Belinda Tate studied art history at Yale University and British art at the Paul Mellon Centre in London. While researching in Yale’s Beinecke Library, she encountered works by members of the Harlem Renaissance, sculptures that ‘spoke to my own life in an empowering way. It was the first time I experienced the transformative power of art.’
She went on to lead the Diggs Gallery in North Carolina, one of the largest exhibition spaces in America dedicated to the art of Africa and the African diaspora, before being appointed director of the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts in 2014. She describes it as ‘a place of discovery’, where there is ‘an integration between seeing and making’.
I didn’t visit art museums as a child, but I remember going to a history museum and seeing a life-size cardboard cutout of Harriet Tubman. There was something powerful about standing in her presence, even though it was just a picture of her. She became a hero to me from that moment, because of what she accomplished as a black woman.
The Kalamazoo Institute of Arts is a museum and one of the leading community-based art schools in the region. We have about 5,000 objects and 3,300 students. We run a unique post-baccalaureate residency that targets young artists: ceramicists, sculptors, and others who need equipment to do their work. We give them nine months of free tuition, during which time they use our studios to improve their practice.
There is a term used in the museum field: ‘glocal’. It means connecting people around the world in ways that make those people part of your community, because they share your values. At the same time, we are a bricks-and-mortar meeting place, a third space (home being the first and work the second). We serve our local community, and we try to demonstrate that innovation, intelligence, talent, beauty and excellence exist within — and emerge from — every walk of life.
The collection is exceptionally strong for a museum of this size. It is primarily American art. There are some amazing pieces by Helen Frankenthaler, including one massive painting called Code Blue (above). You’ll see Richard Diebenkorn, Franz Kline, Alexander Calder. We have one of the best Robert S. Duncanson landscapes I have ever come across, along with artists such as Edmonia Lewis, a little-known 19th-century African-American sculptor. People are surprised when they come here. They always tell us the experience exceeded their expectations.
One of my favourite works in the collection is a contemporary painting called Tender Breeze by Philemona Williamson. It depicts a group of three girls in some kind of underwater dream state. Williamson paints adolescent women, and there are so few artists who focus on a transitional time for young women when their social, emotional and physical maturity have not yet aligned. It is very complex, and we need to look at it more closely.
We are acquiring works all the time — particularly by women and by people of colour. So, for example, we recently purchased a piece by Olga Albizu, a Puerto Rican painter who was the only known Latina artist working in New York at the height of Abstract Expressionism. Her works are so lyrical, they are like looking at music.
But we don’t always have the diversity of work required to tell the kind of stories that audiences desire. I would appeal to collectors to donate works by women and people of colour to museums. There is an urgent need for that.
My love of art began as an undergraduate at Yale, where I came across two works that changed my life. One was a maquette of a sculpture called The Harp, by Augusta Savage. It depicts a number of standing figures embraced by a divine hand in such a way that the composition looks like a harp. It is inspired by the African-American anthem Lift Every Voice and Sing.
The other work was Feral Benga (above), a sculpture of a male dancer by Richmond Barthé. The sheer beauty of that human figure overwhelmed me. For the first time, art didn’t seem foreign; it wasn’t someone else’s art. I went off in search of those lightbulb moments when you see something you have never seen before, when art changes who you are.
I think many young women working in the field of contemporary art right now are widely underrated. Chitra Ganesh is one, an American of Indian descent. Others are Bethany Collins, Adia Millett, Inka Essenhigh. It is difficult for these artists to break through, but I hope that we are seeking them out.
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Artists such as Ginny Ruffner and Todd Gray are capturing the spirit of the times. That spirit is hard to verbalise, but we know it when we see it. Ginny Ruffner is a glass artist and her new exhibition, Reforestation of the Imagination, opens for us on 6 June. The works look like stumps, but when you hold an iPad in front of them an imaginary flower appears. Take a screenshot, and there is something on your device that you cannot see in the gallery space itself. The show has a kind of post-apocalyptic hopefulness — like when, after a fire, new life emerges.
And then, starting on 25 July, there will be a show by Todd Gray, who was official photographer to Michael Jackson. These works have nothing to do with pop culture. Todd places framed photographs one on top of the other to make thought- provoking layered collages.
For me, art is the way that — in the future — we will understand our current moment. This is an exciting time, because there is a heightened sense that art is connective, healing, transformative. It seems to me that no major change has occurred in society without utilising the power of art.