By Sara Lee Burd
Over the past 19 years at Nashville’s Frist Art Museum, curator Katie Delmez has committed herself to working on exhibitions that are deeply rooted in historical context and community connection. From featuring the work of local artists and stories through projects such as Murals of North Nashville Now and We Shall Overcome: Civil Rights and the Nashville Press, 1957-1968 as well as bringing internationally acclaimed figures like Carrie Mae Weems and Nick Cave to Nashville and overseeing traveling shows such as Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists and Dorthea Lange: Politics of Seeing, Delmez keeps social equity at the center of her curatorial practice.
So, what happens to a curator when the whole world seems in flux? I spoke with Delmez about resilience during times of crisis. The resulting interview sheds light on her experience of hope through art, learning from activism, and adapting during quarantine.
Sara Lee Burd: So far, 2020 has been marked by the threat of Covid-19, economic instability, and social justice reform spurred by the killing of George Floyd. What can art offer right now?
Katie Delmez: In these historic and uncertain times, it seems even more important than ever to find points of human connection. Many of us are weary from staying at home. Looking at works of art—even via Zoom or a website—can transport us to someplace else. Our Turner exhibition, for example, can take you to the Swiss Alps or the canals of Venice. While the pandemic may be restricting our activities, calls for racial equity are prompting many of us to want to connect more deeply with our community. Again, art can be a bridge to foster empathy and better understanding. I think of Nick Cave’s soundsuits as an example of helping audiences of all races and genders feel both the vulnerability he felt as an African American man after the beating of Rodney King by members of the LAPD and the vastness of Black joy. Of course, art also helps us examine our history, especially as it relates to the present. Jitish Kallat’s powerful installation Covering Letter – currently on view at the Frist – is based on a letter Gandhi wrote to Hitler in 1939. It urges peace and reconciliation, a notion that certainly bears repeating in this fractured political and social environment.
Many of your exhibitions at the Frist provide insight into themes of art, identity, and socio-political issues. Crisis is endemic to of all of these topics. What have you learned about crisis from curating?
It may sound corny, but a thread of hope links many of my projects that tackle the tough issues you mention. Carrie Mae Weems will often say that her work is about love above all else. Nick Cave wants to create environments in which people can just be themselves, free of discrimination. At the root of The Norf Art Collective mural projects in North Nashville is a spirit of triumph over adversity. The title We Shall Overcome (of our exhibition and the song) reflects the determination to keep fighting for justice. Among the most moving parts of the powerful exhibition examining the prison industrial complex through the photographs of Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick was meeting Henry James, who had been wrongly incarcerated at Angola prison for nearly 30 years and was featured in their work, at the opening of the show in Lafayette, Louisiana. Hearts of Our Peoples: Native Women Artists served as a testament to the resiliency, adaptability, and creativity of Indigenous people despite a very dark history.
And this optimism—which, to be clear, is not a naïve or sentimental viewpoint, but rather one based on a clear-eyed awareness of the problems plaguing society—reflects an inspiring strength and gives me a sense of cautious hope for the present period of crisis. Maybe, the “normal” that eventually emerges will be more equitable, empathetic, and tolerant of others. Maybe it will have less of the “caste” structure that Isabelle Wilkerson writes about in her new book.
All of these exhibitions have sought to bring a greater awareness to an array of situations and peoples, which is the first step in attempting to tackle tragedy. So, for me, art has served as a bridge, as a way to foster compassion and connectivity between others, whether on a reservation in New Mexico or just a few miles away.
We Shall Overcome, was a landmark for bringing Nashville’s history of civil rights to the forefront of conversation. What did you learn about activism while curating it?
That exhibition—and the enormous amount of research that went into it—completely opened my eyes to the importance and impact of activism of all sorts. The work of student protestors, of course, but also those who trained them, transported them, defended them in court, paid their bail money, provided logistical support and even spiritual guidance. The parents who were brave enough to send their children to previously all-white schools. Everyone involved was incredibly brave. Of course, it was an honor to have Congressman Lewis’s contribution to the book. His passing, along with Rev. C.T. Vivian’s last month, was a reminder that the time is now to honor these figures and Nashville’s story within the movement. I was also struck by photographs depicting white people involved in the protests. It is a reminder that there is a place for everyone in the current fight to dismantle white supremacy.
How do you uncover the story you want to share in your exhibitions?
The exhibitions are often interconnected and built on each other. For example, while sourcing local talent for the multidisciplinary performance we produced in 2018 in association with our Nick Cave exhibition, I noticed some really great street art and murals in North Nashville. This sparked the idea for Murals of North Nashville Now, which featured the work of nearly a dozen artists with deep connections to the neighborhood. Several of those artists, in turn, are involved in upcoming projects. I have long been interested in shining a light on narratives that are not often given center stage. And at the present moment, I am particularly interested in passing the mic and letting those figures speak for themselves.
Have current events affected what you are working on now?
I think we all are thinking about how the seismic shifts taking place right now are going to impact culture. How will they manifest in the arts? How do we make projects relevant? I am actually very excited to see what visual art is made during and in the wake of these times. I’m sure there are already exhibitions in the works. I had been working on a large group exhibition for 2023 in the early spring. Now my attention is shifting back to the present moment and its impact on Nashville. I am excited to be a part of some newly developed projects.
What has the curatorial team at the Frist done to stay resilient during this time?
The planners in all of us are trying to learn to let go (at least a little) of our timelines and productions schedules and be prepared to pivot. We have also deepened our commitment to the Nashville community and want to respond to shifts taking place in a more nimble and timely manner when possible. We have engaged two local creatives to curate and co-curate important projects within the next twelve months. This fall, we are also hosting an installation work made by Nashville artists that was not on the books in May.
I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to “visit” the museum online for Zoom lectures and virtual programming. The reach must be greater even though interaction with objects has been disrupted. What do you think about this tradeoff? Is it a tradeoff?
I, and any other museum professional, will always advocate for the original object, the real deal. Nothing compares to seeing a work of art in person. But some of the ideas behind it can be shared and conversation sparked more widely through these new virtual methods.
We, like all other institutions, have enhanced our online presence with an array of interesting programs, thanks to our Education Department, and even online exhibitions. I feel like this is a true silver lining in the current climate. In addition to our programs reaching a wider audience—our Terry Adkins conversation with Jamaal Sheats at Fisk and the curator at the Pulitzer, for example, had attendees from New York, Washington DC, St. Louis, and other non-local places—I’ve had the opportunity to watch amazing panel discussions and artist talks hosted across the country, and even in Europe and Africa.
It is great to have non-locals be able to participate in webinars. My mom, for example, got to see a panel discussion I participated in that she would not be able to under normally circumstances.
What stands out to you about the creativity and flexibility of the art world to meet challenges under the stress of Covid-19?
I continue to be amazed by how radically and quickly the world has adapted to these new circumstances, whether it was Andrea Bocelli singing in Milan on Easter Sunday; to school administrators learning how to best teach kindergarteners virtually; to the art community working together to reschedule exhibitions and programs. Closer to home, many people at the Frist have stepped outside their normal roles to assist with our new protocols. Everyone seems to have such a great attitude about pitching in where and whenever needed.
Sara Lee Burd writes about art from Nashville, TN.