Who belongs in a museum? Who belongs in the canon? As museums contend with their legacies as colonial institutions and repositories of material evidence of power and privilege, curators have a mission: Expand access, integrate those who have been erased, and rewrite art history.
Museums navigate their roles as society reckons with systemic racism and historic erasure of BIPOC people. They’re examining their collections for looted art, and viewing famous landmarks, such as Cyrus Dallin’s “Appeal to the Great Spirit” at the Museum of Fine Arts’s entrance, through new eyes.
We asked four New England curators, recently hired or newly promoted in the last two years, to choose works in their museums that reflect some of those tensions, and discuss how they’re confronting the task ahead.
Horace D. Ballard, associate curator of American art, Harvard Art Museums
“People working in museums see ourselves as on the vanguard of inquiry, and on the vanguard of helping our communities suture their lived experience to communities of the past,” said Ballard.
The curator, who was born in Lynchburg, Va., has been employed in academic museums since he was 18, working at the Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia, where he went to college. He came to Harvard last year from Williams College Museum of Art. During his two decades in the field, he said, the culture has changed. Museums have become more like local libraries, Ballard said — and that’s good.
“Museums saw the ways that libraries were showing up in communities and said, ‘We can do the same thing. We are also stewards of the great narratives and stories of human civilization,’” he said.
The shift toward a more community-friendly library model, he added, has brought a “deep integration between education, interpretation, and curatorial [departments], particularly around collections.”
Curators craft stories, and Ballard is eager to unearth new ones — of African diasporic artists in the Americas, of women, of Indigenous people.
“I feel in my work that I’m not telling new things, I’m telling true things,” he said. They’re just being told sometimes for the first time, sometimes in a new way.”
His first exhibition at Harvard will open in March: “De los Andes al Caribe: el arte americano desde el imperio español / From the Andes to the Caribbean: American Art from the Spanish Empire.”
“It makes the case right off the bat that the idea of America is an ideological construct,” he said. “The idea of America … starts in 1492, and it starts with the Spanish empire.”
“It is the clearest representation of Washington, to my knowledge, of him standing in the direct pose of the coronation portrait of George III, a pose meant for kings,” Ballard said.
The label details Washington’s history as an enslaver, and he added an image of George III’s royal portrait. Viewers can compare the king and the president, and note Washington’s similar stance. The stance is one of power, but the context is different. The war had ended, and a new democracy was being born.
“His entire body is posed as an answer to this question, ‘After revolution, what comes next?’” Ballard said.
Asking that loaded question has framed the curator’s approach to his work.
“It has transformed the way that I have been able to talk about portraiture,” Ballard said. “Portraiture is a medium that often presents as fixed. But as I think about it and research it, what I love about it is that it’s full of anxieties.”
Michael J. Bramwell, curator of folk and self-taught art, Museum of Fine Arts
“Spoiler alert,” said Bramwell. “I’m looking to get rid of the whole designation of folk art. It’s a way of othering.”
He’s not getting rid of the title just yet. He doesn’t want to disorient people, he said. “But If you come here to see folk and self-taught art, you’re going to get an education. You’re going to have an expanded view of what you came to see,” Bramwell said.
He chose someone many don’t think of as a folk artist as a standout in the MFA’s collection: Renowned painter and collage artist Romare Bearden, (1911-1988) whose collage, “Family,” is in the current exhibition “Touching Roots: Black Ancestral Legacies in the Americas.”
“He studied education, and then worked for years as a social worker,” Bramwell said.
Bramwell, who grew up in Harlem, said he could relate. His position in the Art of the Americas department, which he took in June, is the latest chapter in a career that has included mental health counseling, special education, and visual and performance art. In 2017, his performance piece, “Cultural Maintenance – Russia,” called attention to the relative invisibility of maintenance workers at The Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia, as he joined them sweeping up and with trash disposal.
In March, Bramwell will be working on “Hear Me Now: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina,” co-organized by the MFA and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which features work by enslaved 19th-century potter David Drake. The catalog features an essay co-written by Bramwell and the MFA’s Art of the Americas chair Ethan Lasser.
He said he was looking forward to working with the museum’s Karolik Collection of American Folk Art, acquired by visionary collector Maxim Karolik in the mid 20th-century. Bramwell is also excited to find contemporary artists in faith communities, disabilities programs, and hospitals. He’ll start by visiting collectors of self-taught art, and self-taught artists with established careers, such as Lonnie Holley.
It’s a win-win strategy: Shake up the canon and reach out to new audiences in one fell swoop.
“I’m sure in some congregation there are women who have been making quilts, who have been making drawings, who have been doing things that they just do,” Bramwell said.
“These are people who are not within the mean,” he added. “Someone has to go a couple of standard deviations over, find them and bring them into the museum setting.”
First he plans to find artists who may be known only to a select few, like the Gee’s Bend quiltmakers once were, or painter Thornton Dial. Then he’ll install their work side by side with established artists.
“Look at the German painter and sculptor Anselm Kiefer. Put Thornton Dial next to him, and I dare you to see the difference,” Bramwell said.
The art of both is rough-hewn and epic.
“The aesthetic expression is just as powerful. I want to be able to bring those synergies together,” Bramwell said.
Jami Powell, curator of Indigenous art, Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College
Jami Powell was raised in a military family, moving around the country, and spent summers with her extended family in Kansas and Oklahoma.
“Growing up, when I would go to museums, I would see representations of my community or of other Indigenous peoples that were disrespectful and incorrect and sometimes violent. And I felt ashamed and embarrassed about being an Osage person,” Powell said. “I realized that if I wanted to tell different stories, I had to be the person in charge of putting things out in the gallery.”
The curator arrived at the Hood in 2018 as the institution’s first associate curator of Native American art. Last year, she was named its first curator of Indigenous art. She stewards a collection of more than 4,000 Native North American works and more than 1,000 Indigenous Australian pieces.
Several of the Hood’s bark paintings are in “Maḏayin: Eight Decades of Aboriginal Australian Bark Painting from Yirrkala,” which opened at the museum in September, overseen by Powell and organized by the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia.
When the curator was in graduate school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the 2010s, she feared the push for inclusivity in museums would be fleeting.
“I felt like maybe the door was cracking a little bit, and I felt that sense of urgency of, ‘Oh, I have to kind of step in and create all the space I can,’” she said.
That’s changed, she said, as positions for Indigenous curators continue to open up. (Earlier this month, for instance, the Trustees of Reservations hired Tess Lukey [Aquinnah Wampanoag] as associate curator of Native American art.)
“This isn’t something that’s going to go away,” Powell said.
Now that she’s in the door, there are stories to tell. “There are many, many versions of American history, but one is taught and one is presented in museums,” Powell said. “How can we expand the narrative of American art history to be fully inclusive of all the multiplicity and complexity and violence that really characterizes our nation and its history?”
To that end, she calls attention to Cara Romero, a Chemehuevi photographer based in Santa Fe. Romero will have her first solo museum exhibition at the Hood in 2025. Her “3 Sisters” features women representing corn, bean, and squash — a sacred trio in many Indigenous communities.
“It’s a work by an Indigenous woman,” Powell said, “that speaks to a possible future when the knowledge and power of Native women is acknowledged and valued.”
Stephanie Hueon Tung, curator of photography, Peabody Essex Museum
“The colonial legacy,” Tung said, “needs to be said plainly and spoken out loud.”
That thorny topic was central in her mind as she worked with co-curator Karina H. Corrigan on “Power and Perspective: Early Photography in China,” which opened last month at PEM — her first big exhibition there.
“We address the colonial legacy of the medium,” Tung said. “We think about how photography is not a neutral form of documentation, that it’s always about history and politics and people coming together.”
Many photographs in the exhibition were made by Westerners depicting a foreign land; their perspective is skewed by notions of imperialism and exotica.
“Who’s not pictured in these photographs?” she asked.
The curator has been at Peabody Essex since 2018, where she began as assistant curator of photography. This past May, she was promoted to curator.
Tung grew up in Denville, N.J. When she went to college at Harvard and discovered the Fogg Art Museum, she was captivated. She also explored the streets of Boston on the lookout for graffiti; her undergraduate thesis was about graffiti in 1970s New York. She graduated in 2006.
“I loved going to museums in college. I quickly also realized that they had a very narrow definition of what art was,” she said. “Our definitions of art are much, much wider now.”
So, perhaps, are the audiences. As museums rethink their role, Tung sees her job as reaching out to welcome visitors who may have previously felt left out of the story.
“Access, telling stories, connecting,” Tung said. “How to make art relevant and exciting and tell historical stories with factual accuracy and opportunities to critically reflect.”
To that end, for “Power and Perspective,” she invited emerging photographers from underrepresented groups in China to create art in response to the exhibition. They include the piece she said reflects the complexities of curating today: Shi Yangkun’s “Forty Views of Yuanmingyuan,” prints on postcards from wet plate collodion negatives — the 19th-century technique used by photographers in the show.
“They are beautiful, but also hard to see. There’s a lot of distortions. There’s a lot of gaps and losses,” Tung said. “He’s exploring the ways knowledge can distort and also become missing over time and place.”
Rather like history itself.