Celebrating 10 years of 30 Americans, a conversation with Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw
In a recent trip to the Barnes Foundation, Wit sat down with Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, the curator of the 30 Americans 10th anniversary exhibition. The display of 30 Black artists including Mickalene Thomas, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kehinde Wiley, and more. Tune in to learn more about Dr. Shaw, her curatorial style, and the journey of this prolific traveling exhibition.

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Dr. Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw. Photo courtesy Wit López, edited by Morgan Nitz.
Dr. Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw. Photo courtesy Wit López, edited by Morgan Nitz.

In this episode of Artblog Radio, our Managing Editor, Wit, speaks with Dr. Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, the curator of the 10th anniversary of the exhibition “30 Americans” at the Barnes Foundation. Dr. Shaw shares her expert views on the work in the show and the positive impact that “30 Americans” has had on the art world in the past 10 years. Experience the exhibition before it comes down on January 12, 2020!

Warning: Unfortunately, this recording picked up some interference that was not able to be edited. There is a static sound that comes up intermittently during the conversation, it is not loud or high-pitched, but it may be a slight annoyance.

“30 Americans” at The Barnes Foundation, 2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway
Philadelphia, PA 19130, until January 12th, 2020

You can listen to Artblog Radio on Apple Podcasts and Spotify. Thank you to Kyle McKay for composing Artblog Radio’s original podcast intro and outro!


Wit López: Hello everyone, and welcome to another episode of Artblog Radio. I’m your host for today, Wit López. I am absolutely honored and excited to be sitting in the Barnes Foundation right now in the presence of greatness. I’m sitting here with Dr. Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, who’s faculty in History of Art at the University of Pennsylvania. Additionally, she was appointed the Senior Historian and Director of History Research and Scholarship at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. She’s the first woman, the first African-American, and if we’re going to talk intersectionality, she’s the first African American woman to hold this senior position. I’m really in the presence of greatness and I’m super honored to be here. Welcome to the show, Dr. Shaw.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: I’m so happy to be here too. Where is this greatness? Is she coming by later on? (laughter)

Wit López: No, it’s you. (laughter) No, seriously, like I’m, I’m so impressed by all the work that you’ve been doing, um, for a while, so thank you. Thank you for all the contributions that you’re making to the arts. It’s really wonderful and it’s life changing for a lot of people.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: Oh, that’s really gratifying. Thanks.

Wit López: Yeah, no problem. So currently you’re the curator of 30 Americans that’s made its way all the way here to the Barnes for its 10th anniversary, so it’s been out for awhile now.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: Yeah. Right now I have three jobs, okay. So I’m still at Penn as a professor and, um, and down at Smithsonian at the National Portrait Gallery, which has been really exciting, but the, kind of the thing that’s been most on my mind for the last six months has been 30 Americans here at the Barnes. This is an exhibition that’s been traveling the country for a little over ten years. We’re calling this the 10th anniversary celebration, um, of it, because it really is a moment when we can look back and see the impact that this show has made on the institutions and the cities that it’s been in, um, and it’s really phenomenal, you know, to think about how art, um, can really change the trajectory of institutions when it’s diverse, when it’s dynamic, and when it brings in audiences that have not previously gone to those institutions because they haven’t seen work that appealed to them, um, and that excited them, and that gave them something new and fresh and different to focus on. And that’s what we’re really seeing here at the Barnes. You know, you go through the galleries and there are all kinds of folks, different ages, different walks of life, coming to see the show because it’s, it’s a phenomenal, um, window into some of the most important contemporary art that’s been made in the United States in the last 20 years.

Wit López: I agree. I agree. I couldn’t, I couldn’t agree more, honestly. I was actually really impressed by the layout of it too, and so I had a question for you about that, about what, uh, what decisions did you make in order to have it the way it was laid out? So to my understanding, it’s, it shape shifts each place that it goes to accommodate the size of the gallery, the size of the pieces, and, uh, and also the whims of each individual who’s contributing to the curation of the show. So with the space that you have here, what, uh, what kind of influenced your choices as to what was going to go in there from the show and what pieces of each artist was going to be shown?

