Disclaimer: This video is unedited and contains several “unbeeped” profanities.
Kippen de Alba Chu: Good morning, everyone. Yeah, this morning’s script was changed on me, so I’m going to go back to the original. No, just joking. By the way, I was able to remove the electronic buzzer from my suit last night. But wouldn’t that be a great device for our museums? Could you imagine, say, embedding them in the chairs of our board meeting rooms? So that during the next trustee meeting, we say, “Sorry, we cannot deaccession one of our 200 Remington paintings just to sell it to you.” Bzzz! Anyway.
We hope you are having a great meeting and that you enjoyed last night’s opening party. Let’s once again thank our incredible hosts, the New Orleans Museum of Art, the New Orleans Botanical Garden, and the Louisiana Children’s Museum. Awesome!
Before we begin, we do have some late-breaking news. I wish there were some CNN graphics here because then I would channel James Earl Jones, right? This is AAM, the most trusted name in museums. But I do have a brief update for you. Due to a last-minute emergency, today’s session will not be live captioned. We are recording the session and will post the video on our website along with closed captions as soon as we can. We thank you for your understanding and apologize for the inconvenience.Skip over related stories to continue reading article
Okay. As AAM’s unprecedented National Initiative Facing Change gets underway in five cities across the US, I would like to reflect on what I see as the biggest challenges or the biggest challenge we face: that we are already enlightened, and it is other people who must change. Let me explain.
Given all of the media characterizations of red and blue states, left versus right, conservatives versus liberals, and Donald Trump’s base versus everyone else, it is no wonder that we sense a polarized country. Unfortunately, the political situation in Washington and I’m talking about Congress, the White House, and the Supreme Court is not abnormal. Our current system is perfectly aligned to deliver the results we now have. There is no dysfunction. The system was designed to minimize change, promote the status quo, and discourage real leadership. It continues to operate as intended, and if we truly want radically different results, then we have to acknowledge that we need a radically different system.
As for assumptions and stereotypes, let me give you some background first. I recently went through a major transition. I had served for 12 years as the executive director of Iolani Palace in Honolulu, Hawai’i, a place where I was born and spent most of my life. A couple of years ago, I decided I needed to change. I was looking for a change professionally. So last year, I reached out to a friend of mine, Van Romans, the president of the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History. I just called him on a whim and said, “Hey, Van. Do you know of any museum that is looking for a number two position? Like a chief operating officer?” Little did I know that Van was actually in the middle of a search at that very moment. I don’t think he had officially posted the job announcement yet because he kept asking me, “How did you know?” I seriously did not know. It was just timing.
Anyway, last November, I flew to Fort Worth for the very first time and interviewed with Van. He offered me the job a short time later, and with my family, we made the collective decision to leave Hawai’i for Texas. I keep getting asked that question in Texas: “Why did you leave Hawai’i for Texas?” However, once the word got out, a lot of people started to share with me their assumptions and stereotypes. And I’m not just talking about people in Hawai’i, but from across the US. They were telling me about the “Texas” that I was moving to. A deep red state. Racist, religiously conservative. Big guns, and even bigger trucks. But these assumptions were all two dimensional and rudimentary. They didn’t even begin to paint an accurate picture, yet we are accustomed to reaching for quick and simple descriptions of people and places we don’t like.
Assumptions are a way to conveniently justify our point of view, which we believe is always correct, to the detriment of any facts to the contrary. In the book Unleashing the Power of Unconditional Respect, it describes our tendency to automatically assume the following: the way I see something is the way it is; the way I feel about someone is the way he or she is; the way I remember an event is the way it was; if you disagree with me, you are stupid, a liar, or psychotic. Yet the irony here is that our assumptions are actually blinding us. We are deceiving ourselves through self-imposed ignorance, and probably the only reason it is not considered pathological is that it is endemic.
In a survey conducted recently by Civic Science, over 3,000 Americans were asked if schools should teach Arabic numerals, to which 56% of the respondents said no. 56%. I bet those same respondents would say that Central America is somewhere in Nebraska. The same survey also asked for people’s political affiliation, and I know what you are thinking, and you would be right. Of those who identified as Republican, 72% said Arabic numerals should not be taught in schools, whereas only 34% of Democrats said so. However, in another recent survey, people were asked whether science curriculum in schools should include the creation theory by Catholic priest George Lemaître. 73% of Democrats said no. And in case you are wondering, George is the father of the big bang theory. Not the television show.
