We Built This: Kimberly Drew Wants To Redefine What Success Looks Like In The Art World

"I just wanted to really be aware of how many of us there are that are making work. So that when time looks back, that no one says we weren’t," she said.

Kimberly Drew is wholeheartedly committed to black art. And she doesn’t take that responsibility lightly.

The 28-year-old officially embarked on this mission as an art history major at Smith College when she did an internship at The Studio Museum in Harlem and went on to create the Tumblr blog Black Contemporary Art in 2011. Through her blog, she began curating various works from black artists, both well-known and lesser-known, and educating her followers on the expansiveness of black art.

After spending three years as the social media manager at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Drew has become a freelancer to shift her focus to her writing. Her current project is The Black Futures Project, an anthology about what it means to be black and alive in the digital age that she is editing with Jenna Wortham of The New York Times. Meanwhile, she’s continuing her ongoing efforts to make art more accessible and expansive for black folks, though she realizes she may not see the fruits of that work in her lifetime. But that didn’t stop her ancestors, so that damn sure isn’t going to stop her pursuit. 

For “We Built This,” Drew discusses inaccessibility for black people in the art space, expanding opportunities for us and her forthcoming anthology, The Black Futures Project.

What have you built?

I have built, kinda surprisingly, a few things. It’s interesting to think about it in the context of especially building, but I have built many opportunities for people to learn more about black art and black artists. That I know for sure. I have built the possibility that people can [have] more imagination around what black people do in creative fields. And I think in some ways, I built more possibilities for young black women to imagine themselves in creative fields.

What was your first introduction into art?

My first introduction ― there’s many ways I would say that I got introduced to art at a young age. I think for many of us, there’s so many opportunities to get exposed to art if we are in a position to be able to recognize them as such. I think from my upbringing, I was really lucky to be a part of a family that really loved art and culture. And so, I could recognize these, architecture, or items that I collected as things of value. But I would say, throughout my adolescence, I was exposed to art and museums and things that my family and I would collect and really revere as powerful objects.

What made you fall in love with black art?

I would say that more than fall in love with, I committed myself to black art probably like 10ish years ago really specifically. Because I kinda developed this romance with awareness around it. It wasn’t like a specific object that did it. What I really have always been invested in is that people know much more about black art and black artists. I didn’t wanna say like, “Oh. This is the one to know.” Or, “Oh. You know.” Trying to direct people in any way. I just wanted to really be aware of how many of us there are that are making work. So that when time looks back, that no one says we weren’t. Like that’s always been my guiding force. That no one could ever say that a black art history doesn’t exist. 

After spending three years as the social media manager at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Kimberly Drew is shifting her focus
After spending three years as the social media manager at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Kimberly Drew is shifting her focus to writing.

When I think about having access to art, and who gets to define what art is ... I actually just a few months ago interviewed the founder of Tila House and what I didn’t know was that only about 4 percent of black women’s art is considered fine art or in fine art galleries or in institutions. And I think about the access gap that exists in the art world. And the work that you did, that I was introduced to you from, with your Tumblr blog. What made you start Black Contemporary Art? Talk to me more about how that commitment to black art led you to create this space.

Yeah. I think starting with the work that Tila Studios does is an incredible launching point. One thing that I’ve always strived for, before it was a career, was thinking about a way of being part of a community around art. When I started my blog, it was very siloed, because I just didn’t find something ... I felt really siloed because I didn’t find what I was looking for. I did an internship at The Studio Museum in Harlem, which is an incredible art museum interested in presenting black art and black culture. And when I was done there, I learned somewhere between five and 30 artists I really knew, and I felt like really knew their work. And, when I went back to school that following semester, I didn’t feel like I had more opportunities to learn the way that I had.

