Hi, my name is Thomas James and I am the Visual Arts Curator at Creative Alliance. I am also an independent curator based out of the DC-Metropolitan/DMV area, cohort member of The Commons shared workspace in Annapolis, and NOW… Blogger for Urban Walls (it feels good to say that)... And I am here to tell you a little bit about how I’ve gotten to where I am now.
Before I start, it’s important for me to note that I have an obsessive personality. Once something interests me, I deep dive. It happened when I found the 90s kid rap group Kriss Kross – I debated wearing my clothes backwards. It happened when I found Go-Go music – for two full years that was the only music I listened to – well that and Gucci Mane… Point is, once I become interested in something, I’m all in. This same sort of deep dive took place when I became interested in art and that’s really where this story begins.
"Navigating the art world is about saying yes to the right amount of things. The only way I've been able to achieve my success thus far has been by taking advantage of opportunities presented to me in any capacity."
Alright here we go…
I never once thought about art as a real profession... I went to college to study business; but even when I was excelling in my business learning conquests, my interests in art and creativity were always apparent.
The combination of an intriguing art history class and a DSLR camera from my sister sparked a full blown obsession with photography and the art world in general. Over a four year span I worked on my craft, doing a ton of photoshoots, a bunch of events, and different photography projects, such as The Mike Brown Project,Don’t Police My Body, and Debt or in Jail… I was WORKIN’. And I don’t mean to brag, but my sh*t was hot. A lot of folks asked to do photoshoots with me (especially gorgeous young women – which was a huge motivator at the time), and some of my work ended up in magazines and on websites like Forbes and Yahoo, which I’m still humbled by.
From there I began to run in different circles. I started attending important events, I met lots of folks in the art industry, I went to go see all the newest exhibitions in the surrounding areas - I was really getting my clout up. But it was the summer I spent in Chicago that showed me the BUSINESS of art. I saw Black gallery owners and that changed my life. And shout out to Dame Dash… Out in Chicago was the first time I ever listened to Dame Dash seriously. Seeing someone who wasn’t a traditional participant in the fine art world, but the owner of art galleries in different parts of the world, made me think, if he can do it, I can do it.
So, I started to explore the administrative side of art. I was attracted to the business side of things just as much as the artistry itself. I started trying to figure out the answers to questions like “how do these professionals decide who to show in their galleries? How do they attract buyers? How do they put together exhibitions people will want to visit?” All of these business-based questions intrigued me just as much as doing a photography project.
When I came back from Chicago, I had a mission to learn as much as I could about art administration and how I could expand my brand further into the arts. I figured I could duplicate my comeuppance in the photography game and adapt it to the fine arts world. I previously gained success by giving good product, networking, and working hard as hell – not necessarily having the best equipment or the best studios, etc. (everyone back home knows how much I had to finesse). So, I did two arts management internships, soaked up hella game, and was offered the opportunity to curate a couple shows professionally. It was those two shows that were the reason I decided to stay this course.
My first ever exhibition was at Mountain City Center for the Arts, an arts center I was interning at in college. In true hustler fashion, I independently organized and fundraised the entire show by reaching out to local business who sponsored the event. And in true brand fashion, the show was 100% professionally done – from the framing, to the installation, to the crazy promotional schemes (shoutout to the promo team of five amazing women that woke up early every day to pass out flyers before and after classes, throughout the campus, and all over the city!) At the opening, we had a packed house - students, community and family members, university professors, and even the Dean of the college came through! The place was crazy and honestly I didn’t even get to enjoy much of it because I was running around so much. But that proved to me that I could handle business within an arts setting – I literally got to combine my two favorite things.
After graduating, I decided to take art seriously and took an opportunity to curate another exhibition I named, Darkest Before the Dawn. I curated that show independently, originally displayed at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts. Through networking, I was able to get the exhibition traveled to another gallery in Washington, DC, which caught the attention of one of DC’s Art Commissioners. Only a year or so later, she ended up introducing me to the kind folks at The Phillips Collection (best art museum in DC – just saying). I then collaborated with them on a number of projects, most notably in the curation of Belonging: Stories from the Seafarer’s Yacht Club of Washington, DC.All of this was simultaneously happening while a friend of mine at the DC Council on the Arts and Humanities provided an opportunity for me to serve on an arts panel where I met Dagmar Painter – curator extraordinaire. She was the perfect person to meet because at the same time she introduced herself as the director of a middle-eastern based gallery in DC, I was working on bringing an artist from Baghdad to the United States for an exhibition. Oh, and all of this was happening while I was working in Annapolis doing an arts fellowships with the Maryland Federation of Art (shoutout to JoAnn who kept me on my sh*t while supporting all of my independent efforts!) It all kept me wildly, excruciatingly, gloriously busy for sure – and I’m grateful for every moment of it.
Over a three year span, I compiled a pretty impressive list of accomplishments if I do say so myself – and each one did just what I wanted it to. They each showed people that I’m here for keeps, I’m always ready to make the most out of new opportunities, and I’m committed to bringing art to the people on both a local and global scale.
I accomplished my goals and it was time to set new ones, bigger ones… Through another network of amazing arts folks, I was told about an opportunity for a head curator position. The situation seemed perfect: I’d be doing exactly what I want to do, I’d be close to home, and I’d get to explore another city, another arts hotbed… What could have been better?! So, I applied, went through a couple of intense interviews – seriously they asked a lot of good questions – and then Gina and Jeremy gave me the call that I got the position. I celebrated with my family seconds later… We jumped up and down and popped champagne, it was like I got that million dollar record deal (I got health benefits, which in this day in age is just as good as a million dollars in cash).
And yeah, now I’m here. Still hustlin’, still grinding… Nothing has changed, it’s just gotten bigger and better. If you’ve gotten to this part of the article then you can probably tell I like to talk. So, I am extremely excited to work with Urban Walls to bring you blog posts that are both authentic and interesting. Please send any questions, thoughts, or ideas that you think I should post about.