Born in Chicago, Naomi Beckwith grew up with an interest in science before moving on to the art world, receiving her MA from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, focusing on Adrian Piper and Carrie Mae Weems in her thesis. After graduating from the Andy Warhol Foundation for Visual Arts in 2008, she went on to work as the Associate Curator at The Studio Museum in Harlem. Now, Beckwith is back in her hometown and ready to take on the Windy City’s art scene once again. U.S. editor at Flash Art International, and artist, Nicola Trezzi had the opportunity to speak with Beckwith for FLATT.
NICOLA TREZZI: It’s great to finally meet you in person after we worked together on the wonderful Rashid Johnson feature you wrote for Flash Art International. Our mutual friend Jan Tichy just showed us, “aroundcenter” his project at the Chicago Cultural Center and now we are catching a bus together, heading to the next destination: the MCA, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. On the bus I would like to start my interview with the following question: You grew up in Chicago and now you are working at MCA, how does it feel to be back home?
NAOMI BECKWITH: Funny, being back in Chicago doesn’t always feel like a return. There are plenty of places that are familiar and I even have this memory in my body – I walk down certain streets in the exact same steps I did as a teenager! Same side, same turns – but there is an old adage that says “you can never step into the same river twice.” The same is true with Chicago: the city has grown and changed and so have I. Being here is like being in the comfort of an old, good friend that you know really well but don’t see very often. You feel comfortable with each other but you have so much to discover since you last met.
NICOLA TREZZI: Speaking of old friends, please tell me about your encounter with American artist Mark Dion and how he changed your understanding of contemporary art.
NAOMI BECKWITH: Mark was invited to Chicago by Mary Jane Jacob who, working with Sculpture Chicago, brought several artists to work with different communities around the city for a year. It was “social practice” avant la lettre. Mark, whose work performs archeology and scientific inquiry, often takes on high school students as his ‘assistants’. I was a total science geek in high school so I thought it would be great to work with this ecology project where we would travel the world – we visited a Belizean rain forest – studying the natural and man-made environment.
That year was AMAZING! Camping in the rain forest was a revelation; we had weekly lectures and workshops; we started a club house in Lincoln Park way back when it had little edge to it still, I learned how to play croquet – basically, this gaggle of kids was treated like a group of scholarly adults. I finished that year thinking I was going to be doctor, but I hadn’t realized that I just learned first-hand about complicated conceptual art, perfomativity, installation art and social sculpture. When that whole science thing didn’t flourish for me career-wise, art was the one thing that could hold my attention. After being pre-med in undergrad, I went on to grad school in London where, coincidentally, Mark was doing a commission for the soon-to-open Tate Modern and he had me hired on that project too! Mark and I are still friends to this day and I owe my entire career to that year under his wing. He’s still super generous: the MCA just acquired a fabulous installation of his and, if you look very hard, you’ll find an image of me somewhere in there.
Installation view, Homebodies, MCA Chicago, 2013. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago
NICOLA TREZZI: Hearing you describe your experience with Mark Dion, I was wondering if you could tell me, how do you proceed when you organize a solo exhibition? Do you have a protocol? Or it depends? What is the most peculiar experience you had while working with an artist on a show?
NAOMI BECKWITH: Protocol be damned! Every project is a new adventure and that’s what makes this work so exciting. Yes, as a museum curator my job is to make the dreams of the artist possible within the rules and parameters of the institution but you can’t have a formula when working with living artists. Every artist has different needs and different styles of working so I simply adjust, I guess you can’t be a stickler for rules and want to work with contemporary artists.
I’ve had some somewhat peculiar experiences but most are fairly benign: I’ve had to lock down a gallery because the artist needed to be naked to finish a work, I’ve needed to source live birds for an exhibition, and an artist requested Michael Jackson write for the catalogue. All this is nothing compared to Chris Burden who tried to starve himself to death at the MCA many years ago! One of the most charming and queer experiences was being at the ICA in Philadelphia during the John Armleder project. John has an alter ego, Parker Williams, and sometimes it wasn’t clear to whom you were speaking. Best part: John would order two Philly cheese steaks when out on the town – one for him and one for Parker.
NICOLA TREZZI: What makes you very special among your colleagues is your experience in the US and in Europe. What is the difference between London, where you studied, New York, where you worked at the Studio Museum Harlem, and Chicago where you are now? What are the good sides and bad sides of these three cities?
NAOMI BECKWITH: Those are some really large questions and I’ll try not to offend anyone! Chicago has the worst weather but is it the warmest city, personality-wise. Studio visits here are hours-long social events rather than professional meetings. The city can be really embracing and eager to learn and absorb new ideas and people. But make no mistake; Chicago doesn’t suffer any fools and will knock you down if you don’t behave. Chicagoans have a lot of civic pride – which I shamelessly took with me everywhere I’ve lived – and really believe in service and community. I really feel a sense of responsibility to making sure that I take my education and experiences I’ve gained away from this town and use them to make sure incredible and inclusive art and culture happen in this city.
