After Making California African American Museum Relevant Again, Naima J. Keith is Leaving for LACMA
- February 23rd, 2019
THREE YEARS INTO HER TENURE as deputy director and chief curator at the California African American Museum, Naima J. Keith is heading to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Keith has been named vice president of education and public programs at LACMA. She begins her new post April 1.“It’s a great time of change for LACMA, and I’m really excited to be a part of it,” Keith told the Los Angeles Times.
“I’m from L.A., and the work they’re doing in Magic Johnson Park or Watts Towers or Charles White Elementary School, this is a real moment for them for innovation and creativity and experimentation. And I’m excited about being part of the conversation about LACMA in the city.”
Last week, Keith participated in a Frieze Los Angeles panel with Michael Govan, CEO and director of LACMA. Titled Expanding the Canon, the discussion focused on the representation of African American artists in U.S. museums and the international market.
In a statement to the Times, Govan said Keith “brings a wealth of experience in engaging a broad range of audiences…”
“It’s a great time of change for LACMA, and I’m really excited to be a part of it.” — Naima J. Keith
A NATIVE OF LOS ANGELES, Keith graduated from Spelman and earned a masters at UCLA. She joined CAAM in February 2016, after serving as associate curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem from 2011-2016. At the Studio Museum, she organized many exhibitions, including “Charles Gaines: Gridwork 1974-1989” and solo shows with Glenn Kaino, Titus Kaphar, Rodney McMillian, and Robert Pruitt. Keith was also a curatorial fellow at the Hammer Museum where she worked closely with Columbia University art historian Kellie Jones who guest-curated “Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960–1980.”
At CAAM, which focuses on art and history, Keith was hired to revive the museum which had faded as the city’s art community thrived. She has transformed the museum’s exhibition programming, hosting important talks and groundbreaking touring exhibitions, and originating significant shows with emerging and mid-career artists.
The Brooklyn Museum’s “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85” traveled to CAAM and the museum was also among the venues that hosted “Nina Chanel Abney: Royal Flush,” the artist’s first-ever museum exhibition (co-presented with the Institute of Contemporary Art Los Angeles).
“Genevieve Gaignard: Smell the Roses” was the Los Angeles-based photographer and installation artist’s first-ever solo museum exhibition. A monumental installation currently on view in CAAM’s light-filled atrium lobby, “Gary Simmons: Fade to Black,” is the artist’s first museum show in Los Angeles. Both exhibitions were curated by Keith.
“The museum has a long legacy of supporting emerging artists that I’m excited to build upon. It’s a great opportunity to support up-and-coming artists of color who might not have had opportunities to show their work in museums on the West Coast,” Keith told artnet News in November in an interview about how she landed her position at CAAM. “And it is very exciting being a part of a management team that is trying different things and experimenting to try and bring a diverse audience. I love curating shows, but I like having the opportunity to think about the museum as a whole as well.”
ONE OF THE THINGS she honed in on was the look and feel of the museum. Toward that end, Keith rebranded the institution, introducing a new logo, new website, and a more contemporary visual identity.
All of these changes have broadened the museum’s audience (the Times reports attendance numbers have nearly doubled from about 55,000 in 2015 to more than 100,000 in 2018), attracting a more diverse visitor base in terms of age and race.
On Feb. 15, Naima KeithPhoto by: second from right
“When I first joined CAAM there were like 300 people at our openings. Now we have 2,500 or 3,000 people. To have so many people enjoying the museum—sometimes I just stand back at an event and think, ‘Wow, this is exactly what I wanted this to be like.’ Those are proud moments,” Keith told artnet News. Exhibition openings have became such a draw, an episode of Issa Rae’s television series “Insecure” was filmed against the backdrop of a solo show with artist Derrick Adams at the museum.
“Naima was fantastic,” CAAM Executive Director George O. Davis told the Times. “She changed the museum from one catering to people over 50 and not that relevant outside of the African American community — and even within some parts of the African American community.” He said he intends to continue to build upon her vision for the museum: “more relevant, more cutting edge, more contemporary art.”
“Naima was fantastic… She changed the museum from one catering to people over 50 and not that relevant outside of the African American community — and even within some parts of the African American community.” — CAAM Executive Director George O. Davis
Keith has also been recognized beyond CAAM. She received the 2017 David C. Driskell Prize, is serving as curator of the “Exposure” section at Expo Chicago this September, and has been tapped to co-curate Prospect.5 in New Orleans, which opens in fall 2020.
LACMA IS THE LARGEST art museum in the West with 140,000 objects in its collection, more than 1.6 million visitors, and a major building project underway. On the exhibition front, “Charles White: A Retrospective,” the first career-spanning examination of the artist’s work in about three decades, opened at LACMA on Sunday. Later this year, the museum is presenting groundbreaking solo shows with artists Betye Saar and Julie Mehretu.
Diversity has also been prioritized at LACMA. The museum is the lead coordinating institution for the Andrew W. Mellon Undergraduate Curatorial Fellowship Program, which focuses on developing curators from underrepresented groups, and has also partnered with Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University toward the same goal.
In conjunction with the White retrospective, LACMA is presenting “Life Model: Charles White and His Students,” at Charles White Elementary School, on the campus of the original Otis Art Institute. “Plumb Line: Charles White and the Contemporary” opens March 6 at CAAM. Promoted as a companion to the LACMA exhibitions, “Plumb Line” features “contemporary artists whose work in the realm of black individual and collective life resonates with White’s profound and continuing influence.”
Keith said: “I was brought into CAAM, in a lot of ways, to really rethink the exhibition programming and bring new audiences to the museum… I do feel like I’ve been able to make some in-roads in doing that.” CT
TOP IMAGE: Naima J. Keith. Photo by Cristina Gandolfo, Expo Chicago
FIND MORE about Naima Keith on her website
Naima J. Keith edited the exhibition catalog “Charles Gaines: Gridwork 1974-1989.” “Fore” documents a group show of emerging artists at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Keith also co-authored the catalog for “The Shadows Took Shape,” which considered contemporary art through the lens of Afrofuturism.