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: Yeah. When, uh, when I was asked to come onto the project by Tom Collins, the president and the director of the Barnes, um, we decided to work really closely together. He was really familiar with the Rubell Family Collection. He had been the director of the Perez Art Museum down in Miami where the Rubells are based, and so he knew them well and he knew the collection well. There were about, there are over 300 pieces that we could have chosen from for the exhibition, but the Barnes’s special exhibition space is kind of limited. It’s about 5,000 square feet of exhibition space,

Wit López: Mm.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: which is not extensive.

Wit López: Yeah.

Shaw: Um, so we had to be really strategic in what we chose and, with needing to include all of the original, um, artists in the exhibition, we felt that it was important to include at least, you know, uh, we had to include at least one piece by each artist and then maybe one or two other pieces, um, by them to really kind of show the context and show, uh, work that represented them, you know, best in this moment. Um, the Rubells have been collecting since the early 1980s, and some of the works in the collection are, um, you know, are by artists who are no longer with us. For example, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Robert Colescott, Noah Davis. You know, sadly, Noah Davis, for example, was alive when the show started to travel, but has since passed on. He died at very young age in his early thirties of a rare cancer. Um, and so with the, you know, with the works that are in the Rubell collection, it’s a, you know, it’s a, it’s a finite group to choose from, um, but we wanted to make sure that what we were showing now would really, um, uh, be a good example of what those artists are doing today. So, for example, um, we chose, uh, Kehinde Wiley, um, work that is of a man on horseback, which-

Wit López: It’s beautiful, I love that painting. Love it.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: Yeah, it’s a real show stopper. And, you know, and the Barnes has been using it for a lot of their, um, their advertising because its hugely arresting, you know, you see it

Wit López: Yes!

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: you’re driving down the 95, you know (laughter) and there’s this guy with the, you know, with his hoodies and his Nikes, you know, on horseback

Wit López: Absolutely.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: and you’re like, wow, what is that black man doing up there? And, um, and so it, you know, it, it’s, um, it’s a very engaging image, but also for Wiley right now, for example, he just had, made this big monumental sculpture that was unveiled in Times Square

Wit López: I heard about that!

Wit López: Yeah, it’s called “Rumors of War.” Um, it’s a piece that he made in response to, um, uh, the debates over Confederate monuments. Um, last week I went down to see it installed in front of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, Virginia, just a couple of blocks up from Monument Avenue where the sculpture that it’s based on, um, of Jeb Stuart, um, and the other statues of Robert E. Lee and all of these heroes of the Confederacy still holds center stage in the middle of Richmond, and this is a piece that Wiley made in response to that, like, what could artists say in response to work that they find upsetting? They can make more work, you know. Other folks say, “tear it down, put in a museum, throw it away,” but for an artist, you know, to have a creative response is really important, and that’s what Wiley’s been doing in his work for a long time. And so in choosing the piece that we have in the galleries, we wanted to make sure that it was something that would resonate with his contemporary concerns, um, as a way to, uh, you know, to prompt folks to say, “what is this artist doing now? How does it connect with, uh, the trajectory of their career?”

Wit López: That’s amazing. And that piece really is, a showstopper, like absolutely. I-I have never seen Kehinde Wiley’s work in person. I’ve never seen a lot of those artists works in person. And so for me, as a black person, as a black artist, it was so, it was very moving when I walked in because I was like, these are people that up until this point, you know, as somebody who’s studied art history in school, I had only seen them on paper. I had only heard about them on television. I had only seen, like, interview videos with them on YouTube, and so, to finally see their work in person and to be made to see the greatness of it, like, the, and I mean-

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: Yeah, the ambition.

Wit López: Right, right, like the size of the work as well as the amount of work that went into the piece is really amazing. And, you know, people talk a lot about Kehinde’s, uh, painting style, but I, I’ve never heard anyone talk about the frame of, on that piece of work.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: (laughter) That frame is crazy, right?

