Former CMA Curator Key Jo Lee Has a New Book, and a New Role at the Museum of the African Diaspora

Chief Curator at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, Key Jo Lee. Image courtesy of Key Jo Lee.

I had the pleasure of sitting with Key Jo Lee, newly-appointed chief curator at the Museum of the African Diaspora (MOAD) in San Francisco, to discuss her time at the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA); her upcoming book Perceptual Drift, Black Art, and an Ethics of Looking; and the way museum curation might evolve.

In her transition to MOAD, Cleveland’s community has lost the representation—as a woman and as a Black person—Lee offered, and also her critical eye for visual storytelling. Still, her impact has laid a fruitful foundation. Lee was promoted in January of 2022 from assistant director to director of academic affairs and associate curator of special projects at CMA. Having taken an untraditional academic route while working within the museum, Lee credits CMA for trusting her, and her colleagues for supporting her ideas.

What Academic Affairs was at CMA, and what it could be

Key Jo Lee prioritized building equity as her first goal within the academic affairs department while highlighting nontraditional avenues for those interested in museum careers. Lee, herself, learned in her late twenties the nature of museum careers and took the journey of undergraduate studies in her thirties to further explore the field.

Is there still a need for Black curation?

The answer is yes. Lee says one person [in a curatorial role in a major museum] is not enough. It is necessary to have a broad perspective on curating Black art.

Lee reflects on her own interest in astrophysics, Black infinitude, and things related: how they exist outside of a broad perspective and how they expand universally. How is Black art seen universally? Curation of Black art needs that same consideration and eye. At its core, Black art needs to be seen at the elemental level.

One must realize that Black art is rarely considered in the large conversation of American art: it’s almost an afterthought.

Lee expands on the point that [while they are treated as universally relevant] white artists and whiteness don’t have a special ability to be universal. That’s part of the issue. This notion that whiteness is so flexible that it can become and be anything versus thinking about it in the ways that time and space actually work—in that both things are highly specific and all-encompassing. Blackness needs to be explored in that way.

How can a curator remove that box that Black art is put in?

In curation circles, there is inevitably a question about quality when Black art is considered. In the past, Lee said she would call out everything when it came to microaggressions; in time she realized the effect of policing those behaviors was she was left carrying the burden of confrontation and feeling drained. It was intense extra labor.

Seasoned at this point in her career, Lee still addresses restrictive attitudes toward Black art and artists in real time, but with a calm technique that forces people to look at their own logic. What suggests that quality would be in question? Where is the lack of quality in the candidate, art, and artist?

According to Lee, successful and sustainable questioning of implicit bias in the art world requires a core skill—being authentic when working with other curators who are not familiar with Blackness. Lee says no to code switching, when she doesn’t feel like it, and asking people to do the research. Offering basic [conceptual] definition and offering resources and leaving it at that. In refining her method, Lee learned to preserve her energy while addressing underlying racism and getting the work done.

Early in her career, Lee served on committees where she was constantly doing two jobs: curating art and teaching colleagues to respect Blackness. In time, it became clear that she needed to invest her time in the work that was meant for her. She expresses a deep appreciation for the time spent serving on those committees, the perspective, and the insight into learning how people’s minds work. To counter biased lenses, Lee found it is important to do the things you’re passionate about.

Chief curator at the Museum of the African Diaspora

Supported by a grant from the Mellon Foundation to elevate the museum’s presence as a global leader within the contemporary art world, MOAD in San Francisco appointed Key Jo Lee as chief of curatorial affairs and public programs. Lee  began in her new role January.

The decision to leave the CMA wasn’t easy, but an opportunity to really craft a creative direction for the institution excites her. Rather than thinking about how her ideas can fit in the umbrella or appeal to the shape of the CMA, instead, she’s able to shape what that direction is for MOAD.

African studies differ enormously from African American studies. Lee is experienced in broadening her own knowledge, with a particular interest in the Black Pacific experience. She learned only recently that there is a Polynesian Black Panther Party; there’s a big reggae culture in Papua, New Guinea; and all these interesting connections.

Lee is excited to explore these cultural connections. She plans to give opportunities to other curators who can use their expertise to collaborate on exhibitions. She is excited about the potential as chief curator and the opportunity to highlight contemporary art. There will be a combination of exhibitions from her own ideas, collaborations with other curators, and then also guest curators in lone exhibitions.

Lee speaks passionately from a position of growth, which is dramatically different from the perspective (and stigma) that museum curation is stuck in its ways.

New Book: Perceptual Drift: Black Art and an Ethics of Looking

Perceptual Drift: Black Art and an Ethics of Looking is a new model on reframing the study and of Black Art. It opens with an essay by Lee introducing the concept of “perceptual drift” as it relates to how Black Art is perceived, followed by its contributors’ and co-authors’ approaches to the continued challenges of the historical and contemporary status of Black lives in their respective fields. Co-authors include Erica Moiah James, Robin Coste Lewis and Christina Sharpe.

Perceptual drift is about thinking how we get at the erasures or oppression that are in the art archive through the ways that we narrate the history. It accounts for all of our sensory engagements with a particular object or reading, allows for those readings to intersect.

Perceptual drift accounts for what art can spark in us, whether it be memories, previous reading, or other interactions with art. It speaks to that feeling and not just to what’s being organized into a very clean narrative. Curators need their expertise and must have investigated the archives. One cannot say the narrative is missing if they haven’t spent any time investigating. One needs to take that—alongside lived experience, memories, and the things that come up as one engages with this work—and sense what the work is demanding of them.

Lee has multiple authors speak to this. Her notes are rigorous when it comes to archival , and they include things like personal narrative. Co-author Robin Coste Lewis, a poet, is informed by historical knowledge and deep investment in art and art history.

Cleveland wishes Key Jo Lee well in her journey and is immensely grateful for her time and investment into The Cleveland Museum of Art.

This interview was conducted via Google Meet in December 2022.

Perceptual Drift: Black Art and an Ethics of Looking, by Key Jo Lee (Author), Erica Moiah James (Contributor), Robin Coste Lewis (Contributor), Christina Sharpe (Contributor), 80 pages, Hardcover, published in 2023 by the Cleveland Museum of Art, is available at CMA and on Amazon. 

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