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Maya Brooks: A Conversation With A Curator of Contemporary Art

Maya Brooks: A Conversation With A Curator of Contemporary Art

How and why did you become a curator?

As a teenager, I decided on a museum career after reading about Anthropology in a class textbook. I searched the types of positions I could seek with at least a Bachelor’s degree in the subject. Museum Curator was the first result. I decided that made the most sense for my interests and personality.  

Before then, I was obsessed with Barbie houses, but not the dolls per se. I would glue all these plastic pieces together to make makeshift “house museums.”  So, museums and interpretation were always there for me. I just didn’t recognize them as such until much later. Pair that with my being extroverted and fascinated by history; it all aligned. 

I didn’t have many examples of what this work could look like, especially for someone with my background. My closest inspiration growing up was Johnnetta Cole. She is also an Anthropologist and former museum professional. I would sit and watch videos of her speaking while she was the Director of the National Museum of African Art. Other than her, I didn’t have much guidance about how to enter the field, let alone exist in it, so I had to piece this life together over the past nine years pretty independently. 

What does your role as a curator at the NCMA look like day-to-day?

I get asked what my day-to-day consists of pretty often – it is mostly feeling stressed about the small details of all these moving parts and questioning myself for choosing this path. I got asked by a photographer friend if he could shoot me for a project exploring my time at the museum. I told him it wouldn’t be any good because it would be photo after photo of me with my head on my computer. 

I’m joking, of course. I love that my days rarely look the same throughout the week. I have meetings here and there – most are with internal teams, but I also often speak with artists and community partners. I travel to their studios or homes, gathering information about future projects or ways we may collaborate. I work closely with local universities and colleges, too. 

I tend to prioritize my day with the projects I’m working on. I start with exhibition work, from drafting checklists to writing labels. I also spend time researching subjects and artists throughout the day. Working in contemporary art means I usually use digital resources, but I still love browsing through physical catalogs and collection texts. I have a running list of exhibition ideas and artists I’m interested in on my computer. When I need to find an idea, I pull it from there. 

What projects are you most proud of? 

My most significant project to date has been the NCMA’s collection reinstallation, which I was hired to assist with three years ago. This project included restructuring all the galleries to provide an equitable representation of our collection. We strived for “equity” instead of “equality” because the collections are diverse in size and media. It was like putting a puzzle together. Since I work in contemporary art, I was responsible for reintroducing our “Global Contemporary” collection. This also included acquiring new work and supporting loans outside the museum to bolster the collection’s inclusivity. 

It’s funny; I had a real full circle moment during our planning stages because the curators used a model of the museum that we called the “doll house” to figure out where we would place all the artwork. It really brought something out of me. 

Academy Award winner Ruth E. Carter and Maya Brooks pose for a photo during Carter’s exhibition opening at the NCMA.
Academy Award winner Ruth E. Carter and Maya Brooks pose for a photo during Carter’s exhibition opening at the NCMA. 

What was your experience bringing the Ruth E. Carter exhibition to the Museum?

The exhibition provides a great opportunity to recognize Ruth’s life and career. I’ve been a fan of hers since I was about eight years old when I watched Do the Right Thing for the first time with my father. 

My Chief Curator, Linda Dougherty, told me we were bringing the traveling exhibition to the NCMA. I remember going, “What? No way!” She asked if I would like to serve as the coordinating curator, a role institutional curators take on when the show is curated externally, and I jumped at it since I was familiar with Ruth’s work. 

I worked with the show’s originating curator, Julia Long, to coordinate our version since the exhibition looks different at each location. We worked with a team of designers, contractors, art handlers, and other development directors to bring everything to fruition. It is a months-long process of conversations and file-sharing between departments and external organizations that can feel daunting but is worthwhile once it’s all put together.

It’s not about supplication; it’s about power. It’s not about asking, it’s about demanding. It’s not about convincing those who are currently in power, it’s about changing the very face of power itself.” 

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How have exhibitions expanded under your leadership?

My practice reflects a quote by scholar and civil rights advocate Kimberlé Crenshaw: 

This quote refers to how we can subvert oppressive systems throughout our culture. This relates to my work as a curator by challenging how we (the museum, curators, people, etc.) relate to and disseminate global experiences. I aspire for my work to challenge the limits enforced upon historically marginalized people and how we express our abilities, our strengths, and our potential as we navigate injustices. My exhibitions evoke another concept articulated by Crenshaw, intersectionality. This analytical framework describes the social phenomenon where we cannot separate our experiences based on our disparate identities. They act together, causing us to be afflicted by multiple oppressions concurrently. 

How do you connect with new audiences through exhibitions?

Since I curate most exhibitions within themes, I always want my work to resonate with the people that have been affected by those subjects. For instance, I organized a section of the contemporary galleries that includes global issues that impact communities across race, gender, and socioeconomic status. Specifically, numerous artists in this space consider the structural limitations placed on people as they navigate the various types of violence and inequity throughout our world. I plan to rotate the gallery a few times to demonstrate the brilliance and innovation of present-day artists, emphasizing the continued importance of intracommunal awareness and reflection throughout the Global Contemporary.  

Creating moments to address multiple worldviews exemplifies how we connect with new or different audiences. We must continue expanding our museum coverage, including individual artworks and thematic installations or exhibitions. Because this is, unfortunately, a retroactive process due to the art museums history of exclusion and marginalization, we must be proactive in incorporating communities moving forward.

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