Valerie Cassel Oliver, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and the 2021 Curatorial Leadership Summit Chair, speaks to The Armory Show about the realities, challenges, and future visions of cultural institutions. — Interview by Ellie Clark and Andrew Cabridens
"Museums can be the safe places of substantial dialogue and the catalyst for social change that will impact us moving forward."
What has been the most meaningful part of the Curatorial Leadership Summits (CLS) you have attended at past Armory Shows?
The Curatorial Leadership Summit allows for meaningful exchanges amongst colleagues. For so many curators, we are endeavoring within our institutions—and at times without the benefit of dialogue—to understand the larger issues within the field as well as social and cultural landscapes. What happens within the museum may seem peripheral to the world around us, but the reality is that it has the power to shape our understanding of who we are as a community.
The 2021 CLS program title "Museums as Monuments" resonates within a year of historic political, social, and cultural change. Can you talk about a few examples involving museums that inspired your framework and vision for the program?
The title can also be read, “Are Museums Monuments?” as that really gets to the heart of the conversation. Can museums—art and artists—serve as catalysts for dialogue? Can curators and the institutions they work within construct an institutional narrative that is reflective of the communities they serve? Museums are not static…they are dynamic, living, breathing entities and they should not present static or fixed narratives. Institutions, curators, should always be reaching for spaces of inclusivity, diversity, and equity in their language and in their actions. Clearly, the communities are now demanding as much. How can institutions create real, substantial, and sustainable change?
"Institutions, curators should always be reaching for spaces of inclusivity, diversity, and equity in their language and in their actions."
The exhibition you are currently working on, "The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse", examines Southern hip-hop as a window into traditions that have defined the African-American South and its diaspora over a hundred-year period. Can you speak to how the multidisciplinary aspect of this exhibition strengthens engagement and inclusivity within an institutional setting?
I believe the title evokes notions of diversity and inclusivity, but it also reaches beyond the proverbial understanding of “what constitutes art.” The Dirty South is a moniker for the geographical region that is too often left out of the national discourse. Given the “all eyes on Georgia” moment in the political sphere, and Charles Blow’s calls for a reverse migration of African Americans into The South…it seems a good moment to examine how the South has been situated within the larger cultural narrative with the 1995 Source Awards as a defining moment. What we do know about Southern hip-hop is that these artists drew upon the cultural and artistic traditions in their own back yard. The impact of those traditions can be felt and seen and heard in musical genres that include the blues, jazz, rhythm and blues, gospel, as well as in the work of academically trained and non-academically trained visual artists. Literature and its impact are also examined. The exhibition brings that dialogue and exchange within reach so that viewers can see and hear this exchange.
During this incredibly challenging year, what has brought you solace?
CeeLo Green has a song called Music Saved My Soul. I think music has the capacity to express, to cry out, to soothe, and to encourage us to keep moving. Music and the love of family, the love of community and the love of this country, despite how others would define that love, is palpable. I have seen the landscape change…and feel it is symbolic of the real, substantial change. There will be opposition, however, and we have seen that…but “a change is gonna come!” I feel that museums can have a leadership role in shifting perceptions and opening doors for understanding one another. Art is transformative. Art is powerful. Museums can be safe places of substantial dialogue and the catalyst for social change that will impact us moving forward.
And finally, what are you most looking forward to when art fairs return?
Seeing what artists have been creating during this period! It has offered an unprecedented period of quiet and a respite from the hectic pace. I am excited to see even in the midst of two pandemics…COVID-19 and racism….what amazing responses will await!