By Elliot J. Reichert
In this year’s Art 50, we focus on the power players who shape Chicago’s art landscape. Naomi Beckwith, a Hyde Park native, brings an insider’s knowledge of the city to her role as the Marilyn and Larry Fields Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art. In just over four years, she’s crafted some of the museum’s most timely exhibitions, including a major outdoor sculptural commission by Yinka Shonibare MBE and the MCA’s current headliner, “The Freedom Principle,” which she co-curated with Dieter Roelstraete. I spoke with her about the art of research, what it means to be a nerd in the art world and what’s next for this rising Chicago art star.
Being born and raised in Chicago, how has this city influenced your work as a curator?
Many people know that I had initially considered a career in the sciences. For my first twenty years, I was academically focused on those disciplines, but two signifiant things changed all that. One was the ethos of this city and its commitment to public spaces, which always included art: festivals, programs, art fairs and museums. I am a very proud child of Chicago Public Schools, which has an amazing field trip program that includes these destinations. This early access to both the formal art space of museums and also informal spaces, like the Hyde Park [57th Street] Art Fair or the African Festival of the Arts in Washington Park, left deep imprints on me.
I also had a much more specific introduction to contemporary art in my youth. In the early 1990s, Mary Jane Jacob did an incredible program in Chicago called “Culture in Action.” She brought artists to the city to work alongside communities. Mark Dion was one of these artists. In his work, he plays the role of a nineteenth-century naturalist, a kind of gentleman environmental explorer. He loves to work with youth as assistants, and because his project was a mix of science and art, I came to it as a young science nerd. So I first saw art as a performance, as installation and as a thing that can take on other disciplines as its subject. Since then, I have remained committed to a kind of art practice that takes many forms and thinks about the world at large.
How do you see the visual arts interacting with disciplines outside of art? How do you build these connections into your work?
There is an easy way to think about art only as an expression that comes from deep inside the artist’s psyche. In fact, art is a discipline, and many artists conduct very deep research into a subject matter before they even embark on making work. They do this field research in this language that we call art. So, more often than not, an artwork takes on things in other disciplines and other subjects. My way of working with artists is often a way of learning about these other things that their artworks touch on. If an artist is obsessed with ornithology, I’m going to have to do a lot of research on that subject to be able to curate a project on it. In the case of “The Freedom Principle” that is on view now, I had to research mid-century music in Chicago. Working with art is a really wonderful way to be a polymath, because you learn things alongside the artists.
As a curator, you practice the craft of exhibition making much like an artist engages in research. How do you go about your research into the art world?
My perspective on the art world really does come from my science background. I think of it as an ecological system with several micro-environments inside the larger biome that we call the art world. There is the museum and exhibitions environment, which I have decided to work in because it is the one that reaches out the most to a public audience and adds intellectual value to artworks. There is the market system, in which galleries and auction houses assign monetary value to art. There is also a collector system, and of course there are the artists themselves, who are a kind of wild environment within themselves. My job is to stay engaged most immediately with the artists and the museum systems, but I also do need to understand how artworks are circulating in the world. I need to know who is looking at what in the marketplace, and who is writing about whom in the academy. Keeping up with all that becomes second nature at some point. Just as artists do deep research, it is important for me to spend a lot of time with an idea. It is not just about searching for what artists are doing, but also being a very serious academic about these ideas and helping shape them in a strong way.
How do you turn all of that research into an exhibition?
I keep my ear to the ground and listen to the hum inside of the art biome. I listen to the concerns of artists in the moment. For instance, I am really interested right now in how the Black Lives Matter movement is turning a lot of artists’ ears to historic protest movements. As a side note, my work is also very much about advocating for artists of color. I am committed to making sure that the art world has the most diverse group of artists represented, and that we have really intelligent language and exhibitions around that work. Happily, I have a lot of company in that around Chicago.
Making an exhibition is also about discovering who is making compelling work right now. When I look at artists, I’m looking at their work over a long duration of time. Many artists I work with I have known for more than a decade. I watch their work evolve around their ideas, and when I see either a really compelling idea forming or a body of work that has grown to a significant point, these are the moments when I know that an artist is ripe for a museum exhibition.
Speaking of this art ecosystem, how do you see MCA fitting into the Chicago environment?
Part of what makes the MCA compelling is its deep focus. It’s not a large, encyclopedic museum. It specializes in the condition of art at this very moment. We ask: What is it that makes art exciting right now? What are artists working on at this very moment? With this sharp focus, it also has the full scale of a museum, which provides a wonderful platform for its audience to see art. You have a complete experience at the MCA whether you are in the public spaces, which are usually activated with art, or in our galleries, or in the sculpture garden out back, which often has live music. At the MCA, we tell a really specific and succinct story about contemporary culture through works of art, and I think our audiences find that exciting.
What do you hope that visitors get from a trip to the museum?
I hope that audiences walk out of this museum feeling empowered. Even when I put up an exhibition, I don’t have all the answers. I expect visitors also to have some confusion, and I don’t think that people have to leave here believing that they have gained a very specific and deep understanding of what they just saw. Most importantly, I want people to trust themselves to ask questions about an object. However they engage with the art, whether with a friend or a tour guide or even with the wall texts, I hope that it allows them to trust themselves to have their own experiences with the art. My job as a curator is to situate the work physically and intellectually in a way that someone feels empowered to begin to engage with it.
What is the value of art? What does it do for us?
Art feeds a human impulse of curiosity like nothing else does. It allows you to not know, to be in the place of posing questions rather than feeling that you need to have all of the answers. This is a very valuable place, and one that I think we often lack in our everyday culture. We often look for quick answers, like a five-minute TED talk that succinctly lays everything out exactly as it is going to be. I don’t think the world is that efficient in reality, and I think it’s okay to recognize that. Art is the one place where there are no immediate answers. It is also the one place where you can continue a conversation that starts at the moment of creating an artwork and could extend literally thousands of years into the future. We make museums because we are interested in how art holds ideas of a moment. A good museum will protect an artwork so that we can continue that conversation many years into the future.
What’s on your mind these days? What’s next for you?
I will continue to look at established artists who have practices that have developed over decades, and I will make narratives about how this work has evolved and how certain ideas remain the same for artists over long careers. I am also constantly looking at younger artists of my own generation who are making compelling work now. I will be working soon with an artist collective that has really deftly moved between pop media culture and very serious conceptual ideas. These are the things that are exciting to me: How does someone take a grainy idea and make it accessible? How does one talk about culture? And I will continue to work internationally, because it is important for me to keep Chicago in conversation with the international sphere and vice versa.