Interview: Kamilah Rashied Redefines Community Arts Programming at The Art Institute of Chicago
Kamilah Rashied is dynamic, thoughtful, incisive, strategic, pointed, compassionate, talented and driven. She’s everything you’d hope to see encouraged & supported by one of our nation’s foremost cultural institutions. As the Assistant Director of Community Engagement at The Art Institute of Chicago, Kamilah produces. The events and programming she creates are part of a mix that helps grow real engagement by bringing people into the museum around accessible discussions and important perspectives.
She’s all about people and it shows.
Ahead we chat with Kamilah Rashied about her work, her inspiration, art, the state of the world in 2017, and the considerations needed to build Chicago’s creative future thoughtfully & collectively.
Evan: We just met roughly 9 months ago and became fast friends. You’re a freakin’ powerhouse! Anyone who knows Elijah McKinnon must be making moves. So glad you’re down to chat with us for the site
Kamilah: Evan, happy to participate, honored to be invited.
Tell our readers where you’re from, what brought you to Chicago, and what you’re up to these days.
I am originally from San Francisco. I was born there. Later my family moved to Decatur, Georgia. I grew up there for the most part. I came to Chicago for college in the summer of 1997 & I’ve been here ever since. I’ve always loved living and working here for many reasons. My favorite thing about this city is how much it embraces every kind of art. There are so many lanes for the arts to thrive. There are so many creative communities here and lots of cross-pollination, my work is really just an extension of those qualities.
As far as what’s going on these days, I recently worked on a two-part series with the Chicago Public Library for their One Book, One Chicago program. Its a great initiative they do annually that encourages reading through a selected book that cultural institutions use as context for all kinds of interdisciplinary programs across the city. This year the Art Institute is partnering with the Chicago Cultural Alliance to build a dialogue around food, culture and intersectionality.
That was on April 4 and April 6, and you can find more info about it here.
I’m also working on a another installment of a conversation series that I host at the museum called The Gathering. Our next conversation is titled: Outlaw as Hero. The conversation is all about creatives who disrupt institutions through participatory practices that leave the museum and activate the public in some way. This will be on April 27.
I also started a women’s collective that does itinerant events around town focused on the voices of women of color. The collective is called My Familiar Women’s Collective and we do monthly events that bring women from across the cultural sector together. This is a new thing I am working on.
I’m also working on producing a site for the upcoming Chicago Home Theater Festival in May. As part of the festival they are creating these Neighborhood Field Guide events at the Hyde Park Art Center every Sunday in March and April from 12:00pm to 4:00pm, leading up to the festival in May, which is city wide. Everyone should check out the festival theres something for everyone.
I’m working on some other stuff, but this will tide you over through May…
I grew up around art, so it’s hard to tell. My mother was a dancer in college and my father was a frustrated musician, so I was always surrounded by culture. I would have to think back to the first time I felt like it might be a significant part of my path in life……
I was thirteen years old and my mother was prone to giving me books that might explain womanhood. She’s cool that way. I think it was easier than talking about it directly. I could read a book and ask what I wanted to know through the characters, and she could respond in kind. It gave us a way to talk without talking. In hindsight, I have to applaud how gangster that is.
She gave me a copy of Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston and it transformed forever what I understood art to be. Before that book, I thought art was only to be enjoyed, after it, I understood that art could advocate, it could heal, it could help you to process the world around, to see the very world itself, anew. I think that was the beginning for me.
I love it. You’re currently working in Community Programs for The Art Institute of Chicago. How did you approach the role & what’s your focus? How has the role changed?
Yes. That’s a big question. My job really has two strands, one is programming that is either highly collaborative with our peers that occurs within the museum or out in the community with our partners in Chicago neighborhoods; the other strand is steering across the programming wing. I am a part of the Department of Learning and Public Engagement and within the department much of my work behind the scenes is focused on shifting the culture within the programming wing. We want to deepen our relationship with the public. By this I mean more pointedly consider their preferences and expectations, and from there we can begin to use that feedback, that knowledge, to make our museum a more vibrant space that is a part of their lives, not just a place for an annual visit.
What have you found to be some of the better ways to solicit that feedback from folks? Digital or in real life?
The best ways are still the old fashioned ways. I hang around and ask people how they felt about it. I routinely hand out my business card and ask regular visitors or engaged first time visitors to send me feedback on their experience. I watch body language during activities as the program is happening. Do people look interested? Or are they bored? Its really quite simple. We do surveys on occasion, but people tend to provide prescribed answers, though they are very helpful, I do prefer to hear in real time what people think. It’s still the most powerful information I can receive about how we can improve.
How do you see the role of institutions like The Art Institute in the changing landscape of art access?
I think we have an opportunity to lead by example. Our venerable reputation provides a platform upon which we can not only advance our place in the filed through deepening our commitment to access for all, but also encourage others to do the same. I don’t know if that’s our role, but I do think our stature provides the opportunity to influence the culture of museums in Chicago and beyond.
Absolutely. And as a curator who also hosts & organizes events, I’ve seen first-hand how you’re helping lead by example. In fact, at the panel I was a part of recently we discussed the ways in which spaces have connotations, vibes, and intentions. The modern wing and the museum as a whole is epic. Do you envision other ways in which the opulence can be converted into a doorway for people who otherwise feel it to be an impediment?