Wit López: (laughter) It is, it is. It’s amazing, and, and so I was looking at it and I was like, “Oh, there’s a person up there. And there’s,” and I was like, so there’s even more to the story than just the piece that we’re looking at in the middle, which is kind of like a color, uh, like color opposites to the piece that it’s based off of, right, where there’s a white man on a brown horse. We have this black man with brown skin on the back of a white horse. So we’re like, “Oh, we can talk about that.” But what about the frame too? You know, like I, no one ever told me about it, and, like, I had never seen it close enough to see all the detail on it.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: Yeah.

Wit López: And so being there, honestly, I was moved to tears just walking through the show. I was like, “this is amazing.”

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: Yeah.

Wit López: It’s absolutely amazing. And so I’m really grateful to these artists, I’m grateful to the space, and I’m also grateful to your curatorial style. So something that I noticed when I first walked in and saw the display statement on the wall was that at the base of the statement, there’s a warning. It’s very small. It just says, you know, “Some of the stuff that’s here may be, uh, upsetting to some people.” And so I was wondering about your position on that and what, what the decision was, that, behind it for you to decide to put a warning on the statement?

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: Yeah, I think warning are important because I don’t think that we should assume that our values as curators, as art historians are the same values that our audiences share and the things that shock and surprise us, you know, may be different for other people. Um, when I’ve worked with museums in the past, this has been something that’s really important, particularly around African-American art, because I think that a lot of museums that do special exhibitions primarily as a way to connect with black audiences, misunderstand the, um, the potential and the limits of these exhibitions. So, for example, I did an exhibition about two years ago with the Montclair Art Museum, um, an exhibition of Kara Walker’s work. They have a large collection of pieces by her, and they wanted to do a show, um, uh, uh, of her work that focused on it, um, but they wanted to take school groups through, and I said, “Listen, this is not a school group show.” You know, um, there’s a piece by Walker in 30 Americans, it’s a piece called “Camptown Ladies,” and it’s, um, it takes its title from the minstrel song. “Camptown ladies sing this song, do-da, do-da”

Wit López: Yup.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: Right? Which is a minstrel song.

Wit López: Yes it is.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: But a lot of us don’t know that,

Wit López: Exactly, exactly.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: that these histories are there. And there’s a lot of violence in the image, and there’s a lot of kind of like, sexual violence and, and destruction, and, and it’s a really heavy thing if you’re really looking at it, you know,

Wit López: Absolutely.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: when you really see it. And I said to the folks at Montclair, and I also said this to the folks at the Barnes, you know, “I’m not sure that I want to take my 16-year-old through this with me,” (laughter) let alone with your docent (laughter)

Wit López: Yeah.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: -who hasn’t studied and, you know,

Wit López: Right.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: and, you know, and written about this kind of work extensively.

Wit López: Right, right.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: So don’t, you know, and that’s, and that’s a big, um, you know, that’s a big demand to put on museum employees to get up to speed and to get comfortable with some really difficult work. Um, so I felt it was important that people be aware that the work was challenging, that it might be upsetting, um, and that they, they should, they, they, they should roll in and, and, and, and be ready for a challenge, um, and not assume that, um, uh, that it would necessarily be an easy viewing. I think it’s a show that’s really rewarding even when it is painful.

Wit López: Absolutely.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: Um, because it, you know, a lot of the pieces that deal with, um, you know, and not every piece does this, but some of the pieces which you deal with, with racism, which deal with histories of enslavement and histories of racial violence can be very cathartic, you know, can be, um, very, um, reassuring in some way to know that your feelings that you are understanding your sense of history and, um, of how you move through the world and the things that you may encounter, others have and have been able to be creative and work with those challenges in different ways, and, so I think that while this show is really inspiring, part of that inspiration, it’s not necessarily about happiness (laughter) always,

Wit López: Yeah.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: but it’s about, you know, feeling, um, intellectually, creatively, um, uh, politically, um, engaged, um, and, uh, uh, so, you know, it’s, it’s a show that, that rewards on a lot of different levels.

