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Writer Kimberly Drew on the Relationship Between Art and Activism

Kimberly Drew

This interview was conducted as part of the interview podcast, LGBTQ&A.

This is what Kimberly Drew knows about art: it is not just for the elite, it is intimately intertwined with activism, and it serves the crucial role of helping us better understand the world around us. "If there is a throughline through all of the work that I've done," the writer and art curator says, "It's really been me saying, 'This is the world I want to see.' And I think at its very base level, that's a lot of what activism is." 

To celebrate the release of her new book, This Is What I Know About Art, Kimberly Drew spoke with the LGBTQ&A podcast about what she looks for in a piece of art, understanding a more dynamic definition of activism, and how the future of art is changing with the pandemic. 

Read highlights below and click here to listen to the full interview.

Jeffrey Masters: In the last couple of years, your career has really expanded and is in so many different spaces. How do you now describe what you do?
Kimberly Drew: Right now, it's absolutely a tricky time to define it. But I would say in short, I'm a writer, I'm a curator. Writer and curator feel at home right now.

JM: You write, “I’m not your typical art historian. I am not your typical activist.” People are more familiar with your role as a historian. Can you talk about your activism?
KD: I always thought about activism as grand sacrifices. I think we're socialized around thinking about activism as hunger strikes, as people tying themselves to trees, demonstrating on the picket lines, and there is this high level of risk that I've always associated with the label.

And so I was always hesitant to align myself with that because for most of my career, I was working in institutions and I am no stranger to luxury… But on the other hand, through conversations with friends have really come to better understand a more dynamic definition of activism. Activists are people who want to challenge the status quo. Activists are people who are asking who's in the room, who isn't in the room, and how can we get them there? I feel really thankful for being able to embolden that ideology.

I think if there is a throughline through all of the work that I've done, it's really been me saying, “This is the world I want to see.” And I think at its very base level, that's a lot of what activism is.

JM: Have you always been aware of the connection between art and activism?
KD: I don't know that I've always been aware. In recent years, I've really come to understand the incredible need for art to better understand the world around us.

In the book, I write about going to see Morgan Parker's reading of her poetry in one of the hardest moments of my life and career. Hearing her be able to articulate a feeling that I just couldn't put words to, it was like putting on glasses or something. Or removing blinders.

I was able to better understand the texture of a moment.

JM: I don’t know that it’s necessarily good or bad, but I think it can be easy to look at something like the official portrait of Barack Obama in D.C. and not know that it was painted by a black gay man, Kehinde Wiley. It's easy to view it and move on.
KD: And there's nothing wrong with that. Getting there and viewing them and taking them in is in and of itself such an achievement and such an important thing to do. I think we can get ourselves in so much trouble sometimes where it's like, Oh, you saw it, but you didn't understand it. It's like, You saw it. That's awesome. Or you had this interaction with this artwork or with the story behind it.

Those encounters for me are what life is sewn together by. And then you can dig deeper because you need that primary encounter to even get to that information.

JM: There are many people, like me, who are afraid of not “getting” something.
KD: I don't think you have to get everything. I think it's OK to simply look at something and like it or not like it. I think it's OK to look at something and have that inform the way that you're looking at other things. That to me, that appetite for encounter is so much more important than whether or not you get the thing.

I don't want to get in trouble with art historians, but I think the thing that's most powerful for me is that you're coming to a work and you're willing to learn more about it. That's a win.

There was this da Vinci piece that came to up to auction and was sold for all these millions of dollars. And it's kind of cool that someone could be like, You know what? I don't like that da Vinci. I know that it's worth $28 million now that it's gone to auction in this way, but I don't think it's his best da Vinci. Or,  I'm not so interested in that artwork. I'd actually rather look at this other painter.

Being able to operate from a space of agency around art, that's what my point is. The agency part to me is the best thing. Because the artist's intention, yeah, that's a really valuable bit of information and people dedicate their careers to building monographs, to building exhibitions, to recording these really necessary and vital stories about a work of art. But I think as a visitor to these works, that confidence to visit a work, that confidence to make your own decision, is equally important. And that gets lost when we're like, Do I get it? Am I smart enough? Am I this enough or that enough to have this encounter?

JM: When you personally look at a piece of art, what are you looking for?
KD: When I'm encountering a work of art, I go in hopefully with a blank slate.

I realized a few months ago, I was looking at this painter's show that I love and I was hungry. And I left the exhibition. I was like, I'm not in the right place. I got to go. Love you, Lee Krasner. But I got to go find lunch because I can't do this. But for the most part, I try to come in with a base level of just OK, I'm ready to receive.

It is a sensory experience. You want to be in the right headspace to take things in. But what am I looking for? I don't know. I think sometimes it's a story. I really do love stories and who the artist is. Those things fascinate and excite me. But I know that's not everyone's truth. But for me, I kind of am blown away with those little details of, this work was made here for this reason, or this color is no longer made because there's this weird toxin in the paint. Those types of things, I'm always really thrilled by because those are the things that stick to my ribs.

JM: The book is called This Is What I Know About Art. What don’t you know? What questions do you still have about art?
KD: Right now, I don't know how our industry is going to move forward after this pandemic. There's incredible Artists Relief program that's giving non-discretionary funds to artists and something like 11,000 artists that did the survey...80% of them noted a loss of income and no hope for how to bring that income back. The New York Times reported that something like 50% of institutions will be in some sort of financial struggle, if not closure after this virus.

So, what I don't know right now is how we will recover, but I do look to institutions that, like the ICA Boston. They have a victory garden and they're supplying food to the community. Or institutions that are taking some of their funding and providing it to local organizations.

I do know that there is hope out there, but if I'm being quite honest, I just don't know how we're going to get to the other side of this.

Click here to listen to the full interview with Kimberly Drew on the LGBTQ&A podcast, available on all podcast platforms. 

This Is What I Know About Art by Kimberly Drew is available now. 
Cover Illustration by Ashley Lukashevsky. 
Author Photo by Travis Matthews.

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