Valerie Cassel Oliver, the Sydney and Frances Lewis Family Curator of Modern and contemporary art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, has had a wide-ranging career.
Before joining the Virginia museum, she spent 16 years at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston and led the visiting-artist program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Now she’s taking on a new challenge: organizing a show about the widespread influence of Black Southern Hip Hop on American culture.
We caught up with the curator about her curatorial interests, her podcast obsessions, and what artists she’s been looking at lately.
What are you working on right now?
Currently, I am bouncing between my home and the museum working on an exhibition titled “The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse.” The project embraces Black Southern Hip Hop as a portal to the long trajectory of Black Southern aesthetic sensibilities, as well as how these sensibilities have manifested in the visual arts and music.
Walk us through the when, where, and how of your approach to this project on a regular day.
At the moment, I am finalizing the checklist for the exhibition, which includes a range of works, historical and contemporary, created by living and deceased artists as well as a range of genres.
I am having lots of conversations with living artists (I only dream about what I would ask or discuss with those now deceased). So, I am literally living on Zoom! I am also engaging all my colleagues—both externally (catalogue contributors) and internally (marketing, design, education departments)—as we move ever closer to finalizing the exhibition and accompanying publication. I am touching base with the artist and musician Richard “Fiend” Jones, or International Jones.
So again, lots of conversations, and a full day can pass beginning and ending with a phone call! At night, I lay awake formulating my own thoughts to put to paper. Each and every conversation serves to fuel and shape the language that will manifest in essays, walk texts, and labels. My colleagues can attest that mornings are when the muses come, and it is not unusual for me to correspond at 2:30 a.m. or 3:30 a.m.!
What is bothering you right now (other than the project above and having to deal with these questions)?
I am eager to speak to the moment in which we now find ourselves. I feel that art has the power to transform as well as transcend, but this moment is so palpable with loss, regeneration, scrutiny, and demands. In many ways, I believe the works in this exhibition (not all, but some) will speak to the moment as they have spoken in other moments, given the historical arch that the exhibition possesses.
I am hopeful that it will not only be a balm for the soul, but also trouble the waters with ripples of truth and awareness. At its core, this exhibition is about the celebration of culture, particularly the culture of the African American South which becomes the nucleus for a North American diasporic feel, look, and sound.
What was the last thing that made you laugh out loud?
My son. He is hilarious! Its hard to keep a straight face with a 9-year-old! He was sharing his mediations on life, and while I marveled at his wisdom… well, let’s just say, kids say the damnedest things!
Are there any movies, music, podcasts, publications, or works of art that have made a big impact on you recently? If so, why?
I’m a fan of several podcasts including “This American Life” and “Snap Judgement.” I have also been obsessed with documentaries and have been on a tear recently with viewing “James Baldwin: I Am Not Your Negro;” “Toni Morrison: Pieces That I Am,” and “John Lewis: Good Trouble.” Clearly, there is a pattern emerging! And I have been reading Sylvia Wynter’s “On Being Human as Praxis,” which is on my nightstand.
What is your favorite part of your house and why?
My home office. As I moved to Richmond three years ago, it took a moment to get settled with work, motherhood, and travel being in constant modes of balance. This room was the last to be unpacked and for nearly three years, it served as the proverbial “junk room.” I made it my mission to complete the office as my 2019 year-end goal. Who knew that it would be so necessary… but I love it and am thrilled to be in the space!
What’s your favorite work of art in the house and why?
I have lots of favorites, but a work by a young artist, Aaron Vaughn Holmes, studying at VCU, shakes me. I was asked to jury a project for the college and didn’t leave without committing to purchase this work.
Are there any causes you support that you would like to share? If so, what, and why is it/are they important?
I am now aligned with the Friends Meeting House in Richmond. I deeply appreciate their historical and current advocacy, and lean into their work at the border and in our own backyard with the great disparities that exist; the Black Lives Matter movement, locally and as a whole; and of course, I will be supporting the efforts of local and national affiliates of the Democratic Party.
What is your guilty pleasure?
What’s going on in the kitchen these days? Any projects? And triumphs or tragedies?
I’ve been cooking, exploring, and re-familiarizing myself with the kitchen. My favorite indulgence is pancakes!
Which two fellow art-world people, living or dead, would you like to convene for dinner, and why?
That’s a tough one! I have so many folks that I love who are living, so, I will go with those who I never met: poet Sterling Brown and painter William H. Johnson—or, Zora Neale Hurston and Sterling Brown. Why can’t it be a dinner party!