Tomora Wright is an independent curator and a project manager for Arlington County Public Art in Virginia and a curatorial contractor for the BlackRock Center for the Arts. Wright’s path started with performing arts and while at Howard University she leaned into visual arts, receiving her MFA. Wright saw a gap in Arts education, one that didn’t address much professional development, business or marketing, and so she went on to receive a Masters in Art Management at American University. Tomora thrives in dynamic roles that put her at the center of sometimes chaotic worlds where artists, art, and arts organizations collide. She has held positions at Prince George’s African American Museum and Cultural Center, Glen Echo Park, and Hamiltonian Gallery. Last month I spoke with Wright as she was juggling multiple projects and starting her new position at Arlington County Public Art.
Interview between Tomora Wright and Amy Boone-McCreesh
Where do you work and what is your title ?
I’m employed by Arlington County Public Art where my title is Project Manager. I’m working on the conservation and maintenance of their permanent collection – creating a plan for the preservation of their art works. I also manage the community engagement around the public artwork collection.
How and how long have you been in that role? And where are you coming from prior to this?
I’m fairly new, I went from the non-profit sector to local government. I’m still an independent curator and I also work as a contractor for BlackRock Center for the Arts. I curated a show, 20 Years in Maryland showcasing the work of Alonzo Davis, before coming on as a curatorial consultant contractor and they decided to keep me on until the end of the year. At BlackRock I install the shows, handle exhibition logistics, work with artists, moderate artist talks, etc. I was previously the Fellowship director at Hamiltonian Artists which is a fellowship program geared toward helping local artists with professional development, finding resources, connecting them with mentors and opportunities, and lifting them up for success. The fellows have also loved the opportunity to have in depth discussions about the artwork in a safe space, which seems so necessary, especially artists just coming out of grad school. The artist experience is so individualized, but it can be a community experience. I also curated a few shows during my time at Hamiltonian – Empirical Evidence (2021), featured Hamiltonian Artists alumni, which investigated complex human relationships with living systems, the known versus the unknown; Unexpected Occurences (2022), at The Kreeger Museum showcased Hamiltonian Artists Fellows, in response to the Kreeger permanent collection; and Perplexity (2022) Hamiltonian Artists alumni show currently at the Kreeger Museum which explores the implications of certain textures.
What does a typical day look like for you?
It starts with taking my daughter to school in the morning, then I go to Arlington, VA, where I work in the Cultural Affairs department. Right now I’m still learning the ropes, but what comes natural to me is just jumping in and running with it. This is the first opportunity where I have to really sit down and listen and understand the government structure. I still check my personal emails because I have other projects that I am managing. I also teach a curatorial practice seminar class at MICA one evening a week. But ultimately I want to create an environment where things aren’t urgent; I want a peaceful environment. With every opportunity comes obstacles where we’re learning about ourselves and our bandwidth. I think being a curator is a place of privilege to work with so many artists and so many genres. Going from a twenty year retrospective to installing a quilt show, for example. I think quilting is one of those mediums considered to be “for older women,” so it’s great to see it in a Fine Art context. It’s an underrated art form, as well as other craft or domestic arts. There was a part of me that thought working in Public Art might take me out of practice, so I wanted to still be immersed and collaborating with artists, but I might actually have to really focus solely on Public Art. The goal is to understand the structure and environment of public art in the same way that I have been able to really understand curating and art non-profits. So to continue my day, I meet with my boss and co-workers about current projects. Some days it’s really busy and some days I have the space to get up to speed on the legacy of Arlington’s public art collection or tap in to whats going on in the global world of fine art. After my 45 min commute home to PG, Maryland, I enjoy cooking for my family and usually catch up on other work.
How did you end up working in the arts? Can you talk a little bit about the path you took to get where you are today
I have a background in Performing Arts. I’ve been performing since I was a little girl, then all of a sudden I started drawing when I was an undergrad. I started drawing on my walls and just went crazy. I think my understanding of the body, movement and gestures pointed me in the direction of using different tools and art mediums. When I went to Howard, I took one painting class and fell in love. Painting was my minor and Communications was my major. When I graduated from Howard in 2013 with my BA, I decided to get my MFA there as well and I realized it wasn’t for me. At the time there was no talk of professional development or really how to art ecosystem works. I was curious about the art world, how it all works, and had so many questions. I then went to American University to get my masters in Art Management. After going through the program, I realized artists would also benefit from education in art management. Artists need to learn grant writing, understand positions of leadership, marketing, building a platform, etc. My thesis there was on community art practices and public health. My thesis portfolio examined community art practices, theoretical frameworks, global developments, and the overall effect of the arts on the human experience. A historic and cultural perspective reveals traditional arts healing practices and the survival of people. While I was at AU, I was the Marketing Manager at Prince George’s African American Museum and Cultural Center, where I got to curate my first show The Elements that Define Us (2018) a mixed media exhibition, that highlighted color, materials, and composition style, that presented a contemporary perspective of Black American experiences. Though this show I experienced how many Black artists were in this area with such diverse practices, so I really fell in love with curating and knew that’s what I wanted to pursue. I then went on to Glen Echo park as their Visual Arts Exhibition Manager managing all three of their galleries. I worked with a lot of artists and installed back to back shows. There were a lot of craft shows at Glen Echo and I was interested in how that medium could be part of the larger conversation connecting the work to more conceptual ideas. But from this experience, I realized I wanted to work in a Contemporary Art space and use art as a tool to have critical conversations. Merging my goals of professional development for artists and wanting to work with contemporary artists Hamiltonian Artists was all of those things. Along the way I’ve curated shows elsewhere. It’s been a non-stop whirlwind. When I started as a self-taught artist, I didn’t think I would end up here.
I think there’s a false idea out there that working in the arts is always fun and easy – what are some challenges you’ve encountered that you weren’t expecting?
I think the reality right now is having time at home with my family. Maybe it’s my mom-guilt, but time with my daughter and partner is very important to me. Trying to figure out my new job and scheduling other work is a sacrifice. It’s about being strategic with time. My daughter actually loves the arts so I bring her along to any opportunity I can, like when I’m installing or working with other artists. Focus is another important thing. Sometimes I just want full focus on one thing. So I have to think about slowing down, even though I feel that if anything now is the time to push and do more. I just want to keep supporting the arts and show up for other artists and opportunities. Some days I can’t do it, but as a contractor you can luckily work on your own time.
What is your favorite part of your current position
I installed one show at Black Rock and curated another there fo Hispanic Heritage Month called Estamos Aqui which means “we are here,” it’s eight artists in the show. The artists are incredible and there are some important conversations about representation and the diversity of Latin America. We put out an open call and were able to pay them as well. Some of the artists are more well known and have more experience in fine art, but everyone is in a different place in their career so it’s interesting to see them all together. I think this is important – pairing old and new art; young artist with old artists, unrefined practices with classical techniques. This is a space for interesting conversations to happen. And then the show at the Kreeger that you’re in. The show is gorgeous, as is the space. I had been quite amazing working at the Kreeger. I would love to curate in more museums spaces.
Anything you’re working on that you want to promote?
Visit the Kreeger to see Perplexity at the Kreeger Museum, it closes December 10th. BlackRock has a wonderful gallery program, come out and support!