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Ryan Dennis, Mississippi Museum of Art’s new curator, is excited to move slower and deeper, connecting dots at the intersection of public art, history and equity in downtown Jackson. Dennis recently up-and-moved her family from Houston — during a pandemic, to boot — to take on a new role as chief curator and artistic director for the museum’s Center for Art and Public Exchange, CAPE. Editor’s note: Interview edited for length.
Mississippi Today: Tell me about moving to Jackson, especially during a pandemic, and what you’re exciting to dig into here.
Ryan Dennis: I decided to move to Jackson because I believed in the vision that Betsy Bradley, who’s our director, has for the museum and also initiatives like CAPE, Center for Art and Public Exchange — really working toward integrating that in our internal structures but also being on a team that’s working to create opportunity for artists and various communities to exchange with how we display art at the museum.
And it goes beyond displaying art, it’s really about creating some conversations and dialogue around the best practices or the best ways that museums can decolonize their spaces in a way that they historically have been. I don’t have any look-backs if you will, I’m really looking forward because I also think that being in Jackson, and being in a slower-pace environment, before this whole crisis, is really nice to dig deeper with the work and allow for research to happen in ways that maybe weren’t happening at my previous job because of the nature of such a fast-paced environment.
Mississippi Today: How do you see your role as curator to help shrink the divide of access to art in traditional museum spaces? Especially as across the state, art and music programs tend to be the first to go in rounds of school budget cuts.
Ryan Dennis: As a curator, my work has always been aligned and on the same parallel track with education programming and thinking about engagement. So I don’t see these two things as being disparate of one another, which I think sometimes happens within some curatorial processes.
It is a value system that I operate from and also being in an institution that has multiple departments, it’s really important that I collaborate with those departments, i.e. Education, as much as possible. Not as much as possible — from the beginning to the end and really making sure that we are in conversation but also strategizing the best way to make sure we have multiple communities enter the doors of the museum. Or also finding ways to have interventions and disruptions outside of the museum.
For example, it’s COVID right now — there are many schools who don’t know if they’re going back or how they’re going back, so we are going to have on display Leonardo Drew, which is an outdoor public artwork that will be on view in the lawn. So creating accessible opportunity for families to come and bring a picnic blanket and be within the sculpture of public art work — finding ways to make some connections that are not just asking people to come inside of the museum but rather meeting people where they are, which is on the street, on the lawn, in the grass.
That’s part of what drew me here. I think the museum is already demonstrating really good work and I just want to be able to enhance that and also promote more artists of color, Black artists, women artists at the center of our presentation in the future.
Mississippi Today: How do you integrate art and your curating process with the reckoning we are having across the nation right now around racism — both overt and as it sits in institutions, even well-meaning ones like museums?
Ryan Dennis: Part of this initiative, which is a Kellogg Foundation-formed initiative, it’s called the Center for Arts for Public Exchange and CAPE’s real purpose is to utilize visual art, conversation and dialogue amongst museum visitors that represent history and art stories that correct misunderstandings of race relations and power, and to create platforms for new voices and personal truths that resonate in Mississippi and beyond. So the values of CAPE is transparency, equity and truth … That work is happening on an all-the-time basis, it’s something we start our staff meetings with, it’s at the forefront of everyone’s mind.
Part of my work is to keep pushing that and reflect the values and the goals of CAPE and how it operates within our strategic plan — increase the number of women in our permanent collection, in addition to Black artists and artists of color within our permanent collection because you can see where there are huge gaps historically.
But then really pushing for that to be on display with our exhibitions but also within our public programming and it just takes time … sometimes things need to be off-balance to figure out what type of balance that you’re actually seeking.
Mississippi Today: What excites you most about art in Jackson right now?
Ryan Dennis: The Fertile Ground project, which is all about food insecurity and access in the city is intriguing. There are local artists that are working on artists in Midtown that I’m excited by. I’m very curious about Jackson State and Tougaloo … excited to dig deep into the Archives and history museums to just think about Census reports from the Great Migration … and the Medgar Evers Institute — can’t wait to sink my teeth into that. I really like the cross-pollination of art, policy and justice work … I like those intersections and I think there are many of them here in the city.
This Q&A appeared in the round-up section of our monthly women and girls newsletter, The Inform[H]er.