Wit López: Absolutely. It really does. So something I noticed about the, I would say, kind of the curation of it is that it starts at a high. It starts at a high, and then it kind of goes down a little bit, I would say emotionally for folks, it starts in a place where emotions can be high, and then it goes down a little bit, and then it comes back up, and then it goes down a little. So it’s kinda, it kinda feels like a wave, and then, you know, if you, if you were to map the feelings going through the space.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: Yeah, I mean, there’s a lot of humor in there too.

Wit López: Oh, absolutely, absolutely.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: You know, one of the funniest things I think is the Robert Colescott video about Dela-Crow instead of Delacroix. (laughter) Um, and that is a hysterical video and it totally rewards,

Wit López: Absolutely, absolutely.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: you know, the 20 minutes that it takes to watch it.

Wit López: Yes.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: Um, you know, when you go into the exhibition, one of the first pieces that confronts you is a wall of cotton bales, of, like, these bricks of cotton by Leonardo Drew, which both references the history of enslavement, the history of plantation enslavement, and the ways that raw materials like cotton and sugar and coffee have been so important to the economic, um, engine, um, of the world for the last 200 years, but the destruction, the human destruction that they caused has often not been really seen, you know.

Wit López: Mm.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: And today in this current moment, like, you can think about the cotton, you can think about it in terms of slavery, but you can also think about it with, like, the impact of the garment industry, um, that, you know, that’s, that’s, that’s so, um, you know, controversial right now with fast fashion, and I read this thing about, um, uh, the garment industry produces something like 8% of the world’s greenhouse gases

Wit López: Yup.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: with all of the growing of cotton and all of the shipping of, you know, that t-shirt from China to your local H&M and the folks that are making these products, that are growing the cotton, that are sewing our clothes, are working for slave wages, you know, around the world. So the, the issues that are present in some of these pieces, um, they look to the past, but they also confront a present that, um, uh, that is, you know, shockingly and painfully similar in, um, in the, the human impact.

Wit López: Absolutely, absolutely. Thank you. Um, so, before you were curating this 10th anniversary of 30 Americans here at the Barnes, do you recall the way you felt when you first heard of the exhibition?

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: Yeah, this is a legendary exhibition, right?

Wit López: Absolutely.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: So, when it started traveling, um, and particularly when it was at the Corcoran, um, uh, you know, was when I first started hearing about it. Um, it had debuted in Miami in, uh, the winter of 2008-2009, um, as a part of the, um, uh, the lead up to Art Basel Miami Beach, to, you know, Miami Art Week, uh, the Rubell family decided that they were going to mount this exhibition. They wanted to feature works by African-American artists, which they’d been collecting for, um, for several decades, and they were really concerned initially that the artists be on board, um, because doing an exhibition that is organized, which is at least partially organized around issues of, of race, in the case of, you know, being black artists, or gender, women artists, you know, trans artists, whatever, um, this is an issue when it’s anybody who’s not a white man, right? (laughter) There’ve been exhibitions of white male artists,

Wit López: Definitely.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: Um, nobody ever, (laughters) nobody ever asks a white man if they want to be included in a show with a bunch of other white men.

Wit López: It’s true, it’s true.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: Cause that’s just, that’s the definition. (laughter)

Wit López: Exactly.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: And, but, but with artists of color, um, you know, this is a question because many artists of color have wanted to be seen just as artists or to have their, their race, um, their racial identity, their interest in, in, um, in race as a subject be something that’s secondary, um, and so the Rubells reached out to a lot of the artists, um, you know, to the living ones, obviously, um, and said, “Are you comfortable with this show? Are you comfortable with being in a show that, that has race as one of the organizing factors?” And, um, the majority of the artists said that they were totally fine with that because the artists who are in the show were their friends, were artists that they admired, artists that influenced their work,

Wit López: Definitely.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: some of them had been their teachers, and you know, this is one of the things about artistic communities, right? You know, artists, most, many, some, you know, don’t work in isolation, right?

