AOTCE: Did you ever have a desire to do anything else, and if so, what was it?
Stephanie James: Well, I still wake up some days and ask myself, what do I want to do when I grow up! I’m not that person who knew at an early age that I wanted to be an art historian or curator, but I’ve always had an affection for the arts. People often expect to hear the word “passion,” as a driving force in an arts related career, but I think affection is more easily sustained. I liked to draw as a child, and it was my chosen area of study at the magnet high school I attended (Cass Technical High School). I followed up with a BFA degree and teacher certification in undergrad (Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti, MI). As I pondered grad school, ten years later (and after 5 years of living in NY), I reflected on how much I enjoyed learning the backstories of many of the artists I’d studied in my undergrad art history courses. I had also decided that I wanted to pursue a career in which I could be an advocate for the visual arts, as well as making it more accessible and approachable to the general public—to people like me who didn’t grow up with art in their households or visiting art museums with any regularity. And, so I got a MA in art history at Wayne State University. Before coming to work for the Mott-Warsh Collection, I worked at the Detroit Institute of Arts for nearly 16 years, half of that time spent as an educator and the other half as assistant curator of the GM Center for African American Art. I like what I do and the environment in which I do it. I’ve found that curating an art exhibit produces a healthy dose of anxiety in me that’s similar to what I’d experience when creating a good work of art: but it also leads to an equal amount of gratification. But, if I were to turn back the hands of time and consider nurturing a different interest/affection, I might be a jazz pianist!
AOTCE: Which artists do you see on the horizon?
Stephanie James: Hard to answer that. Most of the artists that I’m following are well out the gate, but they’re still not household names. Artists like Jordan Casteel, Mario Moore, Bisa Butler, Didier William Tomashi Jackson, etc. From the Detroit area, I’m looking to see Sydney James, Rashaun Rucker and Tylonn Sawyer become part of a nation dialogue on African American artists.
AOTCE: Do you also collect?
Stephanie James: I've picked up a little art here and there, but I wouldn't call myself a collector. Too busy collecting for other folks, I guess. I've mostly pursued works on paper regional and nationally known artists. My most recent acquisition was a study drawing by Rashaun Rucker.
AOTCE: What advice would you give to a young person seeking to do what you do as a curator?
Stephanie James: My advice to a young aspiring curator—spend lots of time “looking” at art and asking questions about what you see. What you like about it and why. What you dislike and why. Study art history—you need a foundation from which to develop your assertions, even if you ultimately choose to reject historical assertions. Nurture a healthy dose of curiosity about materials, process, techniques, etc.
AOTCE: How has being a curator enhanced the visibility of African American artists and/or artists who have not been seen in museums. Ex. Native Americans, Woman, Hispanic, etc.?
Stephanie James: I guess I’d say that curating exhibits of works by artists who are less known to mainstream audiences (whoever that is) tends to make those audiences a little more curious about work by other artists or cultures that are unfamiliar to them; makes them wonder, “who/what else have I been missing out on?” I like to think that my public speaking or writings about the rich history of artmaking by African Americans and other artists of the African diaspora has enlightened the public. I’ve had visitors to the MW Gallery come back and tell me that after being introduced to certain artists represented in our collection, they were excited to visit museums in other parts of the country and recognize an artist’s work because of what they were introduced to by the Mott-Warsh Collection.
Stephanie James, Curator & Education Collector of the Mott-Warsh Collection and Gallery. Photography by Mark L. Brown