And so I wanted to create something online, or find something online that did that too. I couldn’t find something that really satisfied that urge. And so I started Black Contemporary Art in the interest of making sure something like that existed. I felt really inspired by Toni Morrison. It’s like the book that you can’t find, you have to write it yourself, kind of momentum. That very, like, boot-strappy kind of vibe. And I utilized Tumblr to do that. And I think, for myself, especially now knowing those other organizations, whether they be advocacy organizations interested in presenting artworks or social platforms like the one the Art Hoe Collective has built out ― it’s really great to be a part of a community of folks who are really getting to the nitty-gritty of why that 4 percent number is a reality. And what we can actually do to find new ways of presenting and supporting black artists on our own terms.

Because it doesn’t always have to be about, in these particular spaces within these particular rules, in these particular institutions. We have to redefine our ideas of success. Because there isn’t just one art world. There isn’t just one art audience. And so, how we privilege the multiple ways of making and also with the respect of archiving and making sure that future generations see, “OK. We’re not alone in the way that we make. And we’re not alone in the way that we think.”

Where do you find inspiration when you are creating your art and when you are writing?

Inspiration is a hard one, ’cause I wouldn’t consider myself as a person who, like, the spark goes off and then I hit the ground running. I think, as a writer, what inspires me the most is when I fall in love with an idea. It’s like, if I can be in a position where I’m so comfortable, or so bored that I think that the thing that I think is important enough to share, I run with it. I always wanted to be a person who would write at 5 a.m. or whatever. But, sometimes you’re on a plane, and you have to just whip the notes tab out and get that idea down, because you’ve thought it, rethought it, and it still sounds good. For me, the thing is, it’s so much more about a feeling. And when I can really be as confident, especially in trusting of myself, as possible, I try to snatch that.

Going back to this lack of us, lack of representation in these actual art institutions, that’s a big thing. It had a big moment in “Black Panther” in the Kilmonger museum scene at the beginning, when they’re referencing that and it kind of began this conversation online where folks are really starting to notice it more and call it out more. And a lot of people were introduced to your work when you were at the Met doing your work. Can you talk to me about the importance of having us, black people, in these spaces, and what you learned from your years at the Met?

I think that, in relationship to institutions, it’s incredibly important that we, everyone, is an active citizen and participant in the programming of institutions that they care about. Full stop. Period. I think, this year especially, in New York there are a lot of conversations about boycotting institutions. And, I think that there is a particular duty whenever possible to show up, whether that be supporting curators of color. ... There’s so many amazing black women curators in New York and in Los Angeles. It’s important for us to continue to show up and support. Because that’s the best way to hold institutions accountable. I think “Black Panther” enabled us to say, “Actually this doesn’t sit right with me.” Or, “These types of things don’t sit right with me. These modes of presentation don’t sit right with me.”

And, being able to be vocal about that, I found that to be incredibly powerful because it just didn’t ― my career has never seen a moment where people of many different walks of life felt empowered to speak up about the way that museums were activating. I think oftentimes, largely due to institutions and the way they’re constructed, people don’t feel like they can make opinion-based statements about them. And so I think it’s a matter of being invested. And then also being in a position where you can make more demands. But I think that ... it’s like a relationship. You have to be in a position to negotiate. You have to be present. And I think that there can be so much benefit from that.

Whether that be the benefit of going to incredible programming. Or the benefit of helping to shape more incredible programming. ’Cause I think we all have that power just by virtue of saying, “This is what I need.” I mean, that’s what museums can do at their best. They can really provide for communities. But, I think, from my perspective, the thing that’s made the most sense is when you really are on the ground and able to make those connections.

Drew wants black artists and audiences to be open to and exposed to many different modalities.
Drew wants black artists and audiences to be open to and exposed to many different modalities.

What do you want to see more of from the art world? How would you want us to be better served from the art world?

I think what would do the most service for black artists and black audiences is an opportunity to have multiple definitions of success in the art world. And multiple ways of making. Because it’s not just about painting. It’s not just about a big sale at auction. It’s not just about being in this particular collection. It can be about starting community-oriented art practices. It can be about working with elders and doing restorative art practices. It can be about pairing art and social justice and providing public service programming. Whatever. I think that there’s so many different modalities, and unfortunately, we’re not exposed to them enough. There’s just so many different ways to cut the cake on it.

