Kéla Jackson, IRT ’18: A Journey to Becoming an Art Historian

Who are you?
Even as a child my most notable quality was my curiosity. Every adult I encountered had to entertain a litany of questions that all stemmed from my greatest question, why? I could go on forever and I truly appreciate their patience in trying to satisfy what seemed to be an insatiable desire to know more. This curiosity led me to spend copious amounts of time reading, writing, and being alone with my thoughts. It was not until college that I realized many of my whys could be answered in images. Art helped me make sense of the world around me and led me not just to answers but helped me
see what questions the perceived answers were hiding.

My journey to becoming an art historian is relatively nascent. I discovered the world of art history as a freshman at Spelman College. I was completely in awe of the possibilities the field offered me and the sheer need for diversity that I knew this was my calling. From fellowships, to museum positions, to my first year of graduate school, I found a path that is fully my own. Like many people, I have had my doubts and uncertainty, but I came to understand that the spaces I enter are mine to claim.

The moment of discovery.
I began my undergraduate studies at Spelman College in the Fall of 2015. I was a studio art major and I was nearly certain I would be a studio art teacher like the ones I had loved so dearly in grade school. I applied to be a museum ambassador at the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art and art history still was not on my radar, I simply wanted to be involved in the campus art space because I had never had such an opportunity. Then, I met Dr. Andrea Barnwell-Brownlee. As I reflect on my journey to becoming a PhD student in Harvard’s History of Art and Architecture program, I would have to say that meeting Dr. Brownlee would be the catalyst to my journey. She was warm and welcoming, clad in all black with a sleek bob to match. Our conversation was brief, but the impact would echo throughout my undergraduate career. “You can have it all, but not all at the same time.” I would hear her voice ring in my head when difficult decisions arose. It was our serendipitous meeting compounded with my introduction to Spelman College’s Inaugural Curatorial Studies program at an Art Department meeting that would propel me on a remarkable journey as a budding art historian. Spelman College Museum of Fine Art became a home for me and the museum staff an extended family.

The very focus of my research was birthed out of the many wonderful exhibitions presented at the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art. During my time as a student, I had opportunities to be exposed to artists, art historians and writers that were critical to the work I have chosen to take up as a graduate student. Meeting those individuals shaped my understanding of how I could advance issues of diversity and representation in the art world, while also examining new ways to engage art historical discourse.

The path less taken.
In 2015, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation released a demographic survey that elucidated how dire a need there was for diversity in American art museums. The survey revealed that in positions associated with the “intellectual and educational missions of the museum” employment did not represent the diversity of the American population. Since the release of the survey, the Mellon foundation and many museums and academic institutions have made targeted efforts to create programs and initiatives to respond to the United States’ shifting demographics.

I was fortunate to participate in two Mellon funded programs aimed at increasing diversity in art museums. The first was Spelman’s Curatorial Studies program which has grown to encompass the entire Atlanta University Center Consortium and offer a major and two minors. Studying art history and curatorial studies at Spelman was crucial. I learned in a space where the richness of racial and gender diversity was amplified and encouraged. It was through this program that I received my first internship at the University of Florida’s Samuel P. Harn Museum.

Following my internship, I spent two-years as a curatorial fellow at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia. My curatorial mentor at the High, Katherine Jentleson, was magnificent.

If I were to elucidate another crucial dot or point in my journey, it would consist of my time with Katie. When people ask me, why art history or how I landed at this point, the critical connection I made with phenomenal mentors stand out. More importantly, the people who chose me, believed in me made all the difference in my trajectory. I watched how they moved through space, studying their minds as much as their work. This became a reflexive practice of studying others then studying myself and consistently repositioning and reevaluating. Aside from mentorship, being in the space was equally as crucial. When designing shows, curators often speak of how being in the space changes how we conceptualize and lay out the show. In the same way, being in a museum space allowed me to better conceptualize my own pedagogical and curatorial practice.

The culminating experience of my fellowship was curating my gallery rotation. I spent a year engaging with objects in the High Museum collection to create a visual experience that communicated the ideas and concepts of diaspora, ancestral legacy, and aesthetic exchange. I remember eagerly watching people in the gallery. Moving from quilt to nkisi figure, drawing their own connections and structuring their own engagement. It was exciting to see how people were understanding the objects and intrigued by them. Of course, I had my own ideas in mind of how the objects were to be experienced, but the patrons were able to give me new ways of seeing them.

My Advice: Claim your space and do so boldly.
Seeing myself made all the difference. Being a part of Spelman’s Curatorial Studies allowed me to understand that Black curators and professors were not anomalies or as rare as I had originally thought. Over the past four years, I have worked with and been introduced to so many key players in the efforts to diversify the arts that a fire and passion grew inside of me. I knew with certainty that my work would not be without purpose.

I came into art history with very little museum or art knowledge, but I quickly learned that my experiences were of merit and had room in many discussions. As I grew more confident, I learned the power of showing up and claiming my right to space so that others can follow suit.



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