The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. is one of the largest museums in North America. With an impressive collection and the vast resources of the federal government behind it, working at the prestigious institution is likely on many an art professional’s short list of dream jobs. However, according to Lauren Dickens, it’s not for her.
‘The National Gallery is an internationally renowned institution with almost unmatched scholarship,’ says Dickens, who recently left her position as curatorial consultant at the National Gallery to take over as head curator of the San Jose Museum of Art. ‘But it’s such a large institution, I very much felt like a cog in the wheel there.’ She says that the real draw of working at a smaller institution like SJMA is her love of working closely with artists.
‘Artists imagine the world in a different way and they don’t work that well when they’re bound to bureaucratic time tables,’ Dickens says. ‘At SJMA, in terms of working with artists, we have an agility in being responsive to timely topics. Border Cantos (a collaboration between photographer Richard Misrach and experimental composer Guillermo Galindo) is one example up right now. That controversial topic (the U.S.-Mexico border) is something a place like the National Gallery can’t touch.’
In addition to being drawn to the intimacy of SJMA, Dickens says she is looking forward to returning to the Northern Californian life she grew up with. ‘I am from the Bay Area,’ she says. ‘And as everyone from the Bay Area knows, once you leave, the goal is always to get back.’ When she and her family left the East Coast in early April it was snowing. Since arriving in the Golden State, she’s been enjoying the warm, sunny weather.
Of all the applicants for the position, Dickens says she thinks she was selected because of her commitment to working in the community. ‘I think what appealed to the director and the search committee about my work is that I’m very interested in community building and working with local audiences who are near the institution,’ she says. ‘Art can really be a way of bringing people together in dialog in interesting ways. At the National Gallery, their audience is the nation.’
Dickens describes the job of a curator as being similar to that of a music producer—taking the original work of a given artist, or group of artists, and helping to shape it into something that is not just moving, but also cohesive and marketable. ‘I work with artists to organize exhibitions around themes,’ she explains. ‘I work with artists to create new work for specific audiences. I also write and interpret that work to help the audience’s access.’
Dickens intends to begin her work at SJMA by learning about the local community. ‘I need to get to know the people who live here,’ she says—’the people in the Bay Area, which communities are already invested in the museum and which are not. And why not?’ She recognizes that the people of Silicon Valley come from a variety of backgrounds and cultures. Because of this diversity, Dickens also recognizes that the scope of her curation will be local and, by necessity, international.
‘You have a lot of people who were born and raised here,’ Dickens says, ‘but you also have more people who have come to California, to Silicon Valley, from other countries. Those are the populations that I am interested in. This is the new maturity of California.’
Looking back at her time in D.C., Dickens mentions working with the performance art of Iona Rozeal Brown. Brown is known for blurring the normally strict lines of cultural and racial identity. In ‘Battle of Yestermore,’ the artist combines principles of Kabuki and Noh with hip-hop.
‘She staged this fantastic performance in the public space of the museum,’ Dickens says, recalling Brown’s show. ‘We had a live DJ, backdrops and seven or eight dancers.’
This is what a curator like Dickens can inspire: art that brings different communities together under one museum’s roof. Although Dickens isn’t sure when her first exhibit will appear inside the SJMA galleries, SJMA patrons have something to look forward to in the bright energy that fuels her curatorial vision.