Ignorance is apolitical, and so is bias. It is our interpersonal relationships we bring, our own experiences and background to the table to inform how we see things. It is a mistake to assume that our way of seeing is the only way. To make things worse, add judgment to our assumptions, and you have a recipe for conflict. So let us take a step back and reflect on the following: the way I see something is one way of seeing; the way I feel about someone is the way I feel; the way I remember an event is my memory of that event.
The Facing Change Initiative, through the leadership of AAM and our allies, means the distribution of loss. What we care about is not necessarily what would motivate other people. We literally have to sell DEAI. Leadership is inherently subversive, and some people will attack us personally to divert from what we are doing. Others deeply entrenched in the current system will be passive aggressive, cheering on our work and telling us how courageous we are, all the while secretly enticing us to walk off the cliff. From our own allies, those dedicated to DEAI day in and day out, they will say that we aren’t doing enough, and by the way, we are taking way too long. What we must remember is that leadership is also about disappointing our own people at a rate they can absorb. The process of change is iterative. It requires inordinate amounts of patience, and it is extremely inefficient, but we can all easily recognize when there is a lack of leadership.
Aside from the leadership aspect of this kind of work, DEAI will also challenge us to be self-aware. We cannot invite others to change if we ourselves refuse to acknowledge our own contribution to this conflict. What I am speaking about here is selective empathy. We feel outrage and often move to action when a person we identify with is harmed, either because they look like us, share similar views, or we judge them to be worthy of our empathy. Yet we do not feel the same when something awful happens to people who share the opposite viewpoint, people with whom we are unable to identify because we have judged them as less than.
When people marching on the streets in support of civil rights are suddenly attacked, we empathize. We mobilize. When Neo-Nazis marching in those same streets in support of white supremacy are suddenly attacked, we watch. Some of us will say they incited the violence, but what we really mean is, they deserved it. Some of us will be indifferent, but there will be little to no empathy. Donald Trump was wrong to say that there were fine people on both sides in Charlottesville. The correct statement would have been, “There were people on both sides.” Human beings.
So here is the crux of the issue; indeed, I would venture to say that the ultimate success of DEAI rests on this: imagine now just one person in that Neo-Nazi march chanting hateful rhetoric, and that one person gets hit in the face with a brick thrown by a counter-protester. Stunned, with a bloodied face, do we really think that all of a sudden, that Neo-Nazi will say, “Gee, I should really re-think my viewpoint. Maybe I shouldn’t be hating on minorities. Immigrants are good for the country. What an epiphany, to be hit by that brick. Thank you.” I can guarantee you, that is not going to happen. In doing this work on DEAI, we cannot launch verbal bricks at those who oppose us. We cannot even think in that way, because we are only going to contribute to more conflict. We must remember that we cannot change other people; our actions, words, and thoughts must exemplify our goals. We must remain open to those who disagree with us and continually invite them to consider what we are trying to accomplish, all without hate, without fear, without judgment.
To expand on Michelle Obama’s often repeated line, “When they go low, we go high,” I would propose to you that we stay high without hubris, kneel down, and our hands always extended to lift them up when they are ready.
Now it is my distinct honor to recognize, along with AAM’s president and CEO, Laura Lott, two museums that are leading the way when it comes to diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion in the museum field. Now in its third year, AAM’s DEAI Awards Program celebrates shining examples of leadership and excellence by institutions, programs, and individuals.
The first of these awards this year goes to the New York Historical Society, which we recognize for its Citizenship Project, a program that helps green card holders study for the naturalization exam using the museum’s rich collections as the context for history education. This inspirational program is catalyzing positive change during a time when issues related to immigration are at the center of our national discourse. Just last year, it was profiled in the documentary film, “Out of Many, One”. Let’s take a look. [Video presentation]
Ruth Bader Ginsberg (RBG): I hereby declare on oath, I will support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.
Speaker 1: I think my greatest happiness is that I could come to America and become an Amercian citizen
Speaker 2: I came here to the United States in 2012. I was suffering persecution from the Venezuelan government. [Spanish 00:15:40]
Speaker 3: Having citizenship is important because of all the insecurity we’re going through at the moment.
Speaker 4: My boss told me, okay…we have to go and clean the twin towers. When I got there, wow.
Speaker 5: To become a citizen you need to love this country, and we do.
Speaker 6: It is really powerful to see why people are coming to this country and why they want to be a part of this country.
Judge: We are a beautiful and substantive and powerful nation because of what you have contributed, and because of what you will contribute.
RBG: After the words “We the people of the United States,” the Constitution sets out the aspiration to form a more perfect union, making ever more vibrant our national motto: e pluribus unum, “Out of many, one.”
Kippen: Please join me in welcoming to the stage, Jennifer Schantz and Samantha Rijkers to accept the award on behalf of the New York Historical Society.
Jennifer Schantz: Hi. My name is Jennifer Schantz. I am the executive vice president and chief operating officer at the New York Historical Society, and along with Samantha Rijkers, my Citizenship Project Manager, we are absolutely thrilled to accept this award. The New York Historical Society’s mission is to make history matter, and the Citizenship Project does just that by transforming people’s lives. Since 2017, we have served over 2,000 green card holders, and now we are taking the program nationally, and we are working with museums around the country to teach them how to use the Citizenship Project in their own museums. Thank you again. We are absolutely thrilled.
Kippen: Congratulations again to the New York Historical Society.
Next, the Alliance is proud to recognize the outstanding work of the Shedd Aquarium. All are Welcome: Accessibility and Inclusion at Shedd Aquarium is a comprehensive organization-wide program to achieve a more accessible and inclusive Shedd for guests, staff, volunteers, and the community. This initiative at Shedd takes a holistic approach to promoting diversity both in the public experience and throughout the organization as a whole. This brief slideshow features some images from this outstanding program. [Slideshow presentation]
Here to accept the award is Kris Nesbitt of the Shedd Aquarium. Congratulations.
Kris Nesbitt: Thank you all on behalf of all of my colleagues at Shedd doing this extraordinary work, and on behalf and in deference to all of you out in the audience who are also doing work to make our organizations accessible and inclusive to all communities. Thank you all, and keep up the good fight.
Kippen: Congratulations again to the Shedd Aquarium.
It is now my honor to introduce to you our facilitator for this morning’s keynote address, Dr. Tonya Matthews. Dr. Matthews is a national thought leader in museum engagement, free choice learning, and equity and inclusion in science, technology, engineering, and math. She is a former AAM board member and currently serves as AAM’s Interim Director of Inclusion. Please join me in giving a warm welcome to Dr. Matthews and to our keynote speaker, Kimberly Drew.
Kimberly Drew: Hello. Oh my God. It’s so early. You guys are awake! Wow. Okay, sorry. I am freaking out. Thank you all so much for being here. I would like to extend a huge note of gratitude, especially to Veronica, who helped coordinate my visit here, and to any person who set up any chair or any pamphlet, stacked any booklet, whatever. I really want to say, first and foremost, thank you so much for that labor. It does not go unappreciated.
Today I’m going to talk to you about my work, my life, this weird phase that I’m in. It is not my most concise moment in life, so I hope that you guys will extend some grace to me as I talk through some of these things.
I first want to start this talk the way that I begin any talk, which is to pay homage to Carter G. Woodson, who is the founder of Negro History Week, which would become Black History Month. He said, “If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.” When I discovered this quote, it became such a motivating force for me. I liked the drama of it; I love the idea of thinking about how to fight not just erasure, but extermination, really. What does it mean to be in service of black art and black culture with that level of danger potentially on the other side if that work isn’t being done?
I discovered that quote around the time that I was interning… Oh yeah, hey. Feel free to tweet and stuff. We love phones. So, I was an intern at the Studio Museum in Harlem, which is really where my story as an arts professional began. I grew up in Orange, New Jersey, which is just outside of Newark, New Jersey, so I always had proximity to an art world or an art center, thinking about Newark being the birthplace of the black arts movement. I have members of my family who are very invested in art; my dad is here somewhere. He was a dad taking me to museums. But it was when I got the Studio Museum that I really began to see a possibility for myself as an intern, as a paid intern very specifically, within that institution. It gave me a glimmer of hope that perhaps the art world could be a space for me.
When I was done with my internship at the Studio Museum, I wanted to continue to learn in the way that I had been learning. I thought about the day that I discovered who Basquiat was, and how I had known who Warhol was in this image, but didn’t know who the black guy next to him was. And I thought, “Wow, there must be so many other black guys I don’t know, much less black women or black gender nonconforming people.” And so when I got back to Smith College the semester after my internship, I immediately went to the Internet, like a true millennial. I was 19 at the time and thought there must be some sort of web resource that does the thing that the Studio Museum does but is more dynamic than a website.