Wit López: Yes.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: They have support from their peers, they have folks that they admire, um, and so to be, to have your work, put in conversation with those other artists is really important, and that was one of the things that they heard back, um, from some of the artists was that they were very happy to be included in an exhibition, um, uh, with those folks in it as well. Um,

Wit López: Absolutely.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: and so when the show started traveling, you know, it was just after the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States, and it was a moment when there seemed to be so much potential and so much hope for, uh, you know, the future. Um, the, Obamas began to display a lot of diverse art in the White House. And to, um,

Wit López: Yes.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: promote a lot of artists that they had been interested in, particularly from Chicago. Um, you know, they’re big collectors of folks like, um, Kerry James Marshall, Theastor Gates,

Wit López: Oh, wonderful.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: and, uh, they had a real interest in, um, uh, contemporary art and challenging art and art that came with, you know, multiple layers of understanding, um, and so as the show, you know, was rolling along over the last decade I would, I would try and see it whenever I could. I saw it out in Tacoma, Washington, I saw it in Washington D C., um, and it was really interesting to see the way that it impacted the, the different communities that it went to, and to be able to reflect on that, um, for the essay that goes along with the catalog, um, was really interesting, um, to consider just how much has changed and how so many of these artists in the exhibition are, are doing work that, um, is, uh, gaining huge amounts of attention, um, worldwide, um, and throughout the United States, and, um, and to see the ways that contemporary art has changed, the ways that, um, uh, the kind of the history of African-American art is being rewritten, um, uh, through a contemporary lens, um, and to also consider what, you know, how the market has changed and how prices have changed. You know, the museums, we don’t, people don’t like to talk about prices. They don’t like to talk about value. But with African-American art, with contemporary African-American art, I think it’s really important that we consider the ways that things have changed.

Wit López: Yes, I agree.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: You know, for Jean-Michel Basquiat,

Wit López: Yeah.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: for example,

Wit López: Absolutely. I was, that was exactly what came to mind, that huge sale that happened recently.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: Yeah! Two years ago, over $110 million for a painting by Basquiat making him the, you know, the highest, that’s the highest price for a contemporary, you know, work of contemporary American art, but it’s also, if you think about Matisse, who is so important to the history of the Barnes Foundation, the highest price for a Matisse is $80 million.

Wit López: Wow, wow.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: So we think about, you know, where the market is, and, and where, you know, and market, in some ways is a horrible thing because the artists (laughter) get very little of that in the end.

Wit López: Right, right.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: Right? And especially the dead ones, they get nothing. (laughter)

Wit López: Exactly.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: They get nothing. But these shifts happen over time, so, uh, Kerry James Marshall, who’s featured in the exhibition, um, one of his, um, teachers, uh, you know, like, and Marshall’s work is, um, you know, trending up, you know, upwards $20 million now

Wit López: Wow.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: for pieces on the, um, the secondary market. But one of his teachers was Charles White, who was super important in, uh, to mid-century American art and through the early seventies. And Charles White’s work was recently moved by Sotheby’s from the American Sale into the Evening Contemporary Sale, and now White’s work is trending upwards of $1.8 million, which, you know, there are dilemmas about this. People say, “Oh man, now, you know, black folks can’t afford, you know, black art anymore.” Well, you know, like, there’s plenty of black art out there. You might not be able to afford (laughter) that piece,

Wit López: True, true.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: but there are lots of other black artists that you can feel free to support

Wit López: Absolutely.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: and invest in, um, you know, et cetera. And so, I think that it’s, it’s really important to consider the, the kinds of changes that have happened and that they have happened in part because of the visibility that shows like 30 Americans have done

Wit López: Yes, yes.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: and the change in composition of the curatorial staffs of a lot of the prominent museums, which is glacial, but it’s happening.

Wit López: Absolutely, absolutely. I agree with both statements. Yes, it is glacial and it is happening. (laughter)

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: Poco a poco. Little by little. (laughter)

Wit López: Absolutely. So something else that I noticed, which I deeply appreciated concerning the complexity of conversations around this topic, was the presence of hair in the space and the presence of hair in the art and how within the African diaspora globally hair is a huge issue, not, and not an issue in a bad way, but it’s an issue that constantly comes up, it’s a conversation that’s constantly had and it can be a very complex conversation. So I noticed that there were a few pieces there that had hair. So when you were deciding which pieces of which artists to show, did you think about that as part of the conversation? Was that part of your thought process?

