Uncovering Representation and Inclusivity in Modern Art: A Curatorial Journey with Valerie Cassel Oliver

by | Jan 19, 2023 | ART, MUSEUM & GALLERY NEWS

Valerie Cassel Oliver is a respected curator of modern and contemporary art, currently serving as the Sydney and Francis Lewis Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA). Her passion for art is evident in her curatorial process, which is focused on representation, inclusivity, and highlighting artists of different social and cultural backgrounds.

Her approach to curation is both creative and thoughtful, starting with an idea and then fashioning it, broadening it out, and creating a narrative around it that manifests as a visual narrative. Her goal is to provoke thought and engagement in the audience and to convey the history of a society through the art.

Who are you and what do you do?

I am Valerie Cassel Oliver, and I’m the Sydney and Francis Lewis Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art here at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Cosmologies from the Tree of Life: Art from the African American South (2019)
Photo by David Stover, © 2019 Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

For people who aren’t familiar, how does someone get into curation?

There are many different entry points, but traditionally, one would study art history, maybe study studio art or art making, learn about the history of art, and then parlay that into providing context for museums and visitors.

Are you organized in your personal life?

Now you’re putting me on the spot! [laughs]

 [laughs] Sorry! But is that something that’s part of the skill set needed for curation?

Definitely. There are a lot of administrative aspects to curating that people don’t often think about. It’s also important to have a vision, particularly when working in an institution that collects. Being a good storyteller is also important, both in terms of engagement and conveying the history of a society through the art created by artists living in that time and before. I studied art history, and what we are doing is conveying the history of a society through the art of the artists who are living in that time and before.

dirty south
The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse (2021)
Photo by Travis Fullerton, © 2021 Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Some amazing exhibits you’ve curated have won many accolades. The exhibit that really stood out to me was The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse. It was such a well-rounded and thought-provoking idea on southern culture and how it’s affected national and worldwide culture. How does an idea like that come about? Is it like a sketch in your notebook? Can you walk me through the process of putting something like that together?

I’m glad you mentioned it starting as a sketch in a notebook because, as much as curating is a lot of administrative work and business, it’s also a creative process. It starts with an idea and then fashioning that idea, broadening it out, and creating a narrative around it that manifests as a visual narrative. So, it does start with a question, and it doesn’t always have a conclusive answer or an answer at all. It could be the question itself that’s put in and framed within the walls of the museum.

For Dirty South, which started before I came to Richmond, it started when I was still working in Houston at the Contemporary Arts Museum. I was interested in the relationship with a whole new generation of artists living and working in the South, who were from the South and were now meditating on things that were very Southern in scope, like quilting, textiles, and assemblage, and how those things manifested in a contemporary twist. But where did this desire to embrace the Southern come from? Growing up in the South, as I did in Houston, there was a desire to move away from the South or being told that it wasn’t sophisticated.

Where did these artists suddenly get the idea and embrace for things Southern and connect that culturally to music? Contemporary hip hop artists from the South, who were often told they weren’t sophisticated enough to be East Coast or West Coast rappers, began to embrace their southern cadence and language, bringing a newfound confidence to people living and working in the South. They had been told that they didn’t have the nuance or sophistication in their cadence or voice, but by embracing their southern identity, they were able to showcase the unique qualities of southern culture and bring attention to it.

I made the correlation between the visual and the sonic in contemporary art. But when I came to the encyclopedic museum, I realized that this connection has always existed in some manifestation. By looking at things like the blues, jazz, funk, and gospel music, and comparing them to their visual parallels, it became clear that this connection has existed for a long time. I was able to explore the relationship between the visual and sonic in different forms of art and music.

What are the artists referencing? So transferring that idea coming out of a contemporary facet, and then opening it up and broadening it in an encyclopedic museum, which really condensed down, you know, into antiquities, but really showing that that is a kind of exchange that is existed between the visual and the sonic artists, for many, many years, we could show it for 100 years, and present it in that way. And that was so exciting to do that here. And to bring in both artists who are academically trained, and those who are not, just to say that they can stand toe to toe with artists who are academically trained, and have even more to say, in doing so.

dirty south VMFA
The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse (2021)
Photo by Travis Fullerton, © 2021 Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

As an audience member, I just thought that was a great correlation between modern hip hop and how much street art — how they’re intertwined completely — the music inspires the art, the art inspires the music.

A lot of those artists themselves were musicians, or engaged in music in one way or another, taught music, embraced music, referenced music, and there.

We talked a little bit about this before the interview. So you still get nervous before one of your exhibitions is put out. That hasn’t gone away as you go on in your career.

No, I mean, again, as much as it is a kind of organizational and business and management career, it’s also a creative one. And when you’re creating works and exhibitions, there is a level of vulnerability there. And it is about hoping that you’ve articulated the things that you have placed forward in your idea and in your mind, how, how simply, they really mirror the thing that is actually manifested. So there’s always a sense of vulnerability there. Again, I don’t move into the With conclusions and conclusive answers to things, so it is about educating yourself in public, which is always again a space of vulnerability. So yeah, I get nervous. I’ve learned to trust myself and to trust my vision, and not equate accolades with the work. Because sometimes when you do the work, there are no accolades to it at all.

Isaac Julien: Lessons of the Hour—Frederick Douglass (2022–2023)
Photos by Sandra Sellars, © 2022 Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Think a lot of people would appreciate reading that. You just brought Isaac Julien: Lessons of the Hour—Frederick Douglass to the museum. which I love. In your time at the VMFA, you’ve brought several exhibitions that focus on diversity and inclusivity. How important is it to bring this idea that to Virginia and have a platform like the VMFA for that conversation?