I went researching and could not find a single thing that fit my snobby a– design sense or my need for scholarship, so I decided to start my own blog. I wonder if this… Okay, it’s kind of big. But basically, I reached out to my friend Marcellus, who is an artist now based in Detroit, who really was such an integral figure in the beginning of my career, because we started at the Studio Museum at the same time. I reached out to him because I knew that if I was going to build something that I wanted to do it in community. I have never been a person who thinks they can do it on their own. I’m an only child Leo, but I love working with other people. I play well in groups, I swear.
One of the things that I think is really important to note for anyone who is interested in starting something like the work that I have been doing is that when I started Black Contemporary Art, I knew probably 10 artists’ names, and I built from there up into 5,000 artists exist on the site right now. But it really started as a small idea and became something so much bigger.
This is what the blog kind of looks like now; the colors are inverted to keep the design aesthetic of the slides… But what I decided to do when I was building out the blog, because I also started this with willful ignorance, right? I didn’t think that there was an art history or a space that could be like the Studio Museum, or a space that I could continue to learn about these black artists and find the other Basquiats and find the other Lorna Simpsons or Trenton Doyle Hancocks, and so I went to Tumblr, because I felt like it was the best community for me. It is a community where not only can you be learning and private… I think that the privacy was a big part of it, and having the courage to start something… but also because it was a relationship where you would follow someone and you could reblog or repost what someone else was doing, and so it wasn’t just about being this primary source; it was really about being in community with other people who are interested in similar ideas.
So when I started the blog, I started with my friend Marcellus, and then a whole other host of people who are based in places, and some people I haven’t even met yet, which is the most millennial s— ever… but we all work on this project and have since about 2011.
When the Whitney Museum… I know it’s mad problematic… When the Whitney Museum opened, our forever first lady gave a speech there that also really stuck with me. It was one of those times when… you know when you just find information that really sticks to your ribs? But at the end of her statement, she said, “I guarantee you that right now, there are kids living less than a mile from here who would never in a million years dream that they would be welcome in this museum.” And when that happened, when I heard those words, when I really started to embody that work, it made me think about how having a blog just wasn’t enough. Having this static archival space online was not enough to extend an invitation to people who don’t actually feel like they can interact with this art and these artists in real time. That really inspired me to build out my own voice within this internet-sphere.
At the time that I was starting my museum mammy account, it was almost an impossibility that I was doing the work that I was doing. I really was deep in the throes of imposter syndrome and thought, “This young black queer woman who comes from a family of extreme cultural wealth but maybe not monetary wealth, what does it mean to be invited to the table? What does it mean to be granted these opportunities to learn at the Studio Museum, or at these other art institutions,” which I’ll get to later in my slides. But I thought that it was so surprising that I could be there, that I needed to illustrate that for people, to present my impossibility as a possibility for them.
And so my Instagram looks a lot like this. It’s usually me doing the most in a gallery of some sort, and then getting really emo in the comments. Talking about how I am moved by things, talking about the things that excite me. Taking in artwork that might be an old Renaissance painting and finding myself in it, with the hope that maybe people will start to see themselves in these spaces as well, to remix them, to take them, to reclaim them. But I have always been a very visual learner, and so I hope that through Instagram it can be a place that I continue to at least show people that there is a possibility that maybe they didn’t see there before.
This is another look at the general things I post. There’s some selfies. More selfies now than ever. There’s some memes, there’s friends. Sharing images of friends, for me, has become such a political practice, because I really am not alone in the work that I am doing. Many of you in the room are in community with me, and I think because of my visibility, and especially now that my Instagram has a lot of people following it, it is really important to also guide people to other folks, because I know I’m not everyone’s cup of tea. I know many, many cups of tea, and we can all have them, or you can be someone’s cup of tea.
Next, okay. Outside of Instagram-y stuff, internet stuff, in the beginning part of my career, I also realized that doing stuff on the internet was not enough because… it comes as no surprise to archivists in the room… if Tumblr closed tomorrow, there is no way of recovering those things. The Library of Congress has done great work to try to preserve Twitter, but there is still this kind of lack of safety on the things that we publish and how they will be consumed and understood by future generations, and so I began a process of lecturing, because I was afraid of the practice of writing. I love speaking; I love public speaking; I love opportunities to engage with audiences, and so in the beginning part of my career, I accepted any invitation, whether that meant going to the Bronx for $50 or going to Coachella or whatever. I was lecturing and speaking and trying to spread the gospel of the work that I was doing and the work of others whenever I could.
