An art historian, curator and professor at Columbia University, Kellie Jones ’81 has devoted her career to studying, teaching and publicly acknowledging the work of influential but under-recognized artists of color. Last year she won a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” for doing just that.
“For her entire career,” said Nicola Courtright, professor of the history of art, addressing students, faculty and alumni gathered to hear Jones speak in Cole Assembly Room, “Professor Jones has investigated and published art made by artists who have regularly been left out of the conventional histories of art—African American artists, artist of the African diaspora, Latin American artists, women artists, people whose work, she says, might have been lost had she not gone looking for it.”
During her Feb. 23 talk, Jones said her childhood experiences and the educational opportunities she found at Amherst led her to where she is today.
“I grew up in New York City; I grew up with artists,” Jones began. Her parents, the poets Hettie Jones and the late Amiri Baraka, lived near and often entertained fellow authors and artists in their home. As a student at Amherst, Jones realized just how remarkable this was. She recalled talking to fellow students and thinking, Oh, people don’t know artists?
Though profoundly interested in the arts, Jones was uninterested in becoming an artist herself. Instead, she wanted to write about and curate art. In addition to taking courses in fine arts, she studied African and Latin American cultures and traveled abroad. “By the end of my time here, I was able to make up my own degree in black studies, Latin American studies and fine arts,” Jones said. “I took that knowledge and I went into the curatorial field.”
Long before the MacArthur award, Jones was making headlines for her groundbreaking curatorial work. Her first show at the Brooklyn Museum in 2006, Energy/Experimentation: Black Artists and Abstraction, 1964–1980, highlighted numerous black artists working in abstract painting or sculpture. “People were telling me the show was marginal,” Jones said. “The last weekend of the show, 40,000 people showed up. If that many people show up, it’s not marginal.”
Jones credits Amherst with giving her opportunities to forge an unusual career path, and she encouraged current students to take advantage of similar opportunities. “You’re here for four years and you own this space,” Jones said. “It’s yours to figure out where you want to go and what you want to be.”
Video of the full event is available to the Amherst College community (login required).