Breaking Barriers: Student curator makes strides for diversity in museums

Ling Luo/Daily Trojan

Junior JaBrea Patterson-West never aspired to be an art curator.

Growing up in Newark, NJ, she would take trips across the river to New York City, where she would wander through the halls of museums like the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and stand mesmerized by the vast decorative paintings that  hung on the walls.

Even then, the idea that art was a profession she could study never occurred to her. She especially didn’t think that she, as a black woman, could aspire to one day conquer it.

“I was always taught that if you weren’t a STEM major, or a major that could traditionally make a lot of money, that you were basically wasting your time,” she said.

A spring admit, Patterson-West came to USC as a pre-med student. But  her general biology lectures felt unfulfilling. She felt stuck, as she was still adapting to university life and was hesitant to give up the academic goals she had had since childhood.

Then, she took her first art history course.

“I was thinking of all the things I could do,” she said. “And after I took that class, I was like, ‘OK, I can see myself doing this.’”

Patterson-West immediately dropped her pre-med studies and became an art history major. From there, her world began to quickly change. At the end of her first semester, she secured an internship at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. By Fall 2017, she was working  in the museum’s exhibition department, where she organized budgets and facilitated contracts between different institutions. Less than a year later, she was awarded the 2018-20 Mellon Undergraduate Curatorial Fellowship and now spends her days working in the museum’s modern art department.

“In this short time, she has already demonstrated her ability to research works in the museums collection [and] join in departmental discussions,” said Stephanie Barron, a senior curator and department head of Modern Art at LACMA. “She is about to begin a writing project about works in the Collection that will be completed this summer, when she is working full time.”

As a Mellon Fellow, Patterson-West shadows Barron, attends meetings, visits galleries and assists on various projects within the department.

“One of the important goals of the Mellon Fellow program is to mentor students to move their education forward post undergraduate and to apply and attend graduate school,” Barron said. “This is necessary to become competitive to enter the museum world. We will help JaBrea in this pursuit.”

Patterson-West credits her experiences at LACMA with opening her mind to the vast array of artistic possibilities that await her upon graduation. The discipline that stuck out to her the most was art curation.

“The thing about curating is people don’t realize there is a lot that goes into it other than the creative aspect,” she said. “There are a lot of other moving parts that are just business and logistics, when it comes to curating on a daily basis, like writing a lot of emails and corresponding with a lot of different people. And writing a lot. I think that’s one big part of curating that I specifically think that I enjoy.”

Per a 2017 report commissioned by the American Alliance of Museums, 93 percent of museum directors, 92.6 percent of museum chairs and 89.3 percent of board members are white. While the art world and museums are historically dominated by white people, Patterson-West understands that her existence within such a space stands as a testament to the new gatekeepers of Western art.

“On the day to day, I try not to focus on [that], just because it can affect my work, if I let my mind get bogged down with those kinds of great societal issues,” she said. “I try to keep my focus on the art and the different ways I can make a change.”

Yet, the absence of black women in the art world was never something she could fully ignore.  

She found that immersing herself within the art world reminded her of her childhood, when she would walk through galleries and stare up in awe at the paintings. Except this time, she realized the world depicted within those paintings was of a white world — one which erased and ignored the existence of black people.

This realizaton inspired her to specialize her curatorial interests to work by black artists who comprise that missing narrative. She created Modern Black Contemporary, a blog that features artwork for and by members of the African diaspora.

“I came across Kimberly Drew’s popular blog ‘Black Contemporary Art,’ and that was at a time when I was like, ‘OK, what can I do to sort of make a concept like this my own?’” Patterson-West said. “I decided to create my own Tumblr blog to have my own discourse about what is being left out.”

On social media, she follows fellow black women art curators, including Drew, who was once the social media manager for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Thelma Golden, who is the director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem. From each, she not only seeks inspiration but also to learn from those who are currently working in the field she wishes to one day enter.

The New York Times’ article “With New Urgency, Museums Cultivate Curators of Color,” revealed the percentage of curators at the biggest museums in the country who identity as people of color, with LACMA near the top at 36 percent, and the MET at the bottom with only 11 percent. In 2015, a study by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation found that only 16 percent of leadership positions within museums are held by people of color; within the roles of museum curators, leaders, conservators and educators, only 4 percent were African American.

“It is difficult to look around and see no one that looks like you,” Patterson-West said. “But I do, on the other hand, want to say that social media has increased accessibility to art in a way that no one could have expected.”

She credits social media with breaking down class barriers and allowing those from low-and middle-class backgrounds to join the art conversation they were once barred from. Platforms such as Instagram and Tumblr have allowed minority artists to promote and exhibit their work, while finding a place for themselves in the art world.

“When you get a group of people who have been excluded for so long … [and] pair that raw passion with an eye for beautiful images and also just a desire for change and attention to social justice and accessibility, you really just get a lot of trails being blazed,” she said.

Aside from art history, Patterson-West also studies French, and hopes to learn more about contemporary French art. Next semester, she will study abroad in Paris — a place she has always admired due to its historical relevance to various black artists.

“I’m definitely looking forward to having those museums at my disposal, even though they have very troubled histories,” she said.

But Paris is not the only place Patterson-West wants to experience.

She said she hopes to travel the world and work in places where there is a greater need for black curators, slowly integrating African artistic expression into the narrative of Western history. Art is a testament to its time, a way to document the presence of a particular culture within the world, Patterson-West said. Without a footprint, many may remain unaware that black art even exists.

Even Patterson-West herself admits that she didn’t know there was such a thing as black contemporary art until she went on the internet. This summer, she is set to work at LACMA full-time and write for the museum’s blog, “Unframed.” She will also engage with the museum’s permanent collection and will be given the opportunity to practice creating her own exhibition for the museum.

“[The future is] going to involve a lot more artists of color and queer artists and women artists,” she said. “I think it’s going to be beautiful.”

This story is part of the Daily Trojan’s special coverage for Black History Month. It will run periodically throughout February.

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