After lecturing for a few years… Obviously, I still lecture, as I’m lecturing right now… I began to write. I was a kid who… literacy was difficult. Trusting my own voice was always something that was really difficult for me, but I also realize as I became more wise and… almost more cared for, in the art world, that writing is such an important practice to anything that we are doing. It is the transcription; it is the explication of our ideas that is the thing that feels most tangible in terms of passing a baton forward, and I just wanted to be a part of that, so I kind of tricked myself into becoming a writer.
Then the last one, of course, is showing up, which happens in both of those gestures. That means, physically whenever possible, bringing my body into new spaces, with hopes that with every door that I open, that someone else can walk through. One thing that also on this slide is Christine. Hey, boo. Christine, you’re on every single one of my presentations now. One of the talks that I did that really had a profound impact on me in terms of showing up was when I had the great privilege of being in conversation with Christine Sun Kim, who is here with us in the audience today.
Lecturing alongside Christine, I was very nervous, because she is so much smarter than me, and so I was like, “Okay, here we go.” And then something really unexpected for me happened in that moment, because it was the first time that I was in a room also with people who are interpreting in American Sign Language, and I realized that I had been doing all this lecturing, I had been doing all this showing up, but I had never really thought about who wasn’t in the room, and more than that, how I could make it possible for more people to be in the room. And so one thing that I always… in this phase especially of my life, I try to focus on is how to show up in a really slow way. How to show up thinking about, capital A, Accessibility at every turn in every way that is possible.
So this is the slide where I talk about my jobs. My first job out of college was working at Creative Time, which was amazing because it was an institution that does not have brick and mortar space, and so for a social media baby, it was the perfect place to learn. We had to think about how to wayfinding, how to direct, how to engage the archive, how to draw a big circle around all the programming that this organization was doing, and also was led by Anne Pasternak, which was, I think, amazing for myself to be in my first job and… as a “job” job… and have this continuation of strong female leadership in the way that I had had at the Studio Museum in Harlem.
I returned to the Studio Museum in Harlem as an adult person in 2013 to manage their social media, which was an exciting time. This was 2013; this was kind of the birth of Black Twitter, and I thought to myself how I would be the person who would bring Black Twitter to the Studio Museum. Successful or unsuccessful, it was a guiding force and having goals, even if you don’t accomplish them, is great.
After a year at the Studio Museum, I decided to leave for a number of reasons that I won’t get into in this talk, but one of them being that I just wanted to be in a different kind of institution. At this point, I had worked at two relatively small institutions, but I wanted to continue to expand my learning, and I actually got a call from a recruiter that was like, “Oh, this art gallery wants to hire you,” and I found myself working at Lehmann Maupin, which is a private art gallery.
It was such an exciting challenge for me at that stage in my career because galleries are so private, and I’m so nosy. So it was this really beautiful meld that happened where I could figure out ways to turn what people think were secrets into narratives. So what does it mean that this gallery represents 50-some odd artists, and those artists are constantly traveling around the world; they’re having shows in Indianapolis, they’re having shows in Beijing… how can I utilize social media to bring people into that story, so that they can continue to learn more about this very specific set of artists? And also, galleries are free, which is awesome. So what does it mean to work for an institution that people, regardless of their financial standing, can come and at least see art? I was fascinated by that.
It was also exhausting, and so after a year of working in the for-profit world, I ran headfirst back into museums and ended up in the corporate art world at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I applied there after learning from Lucy Redoglia, who used to be the handle at Met every day, who was such an inspirational figure to me in terms of thinking about art and social media… she decided to move back to Los Angeles, and I was Google chatting with her about her role and what she liked, what she didn’t like, yadda yadda yadda… and she encouraged me to apply, and so I did.
So then I found myself at the Met, which was f—– up, because I was a kid who was going to the Met, and suddenly a person who went from understanding the Met through pop culture into understanding the Met as this behemoth institution… That’s me. I screamed at her. I was like, “Robin!” She turned at me. But one thing that is also important in thinking about the Met, and then also thinking about this showing up, thinking about being really engaged and thoughtful and a total noob around issues of accessibility, I thought to myself, “What does it mean that I work at this institution that is mostly known for its steps?” Right? Yes, yes. “What can I do to make sure that the social media that I am writing, the copy that I am presenting, the strategy that I am building, provides as many doors as possible to this institution?” Because I don’t want people who, for whatever reason, are unable to ascend steps, to think that the Met isn’t there for them.
