Alumna Juana Williams Pushes the Boundaries of Curatorial Practice
(Updated May 3, 2022)
Alumna Juana Williams (BA Art '09 and MA Art History '17) recently became the Associate Curator of African American Art at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Prior to this appointment, Williams was Director of Exhibitions at Library Street Collective. She is also Adjunct Faculty in Art History at WSU. Since completing her graduate degree, Williams has rapidly built a strong curatorial practice, serving as Exhibitions Curator at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts (UICA) in Grand Rapids, MI, and holding positions at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit and the Detroit Institute of Arts. Her work has been supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, the Wege Foundation, and the Frye Foundation. Most recently, she was named 2021 recipient of the Art Mile + Independent Curators International Inaugural Curatorial Fellowship.
Williams’ curatorial practice “focuses on deconstructing cultural and social issues, transgressing traditional boundaries of art criticism and curation, and countering anti-blackness within the arts,” as described on her website. She has featured artists like Wangechi Mutu, Firelei Báez, Devan Shimoyama, Mavis Pusey, and Elizabeth Catlett in previous exhibitons.
Curator / Master Observer
Williams believes that being a successful curator comes down to being a great observer and remaining open to a wide range of ideas — past and present. “My ideas come from paying attention to life,” she explains. “I was a shy child, and I have always paid close attention to what was happening around me. I also do a lot of reading, especially literature from older books from before my time.” Williams sees that taking in history is critical to understanding and responding to the present. “Because I curate contemporary art, I have to focus on what is happening in the world today and carefully consider how the work that I show can speak to that. I have to ask myself the questions: ‘What can an audience get out of this? What is the purpose of this show existing right now, in this time, in this space?’”
Fostering a dialogue is critical to this exchange between curatorial works and their audiences. “As a curator it is important to show the different sides of a topic and encourage conversation and reflection around a topic even if there are opposing views,” Williams argues. “As humans, we sometimes tend to stay in our silos and only talk to people who agree with us and who reinforce ideas or values that we already hold. I hope that my exhibitions open peoples’ minds to have more dynamic conversations.”
Williams reaches wide and deep, in physical and digital spaces, to find artists that can help her shape the stories that she hopes to tell. “Art is everywhere,” she explains, “and because I am a very visual person, I am always looking. Exhibitions, galleries, museums, online, and Instagram are all great ways to find artists. Studio visits are a great way to connect with artists, and I also connect with other curators. I do many juried exhibitions, so even if I don’t choose someone because they don’t fit a theme, I will keep track of them for something else.” She added, “I always have a million ideas in my head of shows that I want to do or topics that I am interested in.” An exhibit may be inspired by a single artist, a talk, or an event.
Interacting with the work is, by far, the most valuable and inspiring part of her curatorial-planning process. “Above everything else,” she says, “my first interaction with the body of work is just to see it and experience it. I always look for work that I am drawn to as an individual or that I feel will be impactful for a particular audience.”
Redefining What it Means to be a Curator
Williams highlights how important it is for a good curator to be a good storyteller, to nurture the connection between audience and artist and support a fundamental exchange. “I am in the middle, pulling together different voices,” she says, “in order to tell a story, to give the audience an opportunity to understand the story, and for the audience to bring their own story and their own interpretation to the experience.”
Williams also feels strongly that it is important to have a flexible understanding of what it means to curate and to be a curator in contemporary society. “There are people who feel that there should be a very strict definition of curator,” she says. “Historically, when museums in the United States first started opening, the curator was the person who took care of the art and made sure that the pieces and the collections were taken care of properly.” That has changed over time and, while curator can also be used too loosely, Williams does not believe that there should be one standard definition. “I am very open to what curator means,” she says.” I tend to focus on my role and what I want to do with that role, but I don’t put other people into that same box.”
Elevating Environmental Issues
Williams is passionate about environmentalism and environmental justice, and how these issues relate to race and are expressed through the lenses of Black artists. Williams explains, “In the US, Black and Brown people of low socioeconomic status have to deal more regularly and acutely with the repercussions of the climate crisis. I am very interested in the ways that environmental justice movements began with Black people standing up and fighting for their rights when it comes to dealing with the consequences of climate change. That is something that is very urgent and that needs to be talked about right now.”
Working with Library Street and Beyond
Williams enjoys working on a wide range of projects as Director of Exhibitions at Library Street Collective and independently for other events and happenings. Library Street, a contemporary commercial gallery located in Downtown Detroit, provides a unique platform for local artists within its focus on contemporary artists from across the country, working in different mediums. In her role, Williams manages the many logistical aspects of making an exhibit come together, from artist outreach to promotion, from media relations to Instagram posts text to text on the gallery’s website. Williams’ recently curated the exhibition Asymmetry, a two-person exhibition featuring the work of Robert Moreland and Jacqueline Surdell.
