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VMFA Curator Brings Marginalized Voices To The Mainstream

Valerie Cassel Oliver
Valerie Cassel Oliver has been the curator of modern and contemporary art at VMFA since June 2017. Crixell Matthews/WCVE

The Virginia Museum of Fine Art (VMFA) aspires to own the world’s best collection of African American art. The work of curator Valerie Cassel Oliver is part of how they plan to achieve that goal.

Cassel Oliver is VMFA’s Sydney and Frances Lewis Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art. Her latest exhibition is called Cosmologies from the Tree of Life. It features black artists from the American south, including Thornton Dial and quilters of Gee's Bend, Alabama.

The exhibit is one of many in her long career focused on increasing diversity in modern and contemporary art.

“I think it's in my DNA, honestly, ” said Cassel Oliver.

She started her career working with the Black Arts Alliance in Austin, Texas and administrating grants for the National Endowment for the Arts. Then, she became director of the Visiting Artist Program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

While in Chicago, she was asked to help curate the 2000 Biennial for the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York -- a huge deal in the art industry.

That experience led her to take a job as a curator at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston where she hung out as a teenager. 

Cassel Oliver said when she and her friends spent time in the museum in high school, she did not see herself reflected in the art on display.

“Having those experiences really opened the world for me,” said Cassel Oliver. “Going back to work at that museum as an adult, and as a curator, understanding that people like me at that age would utilize the museum to expand their existence and their understanding of the world.“

VMFA’s strategic plan to bolster their black art collection is part of what led Cassel Oliver to take the job. She said the commitment from VMFA’s board to diversify their collection and their choice to hire her shows they’re being intentional.

“The door is open and not just for artists of color. I mean not just for black artists but for artists of color in general, for women,” said Cassel Oliver. “Because most of my practice, I would say 99% of my practice really does follow in celebrating issues around inclusion. And so it exclude anyone, it simply opens the narrative wider.”

Cosmologies from the Tree of Life is open at VMFA through mid November. The quilt is to the left is by Mary Lee Bendolph. The sculpture in the foreground is Foundation of the World (A Dream of My Mother) by Thornton Dial. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/WCVE)

VMFA Director Alex Nyerges said Cassel Oliver was selected for the position not just because she’s good at African American art scholarship, but because she was the best person for the job.

“She's a great scholar of contemporary cutting edge art. She's also spent a career a couple of decades finding, promoting, doing the scholarship behind contemporary art,” said Nyerges. “She's a superstar within the contemporary world [of] curators on a global basis.”

Nyerges said Cassel Oliver’s also one of the nicest people he’s ever known.

“She brings us enormous energy, that's so positive and so enlightened, as a human being,” he said.

In addition to hiring Cassel Oliver as a modern and contemporary art curator, Nyerges said the museum dedicated more than a quarter of their private funds to buying African American art over the last four years. He told WCVE the museum is spending “in excess of eight figures on African American art purchases.”

Nyerges said the sculpture isn’t just a major acquisition for VMFA, it’s national and international art news.

“We're talking about a monumental sculpture, the largest Kehinde Wiley’s ever done,” said Nyerges. 

Cassel Oliver said lots of museums are showcasing more artists of color. But when it comes to their permanent collections, only 2% of the artworks are by African Americans, according to research done by two arts news sites.

“It's happening, but it's a glacier and it moves very, very slowly,” said Cassell Oliver. “It's one thing to speak of it, to present it. It's another thing to actually permanently allow it to exist as part of the narrative of the history of art.”

All of the works in Cosmologies will become part of the VMFA’s permanent collection. The exhibit is the prelude for a show Cassel Oliver is planning in 2021 called The Dirty South. 

“It's looking at music, material culture in contemporary art and how they have informed each other over the course of a century,” said Cassell Oliver

Long-term Cassell Oliver says she plans to continue her work to reposition the museum’s collection and highlight diverse art. 

*The text and audio of this story were corrected to indicate that all -- not some -- of the works in the Cosmologies exhibit will become part of VMFA's permanent collection.

*VMFA is a sponsor of the Community Idea Stations.

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