Ask an Arts Professional
As an artist that grew up very much outside of the opaque systems I now find myself navigating, it has become important to do my best to share knowledge and democratize information for other artists and those interested in involvement in other capacities. What does it mean to be a curator, how do we find employment, and what does it really take to contribute in a productive and meaningful way? A consistent mission of INERTIA is to attempt to demystify the art world. These are issues and questions I hope to address with the series Ask an Arts Professional. Last month I sat down with Thomas James, the Visual Arts Curator at theCreative Alliance here in Baltimore. I met Thomas first in an artistic capacity, me as the artist, him as curator. I’ve since connected with Thomas professionally and in the art community. Here he shares the details of his job, hurdles associated, and upcoming projects.
Thomas James, December, 2019
Where do you work? How long have you been there?
I work at Creative Alliance and I’ve been there for 16 months.
What is your position?
Visual Arts Curator
What is your job description in your own words?
I run the Visual Arts Department at Creative Alliance which includes all the exhibitions we do in two spaces within the building. I run the residency program, which has 8 residents who live and work in the space. I am also responsible for the adult workshops and classes.
What is the most interesting part of your work?
The most interesting part is that my day-to-day activities can be vastly different to the point that sometimes makes my head spin. For example, on a Monday I might deinstall a show, meet with Creative Alliance’s marketing team, do a studio visit, meet with the residents, then attend a film screening. Then, the next day I might partake in a documentary filming, give a tour to a potential new resident, volunteer at one of the schools we program in, and then design an exhibition later that night. I think it’s interesting trying to find a balance between sitting in front of my computer and moving around the city all day. I also think it’s interesting and most rewarding that I get to spend time with the residents. Being with the residents–I’m essentially their RA. It’s important for me to build rapport and trust with them, as well as be in charge of the happy hours and meetings. It’s interesting to manage 8 different personalities, but it’s fun when we’re all in the same room. It’s very difficult to get everyone in the same room, but when we all do it’s interesting because the residents are also trying to build rapport with each other. It’s kind of like a big think tank. I have to build rapport with them each individually, so I might stop into one of their studios and ask what they’re working on.
What are the biggest hurdles associated with your position?
The most difficult part is managing my time and prioritizing because I have a lot on my plate and I want to go a good job with everything. I want all the exhibitions to be top notch. I want to have a great relationship with all of the residents and make sure their needs are taken care of. I have to be out and about, whether that’s going to different shows, meetings, or parties. I also have to make sure all my workshops are running smoothly, so it’s a lot of scheduling and checking in with folks. And then doing outside stuff–like getting offers to curate shows or blogs or vlogs on different platforms. These are all things I enjoy and love doing, so it’s hard to find the time to fit all of that in, in a healthy way. But I work hard to make sure I do so and I surround myself with people that encourage me and have my best interest at heart – people I can depend on to give me good advice when I need it and will help me get out of a pinch.
How far out do Creative Alliance shows get booked?
Right now, 2020 is booked. It’s been booked since around August so we’re usually booked about a year in advance.
You have an independent curatorial project that is currently on view, how did this exhibition come to be and can you share some details?
I love independently curating in addition to curating the spaces at Creative Alliance. I love coming in and taking over a space for a few days. But this show came along because Derrick Adams and I ran into each other at an exhibition opening. Then later that night, there was an exhibition dinner for the artists and we were invited to join. We were talking about what he’s working on and he mentioned he had a show coming up at Eubie Blake Cultural Center about to open in November and he asked if I wanted to co-curate. It’s titled “Our World” and there are 10 artists. It’s really about showcasing and normalizing the many different facets, perspectives, and diversity within Black culture and the Black artists working here in Baltimore. The works highlight important aspects of life, or social issues, or just what it’s like to exist in these spaces. So, what people are going to see in this space is a wide diaspora of what it is to be Black in America, as well as across the globe because on the other side of the gallery we have Zeh Palito‘s exhibition called “Tropical Diaspora.” He’s an artist from Brazil, so his work is very different, but he’s still on the same wavelength as the other artists as far as what it’s like to be black within– and in his case, more specifically, Brazil.
How long is the exhibition on view, how and when can the public view?
It’s open until Jan. 18 and the space at Eubie Blake is open 12 – 6 on Wed – Sat, but they do appointments as well.
Do you have any advice for those interested in working in the arts?
Stay active within the realm. If there are openings, go to them and meet different people. See different work. Find out what’s going on in the city. Have your face out there and use that to build rapport and trust with different artists and/or space, so if the time comes when you want to do a program, workshop, or exhibition somewhere you have already built that cache within the realm.
Another important point is to make sure everything you do is professional and top notch. A lot of times, people will put on programs or exhibitions and sometimes they fall short because the professionalism isn’t there. Whether that’s a wall that’s stained or you haven’t patched, or work is hung incorrectly–it’s the little things that make a difference.
Also, and this should go without saying, be easy to work with!
Do you have any other projects that you’d like to promote?
“We Are One” at Creative Alliance is a show with 5 artists that’s a cross-generational conversation between black artists working in black figurative and black portraiture work. That show includes Jerry Prettyman, Ernest Shaw, LaToya Hobbs, and then two younger artists one is Monica Ikegwu and Mark Flueridor who are recent graduates from MICA.
We have another show opening on Jan. 25 called “On The Verge” with 25 artists–all new and emerging artists in Baltimore. It’s going to be filled with all kinds of work!
I blog for Urban Walls Brazil which is an organization that works in this region, so throughout MD. It’s run by a Brazilian woman named Roberta Pardo and she organizes an exchange program for artists between America and Brazil. They’ll do murals throughout the region and do programs in schools. Zeh Palito, in the show at Eubie Blake, is from Brazil and actually did that program.
So that platform allows me to give my perspective on what it’s like to go through the art world. I also give tips on things that have helped me along the way and Roberta really allows me to promote or talk about what I want. I recently wrote a piece about how to help a creative person during the holidays.