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Kimberly Drew
Photography Tyler Mitchell

How Kimberly Drew, aka @museummammy, became the darling of the art world

The New York curator, author, and writer on how she went from blogging to hanging out with Hans-Ulrich Obrist

Curator, writer, and author, Kimberly Drew is wise beyond her 27 years. But wisdom is only one of the many reasons why she’s landed a place alongside luminaries such as Solange, Carol Lim and Humberto Leon, Slick Woods, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, and Kevin Ma, as part of the Mercedes-Benz #WeWonder collective.

Born in New Jersey, Drew says she was “exposed to everything to see what sticks”, adding, “I was reared in an environment where creativity was as important as anything else.” Although she circumnavigated arts for mathematics, which she studied at the city’s Smith College, before turning to engineering, and architecture, her a-ha moment came when she took an Asian Art Survey Class and “everything hit me like a tonne of bricks”. She then landed a three-month internship assisting Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, in 2010, and, inspired by her time there, launched the “tumbelog”, Black Contemporary Art. After graduation, Drew was hired as a communications assistant at the Studio Museum before taking a position at Lehmann Maupin, and, eventually, her current title, which is the social media manager at The Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York. All of this has been punctuated with lectures, panel discussions, and writing for publications such as Teen Vogue and Lenny Letter, to name a few. Drew has also been honoured with awards and accolades such as AIR Gallery’s inaugural Feminist Curator Award, as well as finding herself on “top” lists such as Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ YBCA 100, and Brooklyn Magazine’s Brooklyn 100.

With mentors such as Dr Deborah Willis (“the queen supreme”), Sandra Jackson Dumont (“she’s so present”), and Hans-Ulrich Obrist (“he is probably one of the most significant people I’m thinking about right now”), alongside an Instagram following of 163k and counting, it’s unsurprising to hear that her next moves include publishing a book (“date tbc,” she says) and guest lecturing at Harvard University (“next month!” she beams).

While running around at Austin’s SXSW last week, we caught up with the curator, author, writer, and social media maverick to find out more.

“You want what you're doing to be comprehensive, and that comes with a level of incredible intense critical thought about how you're articulating yourself, how you're taking up space, and how other people are taking up space” – Kimberly Drew

How did you discover your interest in art?

Kimberly Drew: I had a winding path which came from my parents being really supportive. I always thought, “this thing doesn't exactly work for me, but I'm going to push around till I find the thing that sticks”. It took an Asian art survey class, where everything hit me with the tonne of bricks. I thought, “this is exactly what I should be doing”. It’s hilarious because my entire life my family had been exposing me to art but I didn't think of it as a career path. This is also where I come back to talking to young people. I tell them, “you can be a curator, you can be an art lawyer, you can be a conservator, you can be a director, you can be a security guard, the head of security”... people don't know about all of the different ways into the creative fields. You think, “I can be the artist or I can be the curator”, but there's a universe of possibilities, and I wasn't exposed to that.

Why did you start Black Contemporary Art?

Kimberly Drew: I started it during college. When it was time to get an internship over the summer, I met with my advisor and he said, “either you should work at the Schomburg Center (for Research in Black Culture) and do an archives track, or you should go to studio museum in Harlem and do a museum track”. I already knew that I wanted to work with black spaces and black institutions, so I applied and got accepted for an internship at the Studio Museum. I had zero expectations; didn't know what I had got myself into.

I worked in the director's office as an intern for Thelma Golden, who also went to Smith College and also studied Afro-American Studies. Seeing her, and the power and the information that she held, was so important to me and so influential. Every day I was learning the name of a new artist, and when I finished I was like, “how am going to keep learning? What spaces are there for me to continue on for taking in information?” Being 20 at the time, I went to the internet. I couldn't find any websites, so I started one. It wasn't like, “I'm gonna start this grand blog”. I was like, “I'm a Tumblr kid”, and I loved that Tumblr was a really dialogical community... I knew what I knew, and I knew that there was a lot that I didn't know and so I thought, “this could be a community”. It's always been a collective effort, and we all learn from each other. It would not have been as successful if it was only me – I didn't know shit!

It’s really interesting to hear you talk about your journey with education and then art education, but you also mentioned that you learned so much in the real-life experiences you had. Which was more fruitful for you; education or experience?

Kimberly Drew: I’m a big proponent of self-taught education. I have a very traditional educational background. I was really lucky to grow up in a state that has a great public school system, and then go on to all these different modes of education which I've had amazing experiences with all of them. But that's not everybody's path – and even in all of those phases, I really had to carve out what I wanted to be learning, and that came foundationally from my parents who didn't go to college. From watching my father, who would take me to libraries as I was growing up, and we would pick up the books I wanted to read – that power to pick up the things that I wanted to know is something that everybody needs to tap into. Some of the smartest people I know are the ones that have done that. There's such vastness in this moment in time... of information. It's up to us to choose the things we want to know and how we want to interpret them. When I set up my Tumblr, it was only imagery because I didn't realise that there was a discourse I could put with them, and as I came to mature and learn, I learned of so many amazing scholars. For me, I wanted to provide a primary encounter and then you can do what you want with it. I don't want anyone to say they are not amazing black artists. It was about providing tonnes of examples of ways of working, and giving people an opportunity to choose, without having all that information alongside.