And so my access era, I guess, for lack of better phrasing, at the Met began. I started working with our access coordination department, which is hands down one of the best in the country. And tiny. A tiny but mighty team, and I love them and will get emotional when I start thinking about my work with them… but because we had so many resources, because it’s the Met, I was like, “How can I utilize all these resources for a greater good? What does it mean when I know that I work at an institution that, if the Met can institute something, that maybe other people can institute things?”
So I started partnering with our access department, and our first initiative was partnering with our interpreters to do Facebook Live tours, because I thought about how with Facebook Live, one, no one is listening to the audio, no matter what Facebook data says. But also that people who could see that there is this opportunity if you do want a guided tour, how to advertise it on our biggest platform possible. So that became the thing that really really motivated me in basically the last two years of my time at the Met.
The other thing that motivated me in my last two years at the Met was thinking about workplace diversity, thinking about this moment where yet again another big institution was thinking about trying to diversify, and the thing that is really cool about this well-resourced institution is that they did have a really comprehensive, and continue to have a very comprehensive, diversity program thinking across lines of socioeconomic difference, thinking about access, thinking about so many other aspects of identity and diversity, but also not really talking about pay equity. So it was problematic as problematic is.
Another thing that really motivated me in my last two years at the Met was my salary. And not just my salary which is here in the middle, but also the outgoing salary of the person who had my job two years before I did, who also just so happened to be a white man, and why I never met that salary, ever, in my time at the Met. That, for me, became such an obsession, and a real thing that made me feel angry, that I could be doing this work, thinking about… Still very angry. That I could be doing this work to the best of my ability, showing up, showing out, but still there was just a very small margin that I, for whatever reason, was never worth. So I stayed there, and I stayed at the Met until six months ago.
When I left, I got obsessed with a new number, which is six million new followers in my time at the Met; in the three years that I was there, I was able to grow that audience. And that is the number that I stick with. What is not reflected in that number is the countless number of young people that I worked with that also inspired me very deeply to think about how to make the art world more equitable, and I hope that if there is anything that you guys take away from this talk and our conversation after, is thinking about how to really use your time as valuably as possible. Because it is not about the numbers… It is about the numbers. It’s not just about the numbers; it is also about our dedication. It is also about making sure that we are, in whatever way possible, utilizing our rage, utilizing our joy, to inspire the next generation of people who are incoming, with the hopes that our work will make it easier for them once they arrive. But that number always makes me think of that.
What’s next? Now I’m in this weird moment. I left my job. I don’t have a new job. It’s crazy that I’m here at this conference because I don’t even work at museums anymore. I got the invite and was like, “Oh, wow. Okay.” So now I am in this moment of trying to figure out, when there is not a blueprint, what to do. I’m a very… I have so much Capricorn in my chart. I am your super stereotypical Type A woman, but I am in this moment of freestyle, and that I’m writing… I’m doing a lot of other stuff. But one thing that has become a guiding principle for me, a project that I would like to talk to you all about very briefly, is a book that I am working on called The Black Futures Project.
The Black Futures Project I am co-editing with Jenna, who is in this beautiful portrait with me. Obama was still in the White House when we took this photo. What we have been trying to do through… or what we have really accomplished through The Black Futures Project, is asking the question, what does it mean to be black and alive in the age of the internet. Both of us have… or now I have had… relatively corporate jobs; Jenna works for the Times, and I was at the Met when we came together and decided to make this book in the interest of making sure that because social media is fragile in its build, and because it has been such an incredible avenue for growth and connectivity amongst black creatives, how can we make a book that in some way makes it more tangible, makes it more accessible for future generations, and also makes it something that people can really own? Because when you think about publishing online, the Facebook owns it, the white dudes in Silicon Valley own it, so how can we reclaim it, and how can we present something that can be gifted and shared and blah blah blah?
So we have been working on this book for the last three years, and it will come out soon enough, but that for me has also been something in this moment of, “Oh my God, I don’t know who I am or what I am doing,” this book project has become my home base, and Jenna are now like a married couple; we have an accountant and a lawyer. It’s pretty fun. I highly recommend making a book.
So I will pause there because I… so thank you all. Thank you.
Dr. Tonya Matthews: Thank you so much, Kimberly. They are so going to regret they only gave us 30 minutes. We have a lot to talk about and a lot to unpack, and I want to kick off by stating the obvious, which is, this is a two-generation conversation, and I think it is phenomenal to think about the intersection of a Gen X African American woman and a millennial African American woman, both finding themselves both in transition… I’m finishing mine, she’s beginning hers… but part of what I want to suss out, there are a couple of things I want to talk to you about.
