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Hammer Curator Erin Christovale on How Museums Can Support Social Justice

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This article was originally published Oct. 7, 2020 by UCLA's School of the Arts and Architecture.

Museums are experiencing a cultural reckoning over race, identity and historical legacy. Black arts workers have been central in calling on museums to be more inclusive of the communities they serve.

Erin Christovale | Paley Fairman
Erin Christovale | Paley Fairman

Erin Christovale, associate curator at the Hammer Museum, focuses on experimental moving images and visual art. She has helped give emerging Black artists the structural support they need to advance their careers.

In this episode the UCLA Arts podcast "Works In Progress," Christovale talks about the changing role of the museum in the Black Lives Matter era. She’ll be exploring the question, "What is Justice?" as part of the UCLA event series “10 Questions: Reckoning” on Oct. 12, 2020.

Museums, like many public-facing institutions, were quick to express their solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement following the murders this year of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade and countless other Black people. 

But how can those expressions of support be substantiated with actions? And how can museums be more welcoming to visitors from underrepresented communities?

Christovale, like many Black arts workers, has been thinking carefully about those issues. 

“In the past few years, major museums have actively hired curators of color, specifically Black curators," Christovale said. “I think what museums really need to be thinking through right now is that, beyond just hiring us, how can you support us? And how might that support look and feel different than the traditional support that you've offered your curators?”

Christovale became interested in experimental media after taking a video art class as an undergraduate student at the USC School of Cinematic Arts.

After graduating, she and a few friends formed a collective called Native Thinghood to “make space for young artists of color in L.A., whether that be through creating exhibition space or making zines or having conversations.” 

Christovale took the lead role in film programming for the collective. Her interest in experimental moving images led her in 2013 to co-found the short-film program Black Radical Imagination with a friend, Chicago-based filmmaker Amir George. 

“This was such an important time for Black independent film and Black experimental media,” Christovale said, pointing to Issa Rae’s YouTube series “Awkward Black Girl” and Terence Nance’s debut feature film “An Oversimplification of Her Beauty.”

Black Radical Imagination organized hour-long programs of short films, with the first year’s works focused on the theme of Afrofuturism. 

"The Black experience and depictions of Blackness in the film industry have always been complicated and layered. And so it just really felt important to witness, in this moment, a space in which Black creators were really carving space for their own,” she explained.

Watch a trailer for the 2015 edition of Black Radical Imagination below, featuring work by Ja'Tovia Gary, Cauleen Smith, Terence Nance and Lauren Kelley.

The series began in Los Angeles and Chicago but added screenings in Boston, Oakland, Philadelphia and Brooklyn and gained in popularity as it eventually traveled to Trinidad and Tobago; Guadalajara, Mexico; Basel, Switzerland; Toronto, Canada and elsewhere, providing a platform for Black experimental filmmakers. 

The title was borrowed from Robin D.G. Kelley’s book “Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination,” about Black liberation movements in history.

“In each chapter, he makes sure to come back to this notion that if it weren't for the imagination, if it weren't for the mind and the mind's capacity to think outside of oppression, that we wouldn't be where we are now,” Christovale said. "I think for us, it was really important to adopt that philosophy in the cinematic realm.”

In 2016, Christovale curated an exhibition at the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives at the USC Libraries marking the 20th anniversary of “The Watermelon Woman,” the debut feature by queer filmmaker Cheryl Dunye. The exhibition displayed the romantic comedy-drama’s production archives while also highlighting new artists who were working within the same themes as the film.

Cheryl Dunye, Still from “The Watermelon Woman,” 1996 (detail). 16mm film, color, sound. 90 min. | Image courtesy of the artist
Cheryl Dunye, Still from “The Watermelon Woman,” 1996 (detail). 16mm film, color, sound. 90 min. | Image courtesy of the artist

The Hammer Museum invited Christovale to use that movie as a starting point for How to Love a Watermelon Woman, a film program she curated as part of the series In Real Life: Film & Video. That program featured a collective of Black women filmmakers, largely based on the East Coast, called the New Negress Film Society

Christovale was then hired by the Hammer Museum and invited to curate, with Anne Ellegood, the Hammer’s biennial exhibition, "Made in L.A. 2018," showcasing 32 artists from the greater Los Angeles area. 

