A Q&A with the McKenna Museum of African-American Art
When Dr. Dwight McKenna bought the old mansion at 2003 Carondelet Street in New Orleans, the building hardly seemed like a suitable showcase for his art collection. Built in 1859 as the residence of a steamboat captain, the property had suffered fire damage and fallen into disrepair, lacking basics such as electricity and plumbing. Eight-hundred thousand dollars later, and the one-time home was converted into the George and Leah McKenna Museum of African-American Art, a gem of an institution in the city’s Garden District. Named for Dr. McKenna’s parents, the museum holds 150 paintings and small sculptures, including works by artists such as Henry Ossawa Tanner, Clementine Hunter, Ernie Barnes, and William Edouard Scott. Now through September 15th, the museum will also be hosting the special exhibit, A Little Old, A Little New, which features the colorful, painted glassworks of the artist J’Renee. We spoke with McKenna's Director and Curator Jennifer Williams, who talked about the interplay of music and visual art, the pervasive artistic culture of New Orleans, and how the museum defines the term “African-American art.”
NEA: Why don’t we start off by talking about the exhibit currently installed at the museum?
JENNIFER WILLIAMS: Right now we have an exhibit of J’Renee’s work. She is a South Carolina-based artist who is originally from New Orleans. She was displaced after Katrina, and she does a really great technique called reverse glass painting. She reuses old windows, cleans them up, redoes them, paints them, and makes them amazing pieces. We have her work here over the summer.
NEA: What would a visitor see as he or she walked through the permanent collection?
WILLIAMS: The really great part is when they walk in they are able to see the renovated historic house that the museum is located in.... So they walk in, they see the beautiful restored house, and we have paintings in every room. They can see everything from paintings that were created in the 19th century by Bannister [to] pieces by recent artists like Clementine Hunter. We have contemporary pieces by artists within the last five years, like Ron Bechet, who teaches at Xavier University here in New Orleans, which has a great history of producing artists that go on to a national and international stage. We have everything from works on paper, to works on canvas, and then we have pieces like J’Renee’s work on glass, so they’re able to see a really great mix of work in the space.
NEA: Do you have a personal favorite piece in the collection?
WILLIAMS: Oh, absolutely. There’s a second line piece created by J’Renee on glass. It’s a smaller piece, and it’s called The Second Line. I love her collage elements, the way she creates the vibrant colors. It’s so reminiscent of New Orleans then and now; it’s just gorgeous. I always stop people on the tours I give, and point out the great work and detail she put in to create the piece.
Then I have a ["Voodoo queen"] Marie Laveau piece. It’s large-scale, about five feet by four feet. It’s done by a Haitian artist. We have a gallery here that has only Haitian artists presented in the space. There are a lot of people from Haiti who live in New Orleans.... The artist’s name is Ulrick Jean-Pierre, and he has phenomenal work. He does great realism, mainly portraits of historic figures, and he has a piece here in our permanent collection called Marie Laveau Invoking the Spirit of Love which is just phenomenal.
NEA: You touched upon this a little bit in talking about the second line and the Haitian community, but how do you think New Orleans culture affects the local artwork that’s produced?
WILLIAMS: I think it’s just a part of life. I’m originally from Atlanta, where art is seen as something that you go and see. Art is a part of life in New Orleans. It is shown in the way Mardi Gras parades are presented, the outfits that people create by hand, the floats that are created during Mardi Gras, the poster contest for different artists around the world to create visual representations of their crew for that year. There are “second line” parades here, which are celebrations of an individual’s life. So we have the jazz funeral, and then after the jazz funeral people go out into the streets. The “first line” is people who are part of the family, but [the revelers who follow them] are called the "second line" because anyone in the city can join in… They’re basically street parades or processions that include music, that include dance, that include social aid and pleasure clubs… I could be in the museum like I am today and a second line could go by and [I] could join in---they become larger as time passes. We recently had a second line for a jazz musician called Uncle Lionel---Lionel Batiste---and it was huge. It started very small, and as they went through the city it just got bigger, and bigger, and bigger. Even though it was pouring down raining, it’s such a tradition here. People come out and they have outfits they’ve created, umbrellas they’ve created, the artists are dressed up. Art to me is just a part of life. [For the] Mardi Gras Indians’ parade and procession they create these beautiful hand-sewn suits out of sequins and beading and feathers, and they go out and walk the streets. People see them and come out of their homes, stop their cars, take photos, and ask them how they made the suits.