It’s vitally important and it’s really been a hallmark of my work. Prior to coming here, which is, in many ways, why I was brought here, the institution had already made a commitment to devote and commit 1/3 of its acquisition budgets to the acquisition of work by African American and African diasporic artists. So it wasn’t something where you had to walk into an institution and convince them of the value of work by artists of diverse backgrounds.

Is that something you had to deal with earlier in your career?

No, I haven’t had to do that earlier in my career, but I know people who have struggled with that. I’ve been fortunate throughout my career to work in institutions that value inclusivity and diversity in all its facets. It’s been wonderful and exciting to bring that space of inclusivity and diversity into an institution that was already striving to make that happen. My predecessor, John Ravenol, did a great job in acquiring and presenting works. This museum had already made that commitment prior to my coming. When you have that level of alignment within institutions, where governance, administration, and curatorial are all working towards the same end, it’s exemplary. It doesn’t happen everywhere, and that’s where institutions often fall short in being reflective of the communities they want to serve. Being an institution that is a crown jewel of the state of Virginia, it’s vitally important to be inclusive and diverse, reflective of the community they serve. Whether they were committed to it or not, that would be my commitment. Coming into institutions like this, it’s important for people to see themselves reflected not only in the special exhibitions but in the work that’s in the collection itself.

VMFA dirty south
The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse (2021)
Photo by Travis Fullerton, © 2021 Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

I love that. I only have a couple more questions for you and this is a question that a couple of local artists asked me. If they strive to one day be an institution like the VMFA, what are the criteria or the things that curators at your level look for to have a piece in the VMFA or museum of the statue?

Well, I generally tell all artists to let that not be their preoccupation. Instead, they should focus on honing their skills and creating quality work. Unfortunately, some artists don’t get shown until later in their careers. I don’t wish that for anyone, but that is the reality. In terms of how artists are selected, it’s important to realize how subjective the process can be.

It’s a very subjective thing. I can list out a series of criteria, but at the end of the day, it’s about a vision that whoever is organizing exhibitions or purchasing work for the institution has their own way of seeing the world and what works in terms of conversations that already exist within the collection. For me, as someone who comes from a background in contemporary art, I’m always looking for artists who are pushing the boundaries of the genres themselves, who are looking at the interplay and intersections between different mediums. For example, someone like Isaac Julian who blends filmmaking and sculpture, storytelling, and the intersections between the moving image and sound, creating an integrated work that pushes the conversation forward when it comes to art and art-making.

So for me, the things that make me excited about art are seeing how artists really transform narratives around art-making, how they play with history, the history of art, political history, social histories, cultural histories, and when and where they defy genres. Those are the things that make me excited about art.

Just hearing you say that makes me excited. That’s great. And I think that’s helpful fro any artists reading this. Thank you. Last question, but maybe you can’t tell me, but what are you working on that you’re excited about coming up in the VMFA?

There’s a lot of great stuff coming up at the VMFA that I can tell you about.

First, we currently have the Ebony G. Patterson exhibition …three kings weep…, which is a beautiful film installation. It’s very much a precursor to Sir Isaac Julian, but that comes down in March.

And in its place, we will be showcasing the work of a woman named Athena LaTocha, who is an indigenous American artist. She is very much invested in how we see land and how we understand the landscape as having a life of its own, which is marred and marked by human presence. And what she does with the landscape, how she uses elements like moss, Earth, and roots from trees as tools, and materials is really extraordinary. So these are very large scale paintings that she’s created, which is a process that she goes through that brings those landscapes to life on to substrates like paper and canvas. So I’m very excited about having her presented.

And then in November of this year is work by Dawoud Bey, who is a MacArthur Fellow, and an amazing photographer who has turned his lens to landscapes that have historical significance and the sort of radical imaginary about space. In this sense, we’ve commissioned him to photograph the slave trail here in Richmond. And that body of work will then join two other bodies of work that came before one which is photographs from the Whitney and Evergreen Plantations right outside of New Orleans. Evergreen is one of the most intact plantations with intact slave quarters that still exists. And in bringing that, that photo those photographs as well as photographs that he took along the underground railway. So it really does present a kind of arc of early African American presence in this country, our black presence in this country should say, from the moment of enslavement into spaces of labor into spaces of self emancipation.

dirty south Vmfa
The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse (2021)
Photo by Travis Fullerton, © 2021 Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

That brings up one more question. With Richmond’s history and connection to slavery, was that an appeal or a challenge in coming to Richmond and being in the VMFA from Houston? Did it play a role in your decision-making at all?

I mean, yeah, the conversation is here, right. So this is where it starts. These are points of origins. You know, Fort Monroe is 45 minutes from Richmond, Virginia. And this was the outposts of the British Empire, the first. So this is where it starts. This is where it begins. And if we can’t have those conversations here, where else can they happen? They should happen. It shouldn’t be the only conversation we have, but it should happen.

Absolutely and thank you Valerie. I really appreciate the time.

Learn more about the VMFA at vmfa.museum
Follow Valerie Cassel Oliver on Instagram HERE
Main photo by Kimberly Frost

R. Anthony Harris

R. Anthony Harris

I created Richmond, Virginia’s culture publication RVA Magazine and brought the first Richmond Mural Project to town. Designed the first brand for the Richmond’s First Fridays Artwalk and promoted the citywide “RVA” brand before the city adopted it as the official moniker. I threw a bunch of parties. Printed a lot of magazines. Met so many fantastic people in the process. Professional work: www.majormajor.me

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