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: Hair is super important. (laughter) If I was, if I was not going to be an art historian, I would have been a hairdresser, so there you go.

Wit López: Nice, nice.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: Um, you know, I think that one of the places in the gallery where you see a few pieces that engage, kind of, questions of beauty and questions of hair, for example, is, there’s the Lorna Simpson piece with the wigs.

Wit López: Yes, absolutely.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: Um, these are lithographs, um, of different hair pieces: falls, wigs, there’s even a merkin in there, (laughter)

Wit López: I’ll tell you later. (laughter)

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: There, I think there was an episode of The L Word that talked about merkins (laughter) Uh, and in the, and so to think about, like, what hair means and how hair can be a kind of a costume that we put on and we take off, um, that we transform, um, as a way to kind of control parts of our bodies that have not always been ours. Right?

Wit López: Absolutely.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: And how we, um, are able to, you know, form our identity and reform it on a regular basis in ways that either, um, you know, cleaves to, conforms to other people’s expectations or, kind of, you know, righteously declares our own, right? and the ways that, uh, we want to self-present. You know, under, uh, under the, you know, in the history of enslavement, in some parts of the country, like, for example, in New Orleans, black women were, um, you know, made to cover their hair.

Wit López: Absolutely, absolutely.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: Right? To wear the tignon, um, as a way to, um, uh, uh, to make them less attractive to white men, right?

Wit López: Yup.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: This was the, the rationale behind it.

Wit López: That’s what the law says, yup.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: Yeah.

Wit López: Yeah.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: And so to think about the freedom to show one’s hair and to style it however one wanted to,

Wit López: Yes, yes.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: you know, I think this is a really, um, you know, black hair has been political at different moments,

Wit López: Absolutely.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: which, you know, seem to continue into the present one.

Wit López: Absolutely.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: Um, and so it, you know, it’s prevalent both in the work of African-American women artists, um, but also of men. Um, in the opposite gallery, there’s a piece by David Hammons, which uses hair that was swept up from the floor of barber shops in Harlem, um, to create a, kind of a head, um, with a, with a piece of stone, with a stone, um, and then there’s hair on top of it, so it anthropomorphizes it. It makes it like a human body

Wit López: Yes.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: by adding the hair to it.

Wit López: Yes.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: But you know, hair is this, its this funny thing, cause you know, like as soon as it falls off, it’s kind of like dirty and garbage and it needs to be swept away, and, um, but it’s also something that, uh, you know, that, that a lot of black women pay a lot of money for, you know,

Wit López: Absolutely.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: to come off the heads of, you know, women in India (laughter) or whatever, and, um, and so it’s, it, it holds a lot of currency.

Wit López: Absolutely.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: Right? A lot of cultural capital.

Wit López: Yes. A lot of cultural capital is tied into hair. Thank you for mentioning that. I appreciate that. So, here’s a question for folks who may be listening, but as a black curator and black art historian, do you have any words of wisdom for aspiring and emerging black curators and art historians who are trying to find their way both through academia and into the world of museum leadership?
Shaw: Yeah. Well, I would say don’t walk away from academia too fast. Um, get your PhD if you can. You know, if, if you feel like you’re willing to put that five to seven years in, do it. Um, when I started, um, working for museums in the early 1990s, I found constantly the issues of race, gender, class. People tried to stop me so many times, and so I felt it was really necessary to go back and to finish my PhD. Um, and I see this today, you know, in museums, um, there, uh, uh, you know, you read about the appointments, particularly like in New York recently of several, um, black curators, um, uh, at, uh, you know, at the junior level as curatorial assistants and assistant curators, and I think this is really great. Um, uh, most of them are focused on contemporary art, um, and I would encourage folks to really, you know, if they’re interested, to get as broad a training as possible, particularly historically. Um, my focus in my research and my writing goes from the 18th century to the contemporary moment.

