G-Sync: Juana Williams' migration from Detroit to Grand Rapids ushers in a new era of art here

Last month, the Urban Institute for Contemporary Art (UICA) welcomed Detroit’s Juana Williams as their Exhibitions Curator. Publisher Tommy Allen sat down this month with her to get to know a bit more about her vision in this important role.  
Over the last few months, we have checked in with folks in our metropolitan area who are a part of our community and are making an impact through their contributions.

Last month, the Urban Institute for Contemporary Art (UICA) welcomed Detroit’s Juana Williams as their Exhibitions Curator. She’s a recent master’s graduate of Wayne State University and most recently served as Assistant to the Chair at her alma mater in the department of art and art history. 

Williams brings to our region incredible creative energy and a passion for community engagement via art, but also imports an impressive list of connections that are certain to benefit our region’s art scene.

Since this is the season for ArtPrize and all things art-related seem appropriate, Publisher Tommy Allen sat down this month with Williams to get to know a bit more about her vision as UICA’s curator. 

Tommy Allen (TA): What attracted you about coming to work in Grand Rapids? Is this your first time here?

Juana Williams (JW): I have visited a few times [in the past] as I have family living in Allegan, so it's not my first time in Grand Rapids. When I was looking for jobs, UICA kind of fit everything perfectly for what I wanted. And on top of that Grand Rapids is a great city, especially for young people moving into it. 

The city has a lot of development happening and it seems like upward mobility is easier here than in Detroit or some of the other larger art history places like New York or L.A., where we know it's a lot harder to kind of get a foot in the door.

TA: Any first impressions?

JW: Now that I'm here I'm learning that the art community is a lot tighter than I knew, which is a good thing. I'm meeting a lot of people in the local art world really fast. I didn’t expect that. And it's great for me because I love collaborating and am very excited to be able to work with others locally. 

TA: Since at Rapid Growth we are concerned not just with how locals interact, but also how our community travels beyond our boundaries, what attracted you to UICA specifically?

JW: I wanted to work at a contemporary art museum specifically. And I like that UICA is a non-collecting institution. As a curator, it's easier to be able to just do the shows and programming rather than having to worry about the collection. 

TA: Collecting museums definitely have other challenges for sure. 

JW: Later on in my career, I may work at a collecting institution, but right now it's nice not to have to deal with it. 

TA: I think there is something really beautiful about these mid-sized cities and what they have to offer folks starting their careers. I mean, you could start in a larger market but then you might have to wait much longer to land in a curatorial role. What do you see as a benefit for choosing a mid-sized city like Grand Rapids?

JW: One area I really like about Grand Rapids is that it's on the map. A lot of people outside of Michigan know about UICA. And it's not so large that it’s overwhelming. I can experiment here, too, as I have a lot more freedom in an institution set in a smaller city than say in a place like New York, for example.

TA: So where did your love of art start for you?

JW: I’d always had an interest in art because my mom always put me in art classes as a kid, but I never considered it as a career until I got to college. I started my undergrad study as a math major at Wayne State University (WSU), but I just couldn’t imagine that career. So after changing my major a few times, I landed with a B.A. in fine art. Later, I would go back to WSU and earn an M.F.A. in art history. 

TA: With an understanding that art history can be a very broad scope of study, did you narrow it during your time at Wayne?

JW: I really focused on contemporary art, but also African American art.

TA: I am very impressed with the museums on the east side of our state from the Detroit Institute of Art (DIA) to Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) to my hometown’s Flint Institute of Art because they place a high value on showcasing diverse works that reflect the communities that live there. What art experiences were you able to engage in while in the Detroit area?

JW: I worked at MOCAD in the exhibitions department so I performed things like installations. While there at MOCAD, we exhibited the Rob Pruitt exhibition of “The Obama Paintings” which are made up of thousands of paintings because the artist created one a day for every day of his eight-year presidency. 

TA: That sounds like a lot to hang at an exhibit. 

JW: And because he was still a president while this exhibition was happening, the artist was mailing in new images to be added to the exhibition.

