Wide Angle

Demystifying the Museum

Kimberly Drew on how arts institutions can be more welcoming.

A young black woman with a confident look.
Kimberly Drew. Travis Matthews

On this week’s episode of Working, Rumaan Alam spoke with writer and art curator Kimberly Drew, whose new book, This Is What I Know About Art, was published in June. They discussed the role art has played in her life, her groundbreaking social media activism, and how museums and galleries can attract new visitors. This partial transcript of their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Rumaan Alam: Your professional awakening around art, about 10 years ago, came when you were interning at the Studio Museum in Harlem, and you made a Tumblr page called Black Contemporary Art. Can you talk about why you started that blog?

Kimberly Drew: I guess the thing that feels most urgent to say, though, is that I don’t think anyone grows up ignorant to art. We live in houses, we live on streets, we eat food. There’s so much art in and around our lives, and I think the most lucky of us are those who have guidance and caregivers who understand and nourish that relationship.

I specifically made that blog because so much had been poured into me from other people. the only natural response was to continue to present things for other people. So much of my life—especially as a kid who comes from a lower-income family, and you name an intersection of marginalization, and I have it—there were so many ways that I was dependent on the state, dependent on donors, dependent on all these different systems. That generosity, no matter where it came from, birthed something in me to understand that when you have something good, you share it.

The work of building it was cathartic. I spent so many hours researching artists, researching works, posting. I dedicated so much energy and time and love into that project. I was so well fed and nourished that recording it on a platform that felt good to my millennial brain was the next logical step.

You built a pretty passionate audience.

There’s so many people who are really curious about art, but because of the way that art is taught, the way that art is displayed, the way that our institutions function, people don’t feel like they can access them. In many ways, the blog met a community of people who were already really enthusiastic and people were able to do with it what they needed. It wasn’t like I reinvented the wheel. There were so many art blogs before mine, it was just the timing, and I think the platform really worked well for a group of people who were needing something like it.

Museums fall within the larger field of GLAM—art galleries, libraries, and museums—where you’re not supposed to go there knowing everything. That’s the myth of museums. You don’t have to know every single book when you go into a library. You go to a library to gather information, and we should be looking at museums in the same way. We go into museums or enter museum websites to garner information, and hopefully we leave knowing more than what we came in with. But somewhere along the line, it became like, “I don’t get it,” or, “If I don’t know this, this, or this, then I shouldn’t go.” That’s one of the greater barriers to access. The blog was saying, Here’s this thing, and if you come back, even in two hours, there’ll be a new thing, and tomorrow there’ll be 10 new things.

You went on to have a career working in social media. How do you see the role of social media in art?

At the most base level, social media is one of the first instances in which constituents and institutions can be dialogical. You can have question and exchange: Are you open today? Who made this work? There are fun things like ask a curator day, where you can really be in conversation. Then on the other side, it’s a way to have a somewhat passive learning experience. If you’re really following a museum page, you can get updates about programming, updates about the collection, be able to access talks. YouTube is an incredible resource. You can watch an artist make a work on YouTube. Many museums have those types of educational resources.

You talk about the stairs to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where you were later working in a social media capacity. Those grand stairs represent grandeur—it’s a beautiful, beautiful building—but they also represent a literal barrier.

Museums are sometimes seen as scary, but it’s not like a trip to the dentist’s office. The thing you’re scared of is that you might not know something. That is definitely a fear, but more than anything, it’s announcing a vulnerability. I hope through images, through sound, through different programming that I’ve done over the years, that it helped to demystify it for those who couldn’t imagine themselves in those spaces. Museums really are innovating, and if you don’t know that innovation is happening, then you won’t go, and the programs will fail. Any museum fails without its audience. That’s what museums are built for.

To listen to the full interview with Kimberly Drew, subscribe to Working on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, or listen below.