Art AND: Thomas James

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Thomas James is extremely well adjusted. Creative Alliance’s relatively new Visual Arts Curator is quick to laugh when discussing the changeable day-to-day ins and outs of curating and running the visual arts programming in the beloved Highlandtown institution, which will celebrate its 25th year in 2020. James, a native of Prince George’s County, came to CA after a stint at the Maryland Federation of Arts in Annapolis. He likes that “Baltimore is a little more out there and less judgmental than DC.” And of CA, he explains, “It took me a while to get used to the vibe but I feel like I can really be myself here.”

James has been at CA for a little over a year but more recently took over the work of programming and curation from his predecessor, Jeremy Stern. He describes CA’s main downstairs gallery as a nonprofit gallery that tells “stories through the artwork” and “isn’t about sales.” The flexibility to show more experimental artists and “the opportunity to function somewhat like a museum” are two of the main things that attracted him to the position. 

While many working in the field roll their eyes at the newly minted masters degree options in curation offered by universities and colleges, James isn’t amongst them. Rather, he sees education as an equalizer and he’s excited by the diversity of people now studying curation and entering the field. He looks forward to seeing these shifts manifest in museums over the next few decades as people of all backgrounds join the art-admin workforce. James explains that he tries to “learn as much as I can from everyone I meet; I ask a thousand questions of other curators.”

In addition to his responsibilities curating the galleries, James also oversees CA’s residency program, where he is “essentially an RA” or the so-called house “dad.” James relates to the residents, many of whom are around his age. “It’s so cool to see how they’re living and working and pushing their practices forward.”

James is most excited to show emerging Baltimore artists in 2020. He sees curating as putting the works of different artists together in fresh combinations, creating new contexts and providing new inroads to the public to review.

Like many others doing the art of admin in the arts, James was an artist first, focusing in photography before going to business school. He still takes pictures here and there, but he likes to work in series and hasn’t had time for a while. “It’s hard, all of my creative brainpower goes into curating,” James says. “But I can use my iPhone to make some one-offs. From an artist’s standpoint, I’m cool with it for now. I have the skills so I know it will come back.” We talked about the challenges of being a good boss, James’ impressive sock collection, and what it takes to give a show that little something extra to make it truly resonate with the public.

SUBJECT: Thomas James, 25
WEARING: “This is an on-the move outfit. I have three different kinds of looks: on-the move, going to the gym—which I also wear for install—and then nicer outfits for admin days here at Creative Alliance. Dirty Vans, they’re the go-to because they’re comfortable and they look good dirty. These are some of my favorite brown jeans that are frayed at the bottom, which I like because I can show off the socks—I’m a sock person—these are red, white, and blue, my favorite color combination. A plain-white T-shirt; you can’t go wrong with it, in my eyes, and a Tommy Hilfiger nice shirt… the coloring is dingy already so if you wash it you can’t tell the difference. With jewelry, I like to switch between gold and silver, so today I have a gold watch and gold necklace. I really like fashion.”
PLACE: Highlandtown, Baltimore

Suzy Kopf: What was the worst career or life advice you’ve ever received? What is the best? 

Thomas James: The worst career advice I ever received was “fake it ‘til you make it”—somebody told me that while I was in college. I enjoy being honest and authentic. If I’m not educated about something I have no problem asking questions—I refer to myself as a constant learner. I am confident in myself and my work ethic. Once I learn something and am able to understand it, I know I can conquer it. I don’t believe in being “fake” in order to get where I want to go in my career and I hope people respect that. 

On the flip side, I’ve gotten a lot of great career advice. Most recently, Creative Alliance’s Executive Director, Gina Caruso, said to me, “Thomas, you can be a superstar, you just need to get more organized.” For someone like me who is responsible for so much within my organization, valuing a high level of organization is a major key. Constantly improving myself is important to me and Gina helped me put that into a different perspective. Another great piece of advice I think about often is “everyone likes to play where it’s more fun.” This was said to me by the Executive Director of Maryland Federation of Art, Joann Vaughan. She was reminding me that I can’t overlook the mundane, less-fun tasks because those need to be taken care of to keep you moving forward.

In your current role as the Visual Arts Curator at Creative Alliance, you manage a couple interns a quarter. What have you found are the most important skills for a gallery assistant to have?

I hope at least by the end of their time with me, interns have lots of expertise at hanging work, and knowing what works well on these walls and what doesn’t. I try to take my interns everywhere I go—offsite meetings, studio visits, all that. Every intern I’ve worked with I really respect their mind and their opinion. We debrief afterwards and I use their input. They’re also so helpful when I’m brainstorming ideas for new exhibitions.

What qualities do you hope you embody as a boss? What makes for a good employee?

The characteristics I hope I embody and display as a boss are the same ones I hope I embody and display as a person in general. Those include being self-motivated and honest, acting with integrity, valuing fairness, showing kindness, being earnest and serious when we’re handling business, and staying open-minded. These are the characteristics I look for in my interns and anyone else in general that I work with. This will create an environment where everyone can strive. Brainstorming sessions aren’t helpful if the people I’m working with aren’t challenging my ideas and pushing me mentally. Installing shows for five days straight isn’t fun if everyone working in the space isn’t enjoying each other’s company to a certain degree. In order to succeed in my line of work, we have to work as a team. And the only way I know how to do that is to build a team around me that values these characteristics.

What is the art-supply/business-related material you should buy stock in, you use it so much? 

Gallery paint, sponge brushes, dressmakers pencils, and blue painters tape. 