Wit López: Wow.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: Um, I focused on issues of race, class, gender, sexuality. That’s what ties my work together. It’s not the temporal moment or the geographic location, but rather it’s how have these questions been addressed by artists, um, uh, over the last several centuries in colonial and post-colonial contexts, so I’m really interested in thinking about the art of the United States, but it’s much more helpful for me to compare that to art that was made in Brazil by African-descended people there. What is the difference in the context-

Wit López: Mm.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: for African-descended people, um, uh, in South America than in North America? Or even in the United States, how is it different in the Protestant North versus, you know, Catholic Louisiana, Catholic Baltimore?

Wit López: Absolutely.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: And you know, to think in those ways. And, you know, it can be super tempting to get that MA and run. (laughter) But, and for some folks, that’s a good decision.

Wit López: It’s true. Definitely, definitely.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: But, the reality of racism, and the reality of, um, uh, nepotism, um

Wit López: Absolutely,

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: in the museum world,

Wit López: Yes, yes.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: I’m just saying a straight, is that if, (laughter)

Wit López: It’s true. (laughter)

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: if you don’t have all the qualifications they’re looking for, it’s much easier to be stopped in your tracks, and then you still get stopped even when you do, so,

Wit López: Yeah, absolutely.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: however, you know, whatever, you know, whatever level you can take it to in terms of, um, training, experience, um, and then tenacity.

Wit López: Mm.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: Right? Tenacity. You have to, you have to grow that tough skin. Um, you have to find, you know, who your real allies are. Um, you know,

Wit López: Yes. (laughter)

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: find your real people. Um, and, you know, and, and build those networks. Um, one of the first museum jobs that I did, I had a fellowship called the Romare Bearden, um, Graduate Museum Fellowship at the St. Louis Art Museum. I was the second or third person who did that back in the early nineties. It’s still going on. There are over 30 of us.

Wit López: Wow.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: Mostly African American women, a few men, a few other people of color.

Wit López: That’s wonderful.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: It’s been amazing, and we’re all over the country in different museums and in academia, um, and it’s a sort of, I want to call it a sorority ‘cause there are only a couple of guys in it, but (laughter) It’s a sorority and we support each other

Wit López: That’s wonderful.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: you know, in different ways, but, you know, there are, there are a lot of opportunities, um, uh, you know, out there, but not all of them last. Not all of them go for that long. I did-

Wit López: Absolutely.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: I did an internship once at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. I was the only person to ever do that diversity internship. They killed it the next year.

Wit López: Aww.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: But I kept working there for five years

Wit López: Ooh, wonderful.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: while I was at Stanford as a graduate student. Um, just, you know, like a little bit, and keeping my finger in it was really important. Um, and, you know, I, I’m grateful I did it, but, um, not everybody there was welcoming and helpful all the time, and that’s why I knew I had to go back and get that “Dr.” attached to my name. (laughter)

Wit López: Well, that’s wonderful. And I appreciate your time, I appreciate your energy, I appreciate your wisdom, and I appreciate your curatorial brilliance that is up there in the gallery here at the Barnes Foundation. So thank you so much, Dr. Shaw, for joining me today on Artblog Radio. This has been a really wonderful experience, thank you so much.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw: Oh, you’re welcome. I hope everybody comes out and sees 30 Americans before it closes on January 12th because it’s dynamite.

Wit López: I hope so too. It is dynamite. (laughter) So you heard it directly from Dr. Shaw: make sure you make it down to the Barnes to see 30 Americans before it closes on January, 12th, 2020. Alright, y’all, that’s it for the day. Bye.

Tags

30 americans, african american, art, barnes foundation, cities, curator, Director, Director of History, doctor, Dr. Shaw, gwendolyn dubois shaw, institutions, miami, national portrait gallery, painting, Perez Art Museum, professor, research, rubell family collection, Rubells, Scholarship, sculpture, smithsonian, thirty, university of pennsylvania, Woman

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