I think that when a child grows up in that environment, they are able to see that art is a part of life. It becomes a natural progression for people to decide if they want to participate in music, in visual art, in culinary arts. I find that remarkable, that you can go out on any given weekend and see art being made, see music being made. To me, it’s reminiscent of an Afro-centric viewpoint that art is functional, and that it’s a part of your life in your home, in your spiritual life, in your community life. It’s a part of everything.
Marie Laveau Invoking the Spirit of Loveby Ulrick Jean-Pierre. Oil on canvas. 2004. Photo courtesy of the George and Leah McKenna Museum for African-American Art
NEA: Does the museum work with a standard definition of what African-American artwork is?
WILLIAMS: Many of the artists are African American…but we also have artists that have created pieces about African Americans. We had a great exhibit last December from a photographer from Mississippi, and her focus is Africa and the Diaspora. She is a photography professor at the Southern University in Mississippi. She’s Caucasian, but she photographs these amazing women, children, and men, and her landscapes are remarkable. So we exhibited her work because it has African or African-American imagery.
NEA: In your work at the museum, do you notice any common themes or elements in African-American artwork that illuminates the genre as a whole?
WILLIAMS: I think that African-American artists have been particularly strong in landscapes and portraits of African-American people. The Haitian artists that we have, they have a lot of historic scenes of the revolution. The New Orleans artists that we have, the themes that they mainly focus on, for some, are the beautiful architecture of New Orleans itself, how African-American carpenters helped to build the city, but then also the musical elements. We have six rooms per floor, and each one is separated into a thematic gallery. We have a whole room upstairs that just has paintings of African-American musicians, and second lines, and drummers. People, music, community, and life are some of those connectors that I see in the work.
NEA: You bring up an interesting point about music and visual art. I think when a lot of outsiders think about New Orleans, they think of jazz, they think of music. But as you’re saying, visual art and music are completely intertwined.
WILLIAMS: Most definitely. We have a couple of paintings about Mardi Gras Indian suits that really capture some of the headdresses and the work that goes into them. It’s not just the music, it’s a combination of the music, the costuming, the hand-made materials, the flags, and the beautiful feather kind of staff that is used for the social aid and pleasure clubs. Even when we have Jazz Fest here, which is a huge festival at the end of April, beginning of May, the combination of music and visual presentation is just great. I don’t think one could really live effectively without the other, and New Orleans exemplifies how much they’re meant to be seen together.
NEA: How do you balance your role as director and curator?
WILLIAMS: I take it day by day! I think as a historian, I am fascinated with the curator side, and organizing shows, and going to studios, and learning about work. I went to a studio visit on Tuesday with Chandra McCormick and Keith Calhoun, nationally known photographers who live and work in New Orleans. I went to their studio in a beautiful shotgun house; part of the city’s architecture is art in itself, it’s just gorgeous. So I go to this house in this incredibly quiet neighborhood, I walk into this house and it’s a beautiful space, and they have their photographs all over. And they run a summer camp. I spent two or three hours there talking with the artists about how they create their work, how they work with youths on sharing the skills that they have. I’m just fascinated by that. That side of it is natural for me. I’m able to incorporate my love of history, my love of research, and then do the real-live studio visits.... I love to put together the shows; I love to install the shows. We’re a small museum space, I often work with university students. There’s a museum studies program here in New Orleans at the Southern University of New Orleans, so I’m able to engage students to help me to install, and label, and research texts, and that is just a joy of mine.
Then the director side is fundraising, booking the space, the rentals, working with grant writers, getting grant funds so I can do the exhibitions at the space and have programming for people to come in. It’s the financial side. I think it goes together. And we definitely want to build the capacity… My vision would be that we would have a director, and a curator, and a museum educator, and a facility manager. So we would have four people; right now we have one. I balance that out by doing what I can: booking quarterly events instead of monthly events so that it’s quality over quantity, so that we can continue to receive funding and we can build and grow for the future.
NEA: Do you have a dream exhibit that you’d love to curate?
WILLIAMS: I would love to curate an exhibition of Gordon Parks’s work. I’ve been here for almost three years, and I have become so much more interested in photography. Our permanent collection actually does not consist of any photographs; it’s all paintings and small sculpture. What I’ve done in the last three years is engage with the local photo alliance here, which is all volunteer-run. They put on a festival in the fall, and every year I curate a show…. Photography has become more of a focal point that I would love to research and look at. I would love to interact with Gordon Parks’s work and choose from the large body of work that he has available.