didn’t want to be a sideline orchestrator. I really wanted to get in and get my hands dirty and see some of the people they are talking about. Not necessarily be a part of the process, but be more in touch with it than just simply writing a preface to work that I may or may not know.
Cochran: So you’re coming in May to do some studio visits …
Oliver: Do some studio visits, talk a little more with Jerry, Catherine and Cinqué about the concepts and really try to craft some language and context that truly does resonate with the project itself.
Cochran: But at the same time, perhaps bring an outsider’s perspective to what it is that they, as insiders, are trying to say within the book?
Oliver: That’s what I’m hoping to do, because I think sometimes when you’re in the midst of it, you know what you want to say, you know what’s lacking. But sometimes having that unbiased set of eyes, from someone who isn’t totally estranged (because it’s been since 1999 that I’ve been back and forth), is an equally important perspective.
Cochran: You come from Houston, which in many ways is in a similar position to Atlanta in that it is a metropolitan center but not necessarily an art center. If you had to compare the two cities, what would you say are the similarities and what would you say are the differences?
Oliver: I think the similarities are that they are both large urban spaces that are very diverse. I think the coasts — the West Coast, the East Coast — seem to hold the market. But there’s something about the cultural production that is happening elsewhere and the ability to see the markets for what they are. That is the commonality.
People are beginning to differentiate what markets are. There are spaces where retail happens and value gets assessed, but there are spaces where the production and the innovation is taking place, too. And I think that is happening, in many cases, outside of those markets. When you are creating in a space where you don’t think people are watching, you’re more likely to experiment and innovate. I certainly think that is happening in Houston.
I think artists will gravitate naturally to places where they feel a certain freedom — freedom from economic strain for sure. These are both very livable cities that offer a quality of life for very little money. And you have a great art community here and we have a wonderful art community in Houston that is very close-knit. People are supportive of one another; the communities are supportive of one another.
The only difference is that in Houston we have a stronger ecology for our arts and cultural system. We have alternative spaces; we have museums; we have a strong gallery presence. The ecological strata is there to support artists in different capacities. That is the only thing that I see lacking here, that you have some that are developing but are not as strong as they are in Houston.
Cochran: But we’re getting there.
Oliver: Yeah, you’re getting there. Without a doubt.