What’s your relationship with social media; how much of it is you, personally, and how much is it you, professionally?

Kimberly Drew: It changes, but it's really a direct line to the things I'm thinking about. It's not necessarily me, but it is 100 per cent the things that I'm thinking about. I like to keep it as fluid as possible.

You recently met Hans-Ulrich Obrist at the shoot for the #mbcollective – how was that?

Kimberly Drew: I'm now obsessed with Hans-Ulrich. I’m halfway through Ways of Curating, I'm scared to finish it because I'm so in love with it, but, yeah, he's probably one of the most significant people who I'm thinking about right now, because, at this stage in my career, there are a few conclusions I’ve come to. I realise I could have come to this conclusion so long ago if I’d only read this text. I’m like, “I did all this work to find this language, and it’s here”. A memoir, when you have significant people being able to tap into your story, is really interesting to me, especially as a young person. I don’t know what the future holds, but watching someone triangulate their path is really important. We don’t always know; all of our heroes weren’t heroes at one point...

How does it feel to be part of the #mbcollective 2018 for the #WeWonder Manifesto? – how did that come about?

Kimberly Drew: I was really excited and really curious about how it would play out. Then it was like, this person and this person, and this person! We all have a connection to fashion and art in some capacity, but we all have such unique stories and backgrounds. When we all met for the first time at the #WeWonder Manifesto Day in London, there was this getting-to-know-you moment... becoming completely obsessed with everyone.

What qualities do you think you bring to that group?

Kimberly Drew: I’m a people-person. It’s really important for me to be present; “have we thought about this person? Have we thought about this way of life? Have we thought about this group of people?” And also how the decisions that we're making resonate. That was the responsibility I took in that room, as other people did too.

Do you think that hyper-awareness comes from being a writer; considering all sides?

Kimberly Drew: It comes in general from speaking to large audiences in different capacities. You want what you're doing to be comprehensive, and that comes with a level of incredible intense critical thought about how you're articulating yourself, how you're taking up space, and how other people are taking up space. 

Your theme in the collective is ‘equity’, why did you choose that?

Kimberly Drew: My theme was originally equality. I love equality as a concept, but I believe that as we think about the future, we have to be informed by the past. Equity is a really great way of looking at both future and past at the same time; it’s the starting point. It's what tools people have foundationally to do what they want to do. And so, as I think about future of, or “wonder” about, this project, I really want to think about: what are the true starting points for all the people that will be engaged by the decisions that were made. 

“I’m a big proponent of self-taught education” – Kimberly Drew

With your position in the art world, and as the curator and social media editor at the MET, how does the idea of equity come into your everyday life?

Kimberly Drew: I studied art history as an undergraduate at college and have spent my career really learning about art movements of the past; artists of the past; seeing the things that they had and didn't have; seeing the fights they had to fight; seeing some who didn't have to fight; what those fights looked liked. Because at one point, almost everything was degenerate. It's so interesting to learn about the Impressionists, understanding, “okay this is why these people chose to have this fight”. But I think about equity in terms of, what tools they had to fight with; what families they came from; what environments they were exposed to; what it meant to grow up in a small town, a long way outside of the city centre; what that art looks like; how they reach their audiences... So equity is a lens you can use to look at everything. As writers, we do want to privilege certain voices, but I care so much about how that voice became amplified.

Can you tell us about your upcoming book, Black Futures?

Kimberly Drew: It all started with a DM from Jenna Wortham, who is a writer at The New York Times, podcaster, and queen of the universe. She was saying that she wanted to work on a project together, so we met up and had lunch and started to talk about what was going on with culture right now, and how she was really passionate about recording it. She’d seen what I was doing through my blog and how I was tapping into all of these different artists and paying attention in the way that I do, and, at that moment, she said she wanted to make a zine and I said we weren’t going to make a zine, we were going to make a book. So we started the process of making Black Futures, as a text, but we’ve been between calling it an anthology, a yearbook, a survival guide for this moment, that looks at black cultural production against this myriad of mediums, with a special look at the internet because there haven’t really been many anthologies since the advent of social media that present and communicate that. In undergrad I studied, African American Studies, and every decade or so, there’s a book that looks at that time and one of our source texts is Toni Morrison's Black Book, where she pulled together all of these things that were going on, so we want to take a big screenshot of what is going on right now.

What's the best advice, or lesson, you've ever been given?

Kimberly Drew: It was mediated through what I'd wished I'd read before curating. Hans Ulrich defines the curator and the source of the word, which is 'to care', and, as writers, our job is trying to figure out how to define people, in ways that are really generous. In certain ways, labels can be really harmful. When I learned that the root of curating is caring, I thought: ‘oh yes, that's what I do. Professionally.’

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