New York is several small, dense towns in a big city. People talk about dreams of ‘conquering’ the city as if she’s a wild beast. But I quickly realized that you don’t get to conquer or even ‘know’ New York, you find your niche and work with that. “Niche” doesn’t have to mean anything small either: the arts community is really sizable in New York and comprised of some of the most accomplished and ambitious people in the world. New York also quickly embraces what’s happening outside the academy and institutions – it believes in “the streets” and why not? That’s why cities were invented. New York, however, will often believe the hype.
London is a capital city, and knows it, but isn’t full of itself. It believes in a correct way of doing things (like driving on the left side of the street) but will open up to difference. Being an old city, it’s incredibly walk-able and you can take as much inspiration from visiting the world-class museums to strolling the streets. I find the cordiality of Brits very easy, rather than cold, as some people claim. But it is turning into a playground for the rich; I simply don’t know how artists will continue to thrive there without (ever dwindling) state subsidies. I found it affordable, honestly, when I was there as a student but those days are over.
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: “Any Number of Preoccupations”
The Studio Museum in Harlem Fall/Winter 2010–2011 Organized by Naomi Beckwith.
NICOLA TREZZI: I wanted to ask a question that relates to the museum context: there are many speculations about “exhibition making” and curators taking up a new kind authorship. What is your point of view?
NAOMI BECKWITH: Yes, this is coming up more and more on panels and in conferences. I truly believe that every exhibition is a position or a distinct narrative and it’s up to the curator to shape that. But I also believe that I have to take up that position and then become invisible for the sake of the art and the artists. Really, the art world has phases like any other discipline – curators are hot right now and so is the market. I benefit more from the former, obviously, but I’m an old soul and I think that this, too, shall pass.
NICOLA TREZZI: Is there a curator whose work you particularly follow? And if any, why?
NB: I’m always looking to the work of Nigerian-born curator Okwui Enwezor, who is the director of the Haus der Kunst in Munich. He’s incredibly learned but savvy about making sure that his shows make a real argument for the art and artists that he presents. He’s also good at making the visitor rethink history, politics, and social life. I can’t wait for the next Venice Biennial he will direct. I also love curators who work with a sheer elegance such as Magalí Arriola, who is curator at Fundación Jumex Arte Contemporáneo in Mexico City.
NICOLA TREZZI: What is your dream-exhibition? A project you would like to realize but you never had the chance?
NAOMI BECKWITH: I can’t say that, I’ll jinx it!
NICOLA TREZZI: OK! So instead please name a serious exhibition you saw that really change your perception on art and why, and name an exhibition you could never do because the premises are opposite to your working method.
NAOMI BECKWITH: The first exhibition I saw that really made me aware the curatorial process – as well as taught me something about the artist – was “Odilon Redon: Prince of Dreams, 1840-1916” organized by Douglas Druick at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1994. I was still in college and not yet imaging myself a curator, but I remember very much thinking that the show didn’t have a simple logic (it wasn’t totally chronological nor was it completely thematic) but it started to cross-reference things in subtle, but revelatory ways. This was the moment that I realized that someone was shaping a story for me about this artist.
I would never do a show about the primacy of painting or something super-conservative like that. I’m also very suspect, actually, I am offended, by shows that take on “global” issues but only focus on the US and Western Europe. I’m not going to name names, but I’ve been seeing some very grand claims about modernism, history, and the world in the last couple of years and the scholarship is, in a word, sloppy. Not every show needs to be an all-inclusive, kumbaya, smorgasbord of art from everywhere, but I think curators and institutions need to refine their arguments sometimes, or at least be aware that not everyone thinks that Euro-centric cultural production is the only way to organize art.
NICOLA TREZZI: My last question: What’s coming next at MCA? What are you working on?
NAOMI BECKWITH: I’m about to open an exhibition featuring a beautiful, hazy, silent, two-channel film project created by artist Leslie Hewitt and Chicago-born cinematographer Bradford Young. The two of them researched an archive of Civil Rights-era photography at the Menil Collection and then set across the US looking for traces of significance in unmarked places where key moments of the Civil Rights Movement and the Great Migration took place. It’s like looking for well-heeled ghosts rather than looking for battle scars.
I’m also looking forward to bringing new Yinka Shonibare, MBE sculptures to Chicago. He’s just done a series of monumental scales objects that look like those wonderful, patterned fabrics billowing in the wind yet frozen in time. It’s the first time he’s created an object where the fabrics he so often works with are illusions rather than literal cloth. Come to think of it, both projects are about freezing time or going back into an imagined history – maybe I’m feeling the need to slow down a bit.