You mentioned avoiding writing until the very last minute and then taking it on as a critical part of your political transformative work. I have found the same thing. I am an engineer. I’m in STEM. We don’t “have to” write, and I found that I had to embrace that in order to be able to cross all the boundaries and the lines that I needed to cross. Can you talk a little bit more about how you’re combining these? You now even use “writer” as one of your descriptive titles. Talk a little bit how you grew into that more as part of your mission and work.
Kimberly: Yeah, that’s a great question. Hello? Great. So, when I was an undergraduate, I actually studied engineering, and I left the discipline because there was no writing, which is funny, but I was like, “I don’t want to be a scientist that can’t talk to people.” And so I ended up in architecture before finding art history. But at any rate, with writing, I just got to a point where the fear wasn’t worth the return.
Dr. Matthews: Possibly.
Kimberly: Hello? Okay, great.
Dr. Matthews: There we go.
Kimberly: And we’re back. This is very Oprah/Gayle. It’s like, Super Soul Sunday, there was a choir. It’s crazy. So… what I was saying before was, I studied engineering originally. I thought I wanted to be a doctor, and then I thought I wanted to be an engineer, blah blah blah, went through this whole thing, but realized that working in STEM in the way that I was on my campus did not afford me opportunities for humanities, didn’t afford me opportunities for connection with people.
When it comes to becoming a writer, I think what motivated me was the outcome. I was afraid of it, but I realized that the gain from it was greater than the fear. And more than that, I also had the incredible gift of excellent editors in my life, one of whom is a Drag Race superstar, Miz Cracker. I don’t know if any of you guys watch Drag Race, but season 10, Miz Cracker was my first editor ever and is an incredible writer, aside from being a fantastic drag queen. But it was that partnership that, for me, helped me move forward and really truly begin publishing.
Dr. Matthews: And as you think about the way you define yourself, we all get to pick our titles, I notice it’s “writer/curator/activist.” I tend to do “engineer/educator/spoken soul artist,” and as I think through that, are we doing that as a new sign of freedom to define ourselves, or as a sign of defiance that we will not be singly defined? I know, right? Poet gets to ask the question.
Kimberly: I don’t know. I feel like there’s some boxes that you have to fill out. You know? I like my name enough, but I think that there’s some ways in which your boxes and the way that you fill them in will signify to others, and so I think that is something that is powerful, but I don’t necessarily think about… Labels suck. I think everyone in this room can agree. But I do think that there is something about determination and definition that allows other people to read themselves into your story. So I was never an activist, and then I realized that what I was doing was read as activist, and so if… It just started to make more sense. But it was also about the submission. So I think in many ways, even if you name yourself 10 times, you are still submitting to a naming practice.
Dr. Matthews: I am fascinated by the way you have used social media to create welcome into physical places. You are using the social media as a way to say, “You could go there, and you could go there, and you could go there.” And I have been fascinated, stunned, humbled, and frightened when I discover that people have visited museums that I worked at, just because I worked at them, and that made an open door. What are you seeing in your work, and how do you know, and how do you get that response when you are opening those doors? How do people communicate with you, and how do you take that?
Kimberly: It’s great. I think we can… It’s net good. I would say for me, it’s a loaded question in that I hope that everyone also takes on that responsibility, because I think a lot of times, there can be a lot of invitation that is done. Like, I thought that your story was going to go left. But I worry sometimes where I’m like, “Come to this show,” and then someone is rude. You know? Where it’s like, I have extended this invitation that you may see value in, and then when this person gets there, you have to act right. So it’s, I think, more about our collective responsibility to make sure that our spaces are ready, because I think through our scholarship, through our activism, through our social media work, through the many myriad ways that we all show up as people, it is also important to think about what awaits people once they arrive.
So I am always much more interested in that than necessarily the novelty of people being like, “I want to be like you.” Because f— that. I want to make sure that you feel the comfort that I feel in that space, because I have tiptoed into this world where I’m a VIP, and I just want everyone to get a little taste of that and not have to think about people looking down on them or… You know, it’s like you’re taking a selfie, and people are like, “A selfie? In a museum?” It’s just like, so what? What is the problem? If the artwork is safe, this person is communicating an experience, and that is none of your f—— business.
