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Making space for communities of color at Newfields

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Kelli Morgan has vivid memories of the time she spent with her grandfather growing up.

“He’d come home from work and bring National Geographic and other magazines and just say, ‘Babe, I can’t get you there, but I need you to know that you can be there,’” she recalled. “He’d clip out pictures of art like Vincent van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night,’ but the only one he ever framed was Henry Ossawa Tanner’s ‘Banjo Lesson.’”

She didn’t know it at the time, but her grandfather was showing her that life beyond what she saw around her growing up was possible. 

Morgan said she grew up in a poor, working-class household in Detroit. As a child, she spent time in the attic playing with her family’s old stuff.

“I’d put objects together and make up stories about them, I could do it for hours,” she said. Today, she is the associate curator of American Art at the Indianapolis Museum of Art on the Newfield’s campus. She is the first Black woman to hold this position.

“Having curators who represent a broad variety of backgrounds and points of views is critical,” said Melvin L. Venable, The Melvin & Bren Simon Director and CEO. “We need to be able to welcome everyone and to be relevant to a very wide spectrum of guests, and no one point of view can do that. Often, the most interesting stories are those that happen at the edges where different types of people, artists, cultures come together. Kelli understands that.”

Although Morgan has been able to ascend to a position that not many people of color have — a 2015 national study conducted by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation found that 16 percent of leadership positions at art museums are held by people of color — her path has not been a typical one. She didn’t grow up learning about great artists from Europe and the Americas. She didn’t even visit her city’s art museum until age 25.

“In Detroit, the museum was a place that people like me just didn’t go,” she explained. “It’s not that I didn’t have a purview of art, we just didn’t go in grade school or anything.”

Morgan knows she’s not the only one. She says Black communities and other communities of color are often made to feel like art museums aren’t spaces for them, even though Black communities have been doing artistic work for centuries.

“Having worked at various institutions, I’ve noticed there’s an arrogance, I feel like white supremacy and white privilege is a psychosis — the arrogance that they are the center of the world and no one else matters or exists. When really, Black women have been doing this work since the late 1800s.” 

It wasn’t until Morgan got to graduate school at the University of Massachusetts that she realized her years in her parent’s attic putting objects together to tell stories could be a career. She researched Black artists and curators, spoke to historians and made note of how communities of color shaped some of the most famous paintings we see today. Now, that research informs the way she approaches each installation.

“I look at the systems that art upholds,” she said. “A lot of my work undoes the traditional narrative around historic American Art.” 

Currently, she is working on a new installation of IMA’s Native American and Colonial galleries. “I’ve decided to decenter the United States and instead focus on Central and South America, as well as Canada,” she explained. “I’m trying to show what the region looked like prior to European colonization and also show that the Europeans traveled to the Americas to understand how Asian and African societies were trading with them. I want audiences to come away from the art object and look at it like [a] global commodity because that’s what it was.” 

Morgan recently installed pieces from local Black artist Samuel Levi Jones. His work, “Left of Center,” opened March 15 and will run until Sept. 1.

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