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March 5–8, 2020   Piers 90 and 94

A leading force in the Los Angeles art scene, Jamillah James speaks with The Armory Show about the forthcoming edition of the Focus section, and why truth, fiction, and narrative are at the center of her curatorial vision. — Interview by Audrey Rose Smith

Jamillah James. Photo credit: Paul Sepuya. © ICA Los Angeles.

You joined the ICA LA in 2016 and what has followed has been a rather remarkable story of rebranding, relocating, and revisioning an institution from the ground up. Looking back just a few years to when you first joined, what has changed since then, and what has remained the same?

At the point of my hire, the decision to relocate and rebrand had already been established and things were already well in process, such as selecting the building for the new facility, the name choice, and discussions about the new visual identity. The ICA isn’t so much revisioning the museum as it was (the former Santa Monica Museum) but building on a 24-year institutional history that was respected and celebrated for its experimentation, nerve, and close collaboration with artists at various stages of their careers. These traits/characteristics are still essential to the museum now and are something we will continue to celebrate and carry forth, just in a new context. We have only been open as this “new” entity for two years, so this is still a work in progress, but so far it has been great to see the embrace of the museum in this new phase.

"For Focus, I wanted to offer an open proposition: What is the function of truth now? How much agency do we have, as individuals or communities, in narrating our own experiences?"

Installation view of No Wrong Holes: Thirty Years of Nayland Blake, Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, September 29, 2019–January 26, 2020 Photo: Jeff McLane.

There has been much discussion and excitement about the cultural rebirth of Downtown Los Angeles. From your viewpoint, what has been the genesis of this rebirth, and what or who will continue to drive change in this part of Los Angeles?

Historically there has been a concentration of artistic activity on the east side of the city, and Downtown is one of many neighborhoods in Los Angeles that has attracted artists and cultural organizations. MOCA has always been an important mainstay Downtown, and a number of galleries have established themselves in the area in recent years as well. I think it has honestly been the chatter about Los Angeles from outside of the city that has generated the most buzz. Angelenos are decidedly more low-key about this new attention, though LA as a whole has always been a vital city for art and artists. What will be critically important in the coming years is seeing what our city does in order to make neighborhoods throughout LA, including and especially Downtown, more equitable, accessible, and sustainable places to live for all people.

B. Wurtz: This Has No Name, Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, September 30, 2018–February 3, 2019 Photo: Jeff McLane.

Giving artists their first West Coast institutional debuts is a noticeable thread in your resume—among them Njideka Akunyili Crosby, B. Wurtz, and Alex Da Corte. In bringing an artist’s oeuvre into the institutional space for the first time, what are your greatest considerations?

For me there are two objectives: supporting an artist at a critical stage in his or her development and doing so by presenting the work for a larger audience and making scholarship through exhibitions and publications at the institutional level, the things that help solidify an artist’s reputation and can be a springboard for further opportunities. It’s an important relationship, getting to work with an artist on his or her first major, non-commercial presentation, and for a smaller museum like the ICA, we are well-positioned to support a variety of artists who may be under-recognized or lesser known.

"What will be critically important in the coming years is seeing what our city does in order to make neighborhoods throughout LA, including and especially Downtown, more equitable, accessible, and sustainable places to live for all people."

The Armory Show’s Focus section has historically been an important barometer for new artists and ideas, be it regionally specific or thematically so. What has been your approach to curating the 2020 Focus section, what considerations do you have in mind when deciding who will be included?

Hammer Projects: Njideka Akunyili Crosby. Installation view, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, October 3, 2015–January 10, 2016. Photo: Brian Forrest.

The work is always the most important part of making a curatorial decision—it could be the impetus for working with a certain artist, or the crucial element in telling a story or addressing some question in an exhibition. For Focus, I wanted to offer an open proposition: What is the function of truth now? How much agency do we have, as individuals or communities, in narrating our own experiences? What is history at this moment where the present is constantly accelerating and the parameters of received knowledge are shifting? This thematic is not necessarily a commentary on our current politics, but something that can’t be neatly answered with one work, text, or exhibition. Each artist featured in the section offers a different perspective or approach to this line of inquiry and will hopefully encourage further discussion and exploration on the part of the viewer about his or her own perceptions and understandings of the world around them.