Art Curator and Writer Kimberly Drew Doesn’t See Obstacles
The founder of popular blog Black Contemporary Art on opening up the art world, why more is always better, and how she finally learned to just say no
Photo by Zarita Zevallos
“I think all art has changed since November 2016, because that was two years ago,” says Kimberly Drew— widely known by her Instagram handle, @museummammy—when asked about the post-2016 election art landscape. “I think art has changed since last week. Art continues to grow and evolve. That's what makes it great.”
Drew is a writer, curator, and activist, and holds down a day job as the social media manager for The Metropolitan Museum of Art. She is also the creator of Black Contemporary Art, a popular Tumblr account that brings together work by Black artists from around the world and across a range of disciplines. Drew created the account in 2011 after studying Art History and African-American Studies at Smith College. Though she recently tweeted that Jean-Michel Basquiat was her “first love,” Drew’s work shines an equal light across the wide spectrum that is Black art. She speaks with intent, and people are listening: 213,000 and counting on Instagram alone.
“My thoughts on the word ‘curator’ haven't changed very much,” she says, referring to a question she frequently fields about precisely defining her role in the art world. “It's really a word that's much more about ‘care’ than anything else. I am definitely a curator in that sense.” As of late, Drew is writing more and more, and has recently been called on to moderate high-profile panels, like a recent conversation between designer Virgil Abloh and tennis champion Serena Williams. This professional expansion makes sense: Drew is both a thoughtful listener and a considerate speaker who clearly understands the power of language.
Soon, Drew will add a new platform from which to speak: She is currently at work on her first book, The Black Futures Project, co-written with journalist Jenna Wortham. The book is intended to record the current moment in Black culture from the perspective of a wide range of today’s artists, thinkers, and doers.
We spoke to Drew about actively choosing optimism, Instagram fame, and why she only checks her email three times a day.
On having a clear focus
I’m interested in promoting Black artists. It's not really about speaking up against inequities or inequalities; it’s much more about supporting and promoting the artists that I'm interested in. The most important role that I play is that of advocate. I am really invested in communities and a community-based way of working. I think that the most important role [I have] is to be that early supporter, whether that's listening—meaning being an active listener—or showing up.
"I hope that more and more people become members of the art world: as art historians, public intellectuals, board members, guards. I want a future where there are simply more voices present."
On helping to foster an evolution of today’s art world
The only thing that is missing from the conversation is more voices. I have a sincere interest in hearing from more people—not only about the artists that I'm interested in, but artists that others are interested in, as well. I hope that more and more people become members of the art world: as art historians, public intellectuals, board members, guards. I want a future where there are simply more voices present.
On refining the way we see ourselves
Instagram fame is weird, but I think it's also a matter of the framework through which you're working in. It took me a moment—and some really great conversations—to realize that I'm not an influencer. I am more of a thought leader, and working from that framework makes me very happy about the recognition that I've gotten through social media. I am very, very lucky to have access to so many people on a global scale who are interested in the things I'm interested in. It's very rare that I travel somewhere and feel totally alone—that’s an amazing gift.
I'm also an optimist generally, and so dwelling on what little obstacles I have faced really doesn't do justice to the telling of my story, or the hard-fought victories of women in my field who made a career like mine a reality.
On having more than one mentor
One of my mentors, Virgil Abloh, has said, "You don't necessarily have to have a relationship—a direct relationship with someone—for them to operate as a mentor to you." In that spirit, I have many, many mentors. That began when I started to study more. A lot of it centers on my time at the Studio Museum in Harlem, when I began to get to know people who could be potential mentors for me. I've been very fortunate throughout my life to have mentors or mentor-like figures that have supported me and my development.
On managing responsibilities—and expectations
I totally stole my email-checking rule from Ashley Ford, who is an amazing thought leader and just an incredible goddess. [Editor’s note: Drew only checks email at 8 AM, 12 PM, and 4 PM.] I decided to borrow and use that rule because I am almost too easy to access at times. So in the interest of being a responsible correspondent, I decided to regulate my email-checking to make sure that when I check emails, it’s an active thing.
On her forthcoming book, The Black Futures Project
Working on a book has been a thrilling experience. [My co-author Jenna Wortham and I] are very much interested in the book format because it grants us the ability to bring together topics and moments that we cherish. We really hope The Black Futures Project will instruct future generations about this moment in Black culture. The truth is, social media could be gone tomorrow, and with our book, Jenna and I are hoping to create a text that could help fight that type of erasure that could occur.
On getting a private tour of Tina Knowles’ art collection
I was amazed to hear that Miss Tina had been collecting art since she was 19 years old—before she was famous. It's quite a gift to find a passion that early in life. [Meeting her] was a reminder that our passions are what push us forward as humans, first and foremost.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
25 Strong is a new series highlighting people who have broken barriers and changed culture in 2018. Created with Reebok.