Working as an independent curator outside of the commercial gallery space affords Williams the opportunity to create an even greater range of exhibitions based on her passions and concerns. One recent example is Historic Futures, which was the inaugural exhibition at the Ann Arbor Art Center in November 2021. Based on the concept of a time capsule, the multidisciplinary exhibition explores history and current happenings by showcasing artists who, “dare to imagine a distinctly different future with people and systems that are more just, kinder to the environment and each other, healthier, safer, more accepting of differences, and less polarizing,” Williams says. “With Historical Futures, I was thinking about everything that's been going on since the pandemic, the election of Trump and his time in office and how people have become so polarized. These are monumental periods of my adulthood. Reflecting on a time capsule idea, I am asking the question of ‘What is really important right now that also may be important in the future?’ While each person’s own time capsule would be unique to them, what are the things that would be in all the time capsules that represent what has happened in the past that got us where we are today and what might change the trajectory of where we go as a society in the future?” she explains.
Other recent curatorial works include the solo exhibition, Relevant, by Chicago-based artist Adeshola Makinde. Displayed at Playground Detroit, Relevant references Civil Rights protest signs, repositioning and adapting them for current usage as posted bills and billboards.
The tremendous opportunity within digital exhibitions to reach a wider audience has unlocked an exciting aspect of curation, Williams notes. Art Mile has been one such digital venue that magnifies visibility as well as commercial opportunities. Williams explains that “Art Mile is completely online. It is a collection of different shows that highlight what is happening with artists in Detroit. It brings attention to the Detroit area arts and has become an important platform for both Detroit-based and non-Detroit based artists to sell their work.”
As a Curatorial Fellow for Art Mile, Williams curated the show Breathe, which focused on environmentalism and our relationship to nature. It brought attention to the documentation of nature and the loss of natural spaces, and the human need to experience and be in nature. Williams says that she was inspired in large part by outdoor and indoor trends that she noticed grew during the pandemic, like interest in hiking, camping, and cultivating houseplants and home gardens.
The impact and opportunity for digital exhibitions does not replace physical interaction with art, which is critical to experiencing art to its fullest capacity, Williams notes. “I like digital exhibitions because they can broaden an audience, but I’m much more traditional in the sense that I love for people to experience works in person. I see the value of digital, but I still believe in physical spaces for experiencing art,” she says.
Studying and Teaching at WSU
As a graduate student, Williams’ curated her first exhibit at the Elaine Jacob gallery, which kicked off her curatorial career. She feels strongly that her time as a student at WSU helped her to become a good curator. “I believe that I became a good writer and researcher at WSU,” she says. “Going straight from undergraduate to graduate school, researching and writing was pretty much all I did — over and over.” She also attributes her professional development to her teachers and mentors and the conceptual challenges that they brought to the table — learning to think critically about texts and works of art, to understand visual language and to confidently talk about a diverse range of artistic styles, influences, and movements. “My teachers at the graduate level did a really good job of always asking complicated questions about what we were reading. They made us think about it and talk about it. Most importantly, they gave us the confidence to talk about it. Having those discussions in class really gave me confidence that I didn’t have before going into graduate school.” Encouragement from her professors was also an essential factor. “These are people with PhDs and 20 or 30 years of experience. They help you see that you are on the right track even when you doubt yourself. In gaining confidence to discuss art, I learned to feel that I fit in those rooms where people were having those conversations, and [I learned how] to reach out to artists and talk to them about their work.” Working in the WSU galleries added to her confidence and enhanced her comfort with building relationships with artists.
Williams is currently teaching a course in African American Art History and appreciates the opportunity to introduce Black artists to her students. “Teaching is going really well,” she says. “I love it, and my students are great. They all came into the classes knowing very little about Black art, and I think they feel like their eyes are being opened. For example, sometimes they will ask me why they have not heard of a particular artist and why there isn’t more discussion about Black artists in other Art History courses. My Black students are especially interested, but all of my students are constantly asking me questions about the content that I am exposing them to. This is definitely something I enjoy, and I’m hoping that I can do more teaching in the future.” Like her former professors did for her, Williams wants to support confidence growth in her students through collaborative, open discussion. “I don't want them to think that because I’m the teacher I’m the only person that knows anything,” she says. “I want to encourage them to ask questions, to dig a little bit deeper and make discoveries for themselves — not simply memorize titles of artwork and dates, but be able to critically analyze the works and the different movements and time periods that the works were being made in. I constantly tell them, ‘You have to think about what was happening in the world during the time period that this work was made. Look beyond what you can see in the work and what you know about the artist; also focus on what was happening in the community that that artist lived in and the time that they lived in.”
Ultimately, Williams’ goal is to also help her students see the connections between Art History and contemporary events. To encourage the question she poses to herself: “What is the purpose of this show existing right now, in this time, in this space?” She concludes, “We were recently talking about Pan-Africanism and about W.E.B. Dubois and Alain Locke, who both had different ideas of the type of artwork that Black artists should have been making at that time, during the Harlem Renaissance in the early 1900s. We talked about how those ideas have continued and how many Black artists and scholars are still talking about these writings and how they relate to works being made today.”
To learn more about Williams and her work, visit: