The MCA’s dream team

Meet two new faces revamping the museum—and one longtime staffer with a groundbreaking new role.

  • Photograph: Paul Mpagi Sepuya.

    Naomi Beckwith

  • Photograph: Jeremy Lawson

    Beckwith at an MCA opening

Photograph: Paul Mpagi Sepuya.

Naomi Beckwith

Naomi Beckwith, curator

Will shake up the MCA by deepening the conversation on works by artists of color

What that will mean to you Exhibitions from artists like Brussels-based Jimmy Robert, who in 2008 invited visitors to London’s Cubitt Gallery to rip pieces of tape off his back while he read aloud reviews of Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece

About a year before Beckwith moved to Chicago to accept a curator position at the MCA, retail giant J.Crew featured the 35-year-old—then the associate curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem—in its March 2010 catalog, with a nod to her recent show “30 Seconds Off an Inch.” The exhibit looked at the way people extrapolate political and social meanings, often incorrectly, from artwork when they know the artist is black. Critics praised her ambition—something she brings with her to the MCA, where her focus isn’t just showing more black artists, but also facilitating the discourse surrounding their works. She’s quick to point out this is different than talking about race: “Someone said at a show I curated before, ‘You didn’t talk about race.’ And I said, ‘Well, it wasn’t about race.’ ”

Since joining the MCA in May, the willowy Beckwith has been busily in conversation: with artists, colleagues, trustees, committee members and museum visitors. “The best thing any curator can do is talk to multiple groups of people—those who have no familiarity with [art] to people who absolutely know art history and contemporary work,” she says.

Beckwith, who grew up in Hyde Park, remembers going to the DuSable Arts and Crafts Festival each year with her family, sneaking into the Art Institute of Chicago with friends (“We had all sorts of schemes for cheating the box office”) and experiencing a particularly transformative moment at an Odilon Redon exhibition at the Art Institute in the early ’90s. “The theme of the show was something about a dream, and the works were organized by medium,” she says. “That was the first time I realized that there was someone organizing the way I received this artwork.” As an undergrad at Northwestern in the late ’90s, she decided to veer away from her pre-med studies and toward art history.

Living back in Chicago allows Beckwith to spend more time with her family, particularly her nieces and nephews, whom she often brings to the MCA. She also hops around to other galleries. “I really enjoy spending informal time with artists, talking about the world, about what interests them, and really getting a sense of how the artistic mind frames the universe,” she says. “I am also a huge fan of the performing arts: I often see live music, dance and theater. To me, contemporary culture is about how all the creative disciplines respond to and re-create the world we live in.”

At the MCA, Beckwith will help curate “Chicago Works” (a revamped version of the popular UBS 12x12 series). She’ll also manage Martin Creed’s upcoming yearlong residency and is organizing her first major exhibition for the museum, to debut in August and feature Brussels-based artist Jimmy Robert. “He’s doing really beautiful photographic work that extends into sculpture and film work that’s really inspired by the feminist New Wave filmmakers,” Beckwith says. “I’m really interested in what it means for this young man to take up these terms—now and as a man.”

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