And I think oftentimes we’re lied to and told that it has to look ... like, everybody doesn’t have to be like this one artist or this one director or this one curator. There’s just so many more options out there for us. And I think that the greatest service can be that multiplicity. There’s just so many more options out there for us. And I think that the greatest service can be that multiplicity. Because I think that’s what black people do best. We remix. But, especially for a world like art, it’s so opaque, so you don’t even get the nuances of how to remix it and freak it and make it work for yourself. And so, that’s one thing for myself too in my work is that I’ve really wanted to show people. ... I was a communications professional and made that shit pop. Like, you can do that. You can be a lawyer in art. You can be so many different things. But unfortunately, the world is at this stage, really opaque. And so, it’s hard to imagine yourself there, and then take that future step to imagine yourself to be in different ways in the space that you can imagine yourself.

When you look at, not only opaqueness in these fields, but when you look at how people of color are operating within ― a lot of time, we get boxed in to very specific roles and places. That’s why I think it’s so empowering that you’re vocal about your shift to writing and focusing on that more. Can you speak to that and why the decision to go freelance and write more was important for you?

I really wanted to freelance because I think it’s a part of that. I love institutions, I really do. I think it makes, it’s like one of my personal things I feel flawed in. In that, I really love structure. And I appreciate an opportunity to be within the institution that I’d been in my short career because I’ve been able to learn so much about the way things are done. To then be able to say like, “Oh. It should be done this way.” I always have been with people who are like, “Burn it down.” I’m like, “You don’t even know how it works to completely wanna de-establish something.” It’s like, there’s a lot of opportunity to rebuild things. But one thing I’ve become more wise to is that, no matter how much work is done to revise things, it still isn’t for us.

And I’m in this moment now where I just wanna make things for very specific audiences. I really, really do. And I want to have more time to be focused on that. Like, relentlessly. To be a little bit more selfish and make things for myself. To be a little more targeted in making things for young people. Making things for women. Making things for black people across the spectrum of all those identities. I really am invested in that. And I am relentless in that. I don’t want distractions from that. And I think working in the way that I was working before, I was juggling a freelance life and a full-time job, and I got to a tipping point where I wasn’t doing both well enough.

And I’m a very, it’s no surprise, like really perfectionist kinda personality. I’ve learned that I’m Type A this year, and I’m trying to embrace it. And so, I’m like, “OK. What happens if I limit one of these variables?” And I think when I was laying the cards out, what felt most valuable is making something for my community. Which is no shade to this institution that’s given me so much. But, it came time to transition.

Is art a form of spirituality for you? Because sometimes, for example, for me, I’m writing about black issues. And I feel it on a deeper level than I think a lot of journalists do who aren’t necessarily writing specifically about their communities and to their communities. And if their communities aren’t under attack constantly, it may feel different. Right? So, of course, we do different kinds of writing, but, for me, the journalism I’m creating sometimes feels spiritual. So, I wonder if writing feels like that for you.

I think that’s an interesting proposition. I think for myself, like I love, one I love, black language in general. And my favorite ism of this moment is people who say like, “Got it out the mud.” Which is not new. But it’s like it’s resurging, where people are like, “Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Like so and so got it out the mud.” I think when you’re a person who get their thing out the mud, in the way like I very much got my career in the arts outta the mud. Like, that love and passion that I bring to it, you couldn’t manufacture it. Like, I didn’t grow up in a family that had a traditional art collection and had been going to. ... No. That’s not my story.

My family was 100 percent supportive and really interested in art and creativity, and we went to museums and nothing felt untouchable. But, there was still a rigor that I had to bring to get myself to this point. And I think for many of us who are, especially in the position of media producers, when you have that story where it’s like, “I found this thing. And I’m gonna fight for this thing.” And it’s not perfect. I’m sure journalism, in your perspective, is not perfect, and every time you file something, you know you’re making it better. Right? And so, I think that passion and commitment to really ushering in that change that you wanna be a part of, there is just nothing like that. And I wouldn’t necessarily call it spiritual, but I do think there is a lot of faith in that. Like, a lot of faith in the work that especially young black people of this generation are doing. Because we have had the opportunity to dream like no other generation has had.