I don’t find the space itself opulent. I find that people’s perception of the space is rooted in an idea of opulence based on the value placed on the objects within its confines. Add to that a series of common dogmas about what a typical museum goer might look like and there you have it. But these “impediments” are not really about tangible space. Its about the legacy of a space and how we think about it. How we edify it in real time. So when I think about possibility, what I am really thinking about is what will allow our public to think about this space (the museum) differently.
Very cool. Given the current political climate, how do you incorporate the state of the world in the way your team thinks about expanding membership and becoming relevant to residents who haven’t typically considered themselves art lovers?
I think this is another question that cannot be summed up easily. I will say this, we take our role as cultural providers very seriously. We have a lot of enthusiastic debate about how we can be responsive to world outside, but I think the current political climate poses a much larger question that challenges us all to think about our responsibility to the public, when so much of what we offer is about the history of human experience. This is something we are very much confronting right now within our confines. I would venture that every museum in the country is undergoing a similar process of self reflection. And it’s overdue.
I completely agree. I think this time in history is an incredible opportunity for artists to prove how relevant art is as a form of social expression, as opposed to merely an exercise in aesthetics. Do you think there’s a huge opportunity out there for the museum that decides to embrace more of the unapologetically socially provocative work that arises in the coming years?
Yes. But in my mind, this is not a new opportunity, its just a more obvious one. We should strive to be progressive, inclusive and create democratic spaces for learning, contemplation and creative appreciation, no matter what is happening in the world.
Well said. Is there an art project that you’d love to make happen but just seems way too elaborate to ever get completed?
Yes. But its not too elaborate. It’s just very ambitious and would involve unprecedented scope and reach. I’ve been working on the concept for a decade, pulling together the pieces slowly. And I have every expectation of producing it some day. But if I told you, I’d have to kill you. Don’t worry, when its time, you’ll get the call.
Lol. Do you ever get tired of being such a badass?
Yes. All the time! Being a badass is a lot of work. Its a lifestyle. I’m always honest about that. People see me in a pulled together ensemble, being charming with a glass of wine in my hand and think that this is easy. I work my butt off. I have an unforgiving schedule. I have to multi-task most of the time. On the road to getting here I missed a lot of fun. A lot of parties and birthdays and weddings and being with loved ones, so I could work late. So I could get here. For every victory there is a sacrifice. And I am still asked to make them daily. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had an amazing life and a career that is totally singular. I would not trade a moment. But the real talk is that I put in the hours, the diligence and the tears to earn that privilege.
I’m so glad you mentioned that. Many choose to emphasize the results, but I think people like you and I who aren’t afraid of a little grassroots organizing share a special appreciation for the less glamorous moments that truly fuel the work. For us, many times those are months of coordinating, curating, and implementing projects, exhibitions, and plans. Do you think the results of our work would feel as good if we didn’t have to hustle so hard up until then?
Yes. This idea that mission based work has to be grueling and unglamorous all the time is just the patriarchy at work. I think this is something that entered the cultural zeitgeist to deter service based or mission driven non-profit work at some point in our history… probably after the success of FDR’s new deal, but I digress. Don’t get me wrong, at the highest levels there is grunt work. But at the end of the day I am doing work that I love, that I know is meaningful. This is the height of privilege for those who choose to, or must work, is it not?
True! How do you see art evolving in the Era of Trump?
Its time to get real. Art for art’s sake is a hard sell for me right now. We’ve got to use it to inspire and to respond and to advocate and to deeply contemplate the human experience. Its just got to be that right now. And I see an urgency to move in that direction like never before, that’s the upside. We’ve got some pretty powerful motivation, haven’t we?
Clearly, we do! How do you think we as curators can help unearth, promote, or encourage that upside? It has to exist in the content itself, but also in how we do business, doesn’t it?
This is a difficult question for me to respond to, because my mind just does not work that way. I’ve never needed anyone to “sell me” on the upside of a radical and compassionate creative practice. I was born this way, I think. So its hard for me to think in terms of needing to present a value proposition. What try to focus on, and to express instead, is how obvious it is that art and culture is good for everyone. And not just inherently good, but in practical ways as well. Its good for the economy, its good for learning and cognitive development and its good for the spirit. Anyone who is in the presence of evidence of this argument, would agree.
Is there an artist you see out there now that you think is destined for acclaim?
So many. We have so many Allstars! Krista Franklin and Norman Teague. I’m crazy about them as artists. Their work just does it for me. I just want to follow their respective careers for the next 20 years, I’m such a fan! I just feel like they could breathe on the track and make a hit.
Somebody hipped me to the work of Nicole Marroquin a while ago and I was like… (I need a moment of silence). She has a joint show up with another dope artist Andres Hernandez at the cultural center, right now! The show is called Historical F(r)ictions. Go see it! These people are all heavyweights in this city already, but I really need the whole world to write a check and check up on these folks. Everything they touch is gold and my admiration for what they bring is never ending. Aaaand like a thousand people I can’t think of right now. I’m going to get hate male from somebody I didn’t mention, I just know it.
Just let me say…I am convinced I am living in the middle of a creative renaissance in Chicago of such magnitude! When they revisit this time in history, these names will be in that book along with so many others that are making incredible work in Chicago right now, I am sure of it.
Name your favorite artists, one living, and one dead.
Martin Puryear sings to me. So does James Baldwin. If I’m gonna name only two. But…in the interest of gender equality, I have to say Zora Neale Hurston, may she rest in peace and Toni Morrison who is truly touched by the Gods. I’m sorry, I can’t narrow it down…there’s just too much genius in the world.
In one word, how does it make you feel that “there’s just too much genius in the world?”