Growing up in Long Beach, Christovale said that curating Made in L.A. 2018 "felt extremely personal for me. I read this as my opportunity to write my love letter to my city.”

taisha paggett, “breathingholdinglistening practice.” In conjunction with Made in L.A. 2018, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, September 1, 2018. | Gina Clyne
taisha paggett, “breathingholdinglistening practice.” In conjunction with "Made in L.A. 2018," Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, September 1, 2018. | Gina Clyne

Ellegood and Christovale focused on themes such as development, gentrification, homelessness and multiculturalism, and how those forces were shaping L.A.’s structural and cultural landscape. 

The exhibition brought in Latinx artists like Carolina Caycedo and Beatriz Cortez, as well as Black artists such as EJ Hill, Nikita Gale, taisha paggett and Lauren Halsey. These younger artists, Christovale said, were better prepared for public exposure than previous generations of Black artists who were left out of the mainstream art establishment.

"Something that I discovered consistently was that so many of these artists were just not equipped to have a studio visit or have their archive arranged, because they just never had that infrastructure and that support,” she said.

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In just the past two years, Christovale has seen a sea change in the art world’s interest in artists of color.

“Unfortunately, sometimes I think that that interest is led by the market, which is necessary of course, but can get a little sticky, especially when younger artists just aren't business savvy and they're not always necessarily taught how to build that relationship with the gallery in art school,” she said.

Several artists who were featured in Made in L.A. 2018 have used their recent acclaim to benefit and support their communities, Christovale said, pointing to Lauren Halsey’s Summaeverythang Community Center in South Central L.A. and EJ Hill’s work with the Tamir Rice Foundation.

Rodney McMillian, “Chairs and Books,” 2004. Found armchair, found books. Dimensions variable. Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. Gift of Peter Norton. © 2004 Rodney McMillian. From the exhibition belonging. Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. | Jeff McLane
Rodney McMillian, “Chairs and Books,” 2004. Found armchair, found books. Dimensions variable. Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. Gift of Peter Norton. © 2004 Rodney McMillian. From the exhibition "belonging." Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. | Jeff McLane

In 2019, Christovale organized the exhibition "belonging," which brought together works by Edgar Arceneaux, Rodney McMillian, Kori Newkirk, Michael Queenland, Betye Saar and Lorna Simpson. The exhibition was inspired by the bell hooks collection of essays "Belonging: A Culture of Place," and explored the intersection of the personal and political within a Black American domestic setting.

Christovale said she is hopeful that the steps museums are taking towards improving diversity and anti-racism practices are authentic and enduring efforts.

"I'm thankful that, I think in an interesting way, [the Black Lives Matter] movement has enlivened the museum world," Christovale said. Black arts workers, she added, “come with a different subjectivity, a different lived experience.”

"I can only hope that this summer has actually really pushed some of these museums and cultural spaces to think deeper about that," she said, adding that it’s up to museum leadership to support the initiatives and campaigns that staff of color have begun. 

If museums want to embrace and implement social justice initiatives, “we need to do that hard reckoning” of understanding the history of museums, particularly how encyclopedic museums acquired their cultural treasures, and coming to terms with the founding of many museums as “vanity projects for wealthy collectors and philanthropists that then turned into more public and cultural spaces."

In addition, making Black visitors feel welcome in museums requires more than displaying the work of Black artists, she said. Christovale recounts interviewing a prominent Black collector who told her, ‘I never went to museums as a child. And the one time that I did, I got followed around in the same way I'd get followed around a liquor store.’”

In her role at the Hammer, Christovale said, “I often think about my job as a curator as not only a steward and a caretaker of art objects and artists, but as a caretaker of people and a civil servant to the city.”

On Oct. 12 at 7 p.m., Erin Christovale will be a featured panelist in the “10 Questions: Reckoning” event responding to the question, What is Justice? You can register for 10 Questions and watch past panels here.

Top Image: Erin Christovale | Paley Fairman

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