Dr. Matthews: I am hearing, and you even talked specifically about it a lot in your ethic, your life and your spirit ethic, really about you being an individual and owning that, and then really creating space for other people who can also be individuals and be themselves, and I have seen you as a champion against barriers that don’t affect you specifically. How did you grow into that space? Talk a little bit about your journey into becoming a universalist, for lack of a better term, when it comes to the capital A in accessibility and everything that goes with it.
Kimberly: Yeah. I just got… I got tired of being lonely. I really did. And it really, really radicalized and solidified when I was at the Met, and I would sit in rooms where everyone was able-bodied and the majority of people where white, and I would take notes on who was in the room. And this was this very Adrian Piper fantasy of delusion, but I was just keeping notes on who was in rooms and why and what we were discussing, and… I just don’t like being alone in that way.
I think for me as a person, I have always felt better when I have an opportunity to engage and learn with people; I am not a person who wants to be in homogenous spaces at all for any reason. I am always intrigued and empowered in spaces where I feel like there’s many different narratives in the room. I think it is partially because there is always an opportunity to learn, but there is also an opportunity to be quiet, too. Because I think when you are the only person who is representing, or assuming to represent, a particular identity, you have to be so much louder. Right? And so how can we create a better orchestra symphony cacophony of sounds so that it’s not just this dull murmur and then you’re rolling through like a band. Because it’s a lot of work.
Dr. Matthews: I think that’s an amazing approach to it, and I know you are still early in your journey, but what are your favorite tactics and skills for helping other people get on board with that and in that space as you bring all brand new kinds of folks into the space? What have been your tactics of helping other folks who don’t have your natural curiosity and nosiness, of welcoming?
Kimberly: I love a phone call. I called people up at the Met after meetings, whether they said something inappropriate to me or about a community. I love a bullet-pointed email. I love sending resource guides. I’m a queen of the PDF. But yeah, I have, for better or worse, tried my best to make sure that people knew when they were erring, and also in moments when I know that I was potentially erring. Right? Trying to teach people through my questions about how to show up and in what ways. Because even showing up as an able-bodied person, as an advocate for accessibility, I know I have a lot to learn. So always showing up and understanding, I just want to do the best, and I want some help in doing the best too.
I think that is the most courageous thing that any of us can do, especially in museum spaces where they’re all built on what we know. There is a whole host of people who never go into museums because they don’t think they know enough. What is that? It’s an institution for learning. So I think it is a two-pronged approach of educating and then also allowing yourself to be educated.
Dr. Matthews: Thank you. We are coming up at the end of our time. Everybody groan. Thank you. And I also want to take a moment to acknowledge, I am known for bringing my mom everywhere that I go, and I know that you have brought someone special with you as well. Would you like to mention that?
Kimberly: Yeah, my dad is here, which I…
Dr. Matthews: And he was a volunteer for us.
Kimberly: And he volunteered. So you may have seen someone with my same face walking around.
Dr. Matthews: So I want to acknowledge that. I think where we come from and what we have had to get where we are, and so my last question for you is about giving advice to your current and future fan base. For those of us who are on a journey of becoming a credible disrupter, because I find you very disruptive and extraordinarily credible, in that work, what would be your advice? For folks who want to get in there, change up the system and disrupt, but also to be credible about it as they do that?
Kimberly: Yeah. So many things. I hate the word “disrupter.” Sorry. So I have to start there. And I think it is a good launching point, and I think it is also… I did a talk the other day with Dapper Dan, who was like, “I love ‘disrupter,'” and it was really informative to hear why he loved it. But for me, I always have questions around that word specifically because I think about a norm, and so it’s like, how can we talk about creating change that doesn’t privilege the norm? How can we privilege the changemaker?
And so I think also too, I’m in this moment of figuring it out. It’s weird to stand at a podium; it’s weird to have a microphone and be this false prophet of sorts. I’m still figuring it out. I started my career on the internet in 2011, and now I’m here? And so in many ways, I think if there is any advice that there is, it’s just that there is a lot ahead, which is a very motivating force. That there is a lot more room for curiosity, for some disruption, and also for some upholding. Some reifying, some foundational work as well. Because there is not much that I am doing that is completely new, which I also acknowledge, so I think… yeah.
Sorry. My mind is moving a mile a minute, but I just think it is important to also think about how… what some of those words mean in the context of this journey.
Dr. Matthews: No, it’s fantastic. Thank you very much. I hear your journey, and I see your humility, but I raise you prepetous on a journey, as opposed to not having it. One more time, ladies and gentlemen, for Kimberly Drew.