Category: Georgetown Magazine, Spring 2021

Title:How are underrepresented artists brought to the fore?

Author: Jeffrey Donahoe
Date Published: May 27, 2021

Georgetown Magazine was honored to speak with Adrienne L. Childs (C’82) and Molly Donovan (C’88), both art historians and curators, about their longstanding commitment to studying and presenting works by people of color, women, and other artists underrepresented on museum walls.

Adrienne L. Childs (C’82)
Adrienne L. Childs (C’82) at the February 2020 opening of Riffs and Relations, an exhibition she curated at the Phillips Collection. She stands in front of Hale Woodruff’s Africa and the Bull, 1958, in the collection of the Studio Museum of Harlem. Photo: Archie Brown

How Black artists engage with the past

If you were fortunate enough to see the special exhibition Riffs and Relations: African American Artists and the European Modernist Tradition at Washington, D.C.’s Phillips Collection last year, your experience would have felt both familiar and new. For instance, the first several images riffed on Edouard Manet’s iconic 1863 painting, Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon on the Grass).

Other riffs followed, all by African American artists and many showing Black figures replacing or adding to familiar subjects in works by Monet, Matisse, and Man Ray, among many other modernist European artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Often the original works and the riffs were shown near each other. “This made the exhibition more powerful because works by an African American artist who had engaged with a work by Matisse could be seen in a context with the very Matisse in the room,” says Adrienne L. Childs (C’82), guest curator for Riffs and Relations—and the first African American curator in the Phillips Collection’s 100-year history.

The “relationship” theme of the exhibition explored the creative interplay between African American art and European Modernism. How did these European artists portray Black bodies? How are African American artists consciously drawing on familiar images by Europeans? “It’s looking at how Black artists engage the past,” says Childs.

Many of the artists shown are canonical figures in African American art, but most were not the usual suspects, Childs explains. “Even many historians and devotees of African American art don’t know a lot of these artists.” This made her research even more extensive.

Childs graduated from Georgetown hoping to pursue a doctorate in art history, but her grandmother persuaded her to go to business school. Eventually, even with a young family, she realized her dream, one class at a time.

She’s currently finishing a book on blackamoors—Black figures in European decorative arts—that appear in luxury objects like lamps, clocks, and small sculptures. Her scholarship focuses on what she calls “ornamental blackness,” asking what it means to have a Black slave body depicted on luxury objects when the money fueling the rise in luxury production came from slave economies.

What does America’s renewed sense of racial reckoning mean for a leading scholar of African American art? “Artists handle social consciousness in their art,” Childs says. “Then it’s a matter of how the museum world handles that art. I think museums need to have a fidelity to their communities.”

 Molly Donovan (C’88)
Molly Donovan (C’88) has been Curator of Contemporary Art at the National Gallery of Art since 2016. She is a longtime proponent of greater diversity in museum collections. Photo: National Gallery of Art

Art that represents us all

While she majored in English at Georgetown, Molly Donovan (C’88) minored in fine arts, taking a distribution of art history classes that aimed her toward a career in an art museum after graduation. Since 2016, she has been Curator of Contemporary Art at the National Gallery of Art, the latest milestone on her curatorial path since joining the National Gallery in 1993.

Her first job out of Georgetown, an entry-level position at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, made her quickly realize she would need a graduate degree, which she went on to obtain from the renowned art history master’s program at Williams College. While there, she worked at the Williams College Museum of Art, and reveled in “an incredible amount of exposure to living artists,” fueling her desire to focus on modern and contemporary art.

Donovan’s workdays at the National Gallery involve research, writing, working with artists, and managing the long-term, complex processes involved in growing and caring for a collection and mounting exhibitions. Her many contributions to these efforts have taken her shows to locales as far afield as Rome, Frankfurt, London, and Vienna.

“As the National Gallery, we represent all the people. I’m a public servant. I believe deeply in that.”

Long before her current role at the National Gallery, Donovan was a proponent of balancing the collection and increasing the visibility of women artists and others who are underrepresented. “The diversity of human experience needs to be seen on museum walls,” she says.

Her desire for broad perspectives has a Georgetown seed, Donovan says—a theology class taught by Otto Hentz, S.J., where she read Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. “It made an indelible mark on many aspects of my life,” she says.

In this moment of reckoning, “we all need to become students again and I think museums have a great responsibility and role in that,” she says. She’s currently co-curating the National Gallery’s presentation of Afro-Atlantic Histories, a show of more than 130 works from 20 countries that originated at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo, Brazil, in 2018.

Donovan says that museums must better understand the ways class, race, and gender determined their founding and growth. “As the National Gallery, we represent all the people in the United States. To do that accurately and appropriately, we need to look hard at what’s in our collection and what is missing, and who is and who is not represented in our programs.”

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