We have gotten so much benefit from the work of people who came before us. And we, because of the internet, I think, largely have a better understanding of it. Like a better critical understanding of it. And the breadth of it. And the nuances of it. And therefore we’re, in this moment of dreaming, in a way that, and working in a way that, we may not realize in our lifetime. And that’s faith. Like, that is a spiritual practice. When you know you are nothing going to fix the thing, but every day you keep showing up. And so, in that way, I feel really committed to that.

And it’s a kind of new philosophy, but I had a really good panel conversation, and the moderator was like, “What does it mean to be a person who’s doing work that you may not see the benefit of in your lifetime?” I was like, “Shit. I never thought about it in that way.” But I think something that I wanna gift to other people is that understanding. It’s just bigger than us. And that, I think, is very faith-based and very much a spiritual practice.

Who are the black history makers who inspire you to continue to do that work?

I’m lucky because I know so many historians. I know people who quite literally wedged things into history. Which is dope. I would say the person who I’ve had so much on my mind, especially within this last week, is Lowery Stokes Sims. She was the first, I mean, she has many firsts in her list of lists. But she’s an incredibly powerful curator and motivator and support system for many people who are in the art world. She is a diva, par excellence. And a person that I wish everybody knew the name of. And I think a lot of, not to say that she needs me to shout her out, ’cause she’s poppin’. But, I think that she’s a person who, in her steadfastness and her scholarship, has really done incredible work.

Similarly, Kelly Jones is another art historian who has done incredible work wedging so many stories into history. Dr. Deb Willis ― another scholar who [has done] incredible work as an art historian. And all three of those women, I think, are educators as well. So, paying it forward. And so, I would say those are the three that come top of mind. But, there’s so many more.

Drew is working on an anthology titled <i>The Black Futures Project</i>.
Drew is working on an anthology titled The Black Futures Project.

Talk to me about your anthology. I’m really excited to hear more about it and what you wanna accomplish with it.

So, I, for the last twoish years, alongside Jenna Wortham, have been working on a book called, The Black Futures Project. What Jenna and I came together to do in building this book was [to] make a book about what it means to be black and alive right now. That’s the easiest way to describe it. We were both really inspired by Tony Morrison’s Black Book from the ’70s, a book that in many ways was a snapshot of what it’s kind of like. She really wedged in three to 400 years of black history in this really elegant book. It’s so beautiful. And so, we wanna make something that can echo that in the internet age. Our scope of time is smaller just because the breadth of things within social media’s so intimidating. Honestly, trying to make a book about the internet is not for everybody.

But what we’ve tried to do is bring together different modes of making, to define that central theme of what it means to be black and alive right now. And that makes us come with obituaries, recipes, tweets, essays, conversations, artworks. It’s very much an art book but not like a traditional art book. It’s very much an anthology but not a traditional anthology. It really is a labor of love that I hope people will find themselves in. That’s the biggest takeaway goal.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned while working on this anthology?

I learned how, I guess personally, I’ve never worked on anything, and one thing, for this long. Like, black contemporary art I’ve worked on, on and off for the last seven years. But it’s not a project in the way that the book is. My career’s like sevenish years old, period. And so, I have never had anything that I really worked on durationally over time in this kind of concentrated way. And it’s always interesting for me as a young person, ’cause when I got to the Met, I was 25. And I had colleagues there who had been there for 25 years. So, that’s already a lot to put on the brain. And talking to them about exhibitions that they’d been working on for seven years. Where it’s like, I just have never had anything that I’ve worked on with this much attention for so long. And it so refreshing to continue to be in love with something.

And that for me feels really good. Because I think, especially being a person who works within the social media space, we get so inundated with images, I think our generation in general has gotten so inundated with images, to be able to see things again and again and find a freshness in them, that to me has been really surprising.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Photo shoot produced by Christy Havranek. Audio production by Nick Offenberg and Sara Patterson.

Correction: A previous version of this story inaccurately stated that “The Black Futures Project” will be releasing in 2019. 

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