TA: Well, that truly is a great example of what is contemporary. Where else did you work in Detroit?

JW: After MOCAD I worked at the DIA for a while, but also at Wayne State's Elaine Jacob Gallery. While I was at the DIA, I served under the curator of African American Art helping with the “Detroit ‘67” exhibition. 

TA: That’s the show devoted to the civil uprising in Detroit during 1967. How was that experience for you?

JW: I was able to meet a lot of Black artists from the ‘60s and ‘70s who made a lot of art during that time period. I really enjoyed being able to speak with them and begin to understand their experiences. [That exhibition] was a lot about reflecting on black culture and their experiences in America. 

TA: This is something I really love about exhibitions is this opportunity to not just see the art but also hear stories behind these powerful works. You’ve only been here just about a month and since it is ArtPrize season, it might be nice to explain in your own words what role a curator performs at a place like UICA.

JW: I get to plan all the exhibitions and the programming, like artists talks, that go along with them. In addition, I also work with the community programming person to try to plan workshops or other events that will welcome the community and give them opportunities to experience art in a different way.

TA: But I imagine the planning of an exhibition is still a very big part of the position’s focus. 

JW: It is a huge part of it. I am not certain people know about the amount of networking a curator must engage in as we talk to others in the art world to get works of art here. But the process starts with an idea and is sometimes inspired by a single work of art, or, because this is a contemporary arts center, I can be inspired by what's happening in the news through current events.

TA: So once you have an idea, what happens next?

JW: Many people may not think of this, but a lot of research goes into curation. I think when some folks go to a gallery or museum, they just see the work on the walls and think, “Oh, the curator must have really liked this work and just threw it up there,” but it is a much more complicated process involving lots of research. 

TA: I know you might not want to reveal right away what you have on your radar since research is intensive work, but do you have anything on your mind for the near future at the UICA?

JW: As a person who's interested in art history and curation, I'm trying to make these exhibitions really personal to Grand Rapids so I am starting with what I think Grand Rapids needs to see. Through curation, I really want to start conversations. 

TA: Any other hints?

JW: I really want to bring in more artists of color because of the conversations around diversity that can start here. I also am planning a show on Native American Art but we may not see that one until 2020. It is a voice in the art world that is not heard enough.

TA: I agree. I can’t recall the last art show I’ve seen devoted to this topic.

JW: Afrofuturism is something I'm really interested in and have been researching artists right now for an upcoming show. I don't know exactly which direction I want to focus it yet.

TA: The topic of Afrofuturism is hot in other markets so I am happy to hear you are considering mounting something here for our community. To help folks visualize this topic, can you give us a definition for our audience’s understanding?

JW: Afrofuturism deals with imagining a black future. One misconception is that Afrofuturism is just art about black people in the future but it’s more about presenting the world from the perspective of black people than only presenting black people in images. 

What’s interesting is that it takes into account the past and present and creates a future that’s inclusive, asking us to consider who will be here and who will have something to say in the future.

TA: Sounds very timely to me.

JW: Right now, in our country, especially politically, we aren’t considering the future enough. There’s just so much division. As much as people want to separate and create institutions and a world that only looks a certain way, we have to accept that’s not really a sustainable possibility in the future. 

And of course, there’s the technological aspect that plays a large role in Afrofuturism but the underlying idea centers the black perspective of a future world.

TA: That is a show I am looking forward to seeing in the future. Any closing thoughts on your new role at UICA?

JW: One reason I wanted to be a curator is to bring those ideas to people who don't necessarily have them in their everyday lives. I think that's really important. Consider the power of visuality that from just seeing images or experiencing another point of view or starting a conversation you can change your perspective. 

But if you live in a closed box and only converse with people who talk and think the same way as you, then you only get to see the world one way, making it harder for you to understand different perspectives.

That's exactly why I wanted to be a curator, to bring voices forward so you don't have to feel like you have to stand in the back of the crowd or hide who you are. Everybody is different. We are all individuals and important and should be able to show our different perspectives so people can understand instead of feeling afraid.


For more information on UICA's programming, please visit their site
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