Why dressmakers pencils?

I use this brand called Dritz. I use it because the pencil is water soluble. I make marks on the wall when I measure where pieces should be hung. So, when it comes time to get rid of the marks it’s a lot easier to wipe away the marks with water than an eraser. 

Who do you admire? Why? Do you think they know they’re a role model to you or would they be surprised?

Dagmar Painter—international curator of Middle Eastern art, art critic, writer, and Head Curator at the Jerusalem Fund Gallery Al-Quds in Washington, DC. To call her an art enthusiast is an understatement. She is well versed in every aspect of contemporary art and her knowledge of art history is astounding. I also admire the way she is able to communicate with others and express herself. She also has an amazing home with a contemporary art collection that leaves me inspired every time I visit. I hope she wouldn’t be surprised by me saying any of this. Last time I was in London, I visited an exhibition she curated at Gallery P21 and I attended a tour she gave—I was completely blown away and was not shy to let her know that. 

What mundane thing do you hope you’re remembered for?

Taking critique well and applying it. I know how difficult it can be to dish out critique, so when someone gives me critiques or advice or requests for me to change my actions in the interest of improvement, I know they’re saying for the betterment of Creative Alliance—so I take it very seriously and I hope people appreciate that.

Do you have what might be described as an unusual hobby? What is it? How did you get into that?

Boxing. I don’t know if that’s unusual, but for some reason people seem surprised when I mention the fact that I box, so maybe it is. I got into it a couple years ago because I’ve always valued physical fitness and it brings me comfort knowing that I can defend myself if necessary. I used to slap box with my friends back in the day, so a couple of years ago I decided I’d pursue it more formally. 

What’s the best local restaurant and what is your go-to order? 

If you want something quick you gotta go to Taqueria El Sabor del Parque. If I’m working late, and I need a quick meal, I head over there and get dos tacos de pollo. Their menu is crazy though—they have pigs ears and a bunch of other wild selections. If I want to sit down, I’m going to Queen of Sheba, a Middle Eastern spot, and I’m ordering some curry lamb or chicken with rice and okra. You can’t go wrong with that.

Whose work would you want in your home or to wear on your body? Specific piece?

In my home I would love to have the painting “Studying Gods Word” by Jerrell Gibbs. It depicts a man and two young girls sitting in what looks to be their living room and I remember the first time I saw it, I immediately connected to the piece. The way he captured the man’s reticent body language yet content demeanor, combined with the simple joy illustrated on the faces of the two girls was astonishing and compelling to me. Right now, on my body I would love to have Boris Bidjan Saberi’s Grey Seam Tape Parka from his Fall ‘19 collection.

If you had unlimited funding and time, describe the show/performance series you’d curate or the series of work you’d make.

Speaking purely from an aesthetic-loving standpoint, I would produce a fashion show and collection of clothes inspired by artworks created by CA’s residents. Could you imagine a dress inspired by Kei Ito’s firey cyanotypes? Or a faux-fur coat inspired by a vibrant Claudia Cappelle painting? A denim jacket designed to resemble a Chris Batten abstract or one of Charles Mason III’s works on tarp transformed into a trenchcoat? Now that would be a collection for the ages and a fashion show I’d pay big money to attend.

What are the last three emojis you used?

  1. Smiling purple devil emoji, which I consider the “evil/scheming smile” even if I use it in reference to the most wholesome activities
  2. The flame emoji, letting someone know that their activities, achievements, and/or fashion choices on any given day are FIRE
  3. The crying emoji, signifying that something is so glorious I could cry (even if it’s low stakes like creating the perfect kale/shrimp salad)

Do you have a typical day or not right now?

No. It goes in waves. My days here, if there’s a show coming up, we install for about a week. After that I focus on the other programming we do to support the show: workshops, talks and demonstrations. On a day when I’m not doing that, I’m working on future shows, studio visits, and sending out inquiries. I take that brainstorming very seriously, I want to create the best exhibitions I can, so thinking about how to do that, that’s the best part of my day.

Does your astrological sign match your personality?

Yes, so I’ve been told. I’m an Aries—a fire sign—so I am very passionate about certain things, and when I put my mind to something I won’t stop until I make it happen.

Is there a show you’ve seen in the last five years that you are still thinking about? Why do you think that is?

In 2017 there was an exhibition and interactive installation in DC called “Future of Sports.” Although there was no fine art involved, it has shaped the way I viewed interactive art. There were about 10 different rooms designed beautifully in floor-to-ceiling vibrant colors, each inspired by different sports. Within each space, viewers could play basketball, soccer, football, etc. They held fitness classes and other events that really brought the space to life. It definitely gave me ideas as to how far we can push the envelope in reference to audience interaction.

When you go on a studio visit what do you like to see? What makes you worry from the jump?

One of the biggest things is the initial vibe. If an artist is excited to see me and excited to show their work that’s when things start really clicking. I’ve been on studio visits where the artist isn’t excited and it’s uninspiring and kind of a downer. Then I feel like they aren’t going to be a good person to work with. Funny enough, that’s one of the things I learned in business school, there are people that are X employees and Y employees, the Xs are self-motivating ones and the Ys are just there to pick up a check.

What would your teenage self think of you today?

I think he’d be impressed. I’ve always gone against the grain to a certain degree and sought out ways to differentiate myself from other people. Coming from my background, being a curator is almost unheard of—even to this day I haven’t met many curators that look like me or come from a similar background. Teenage me didn’t have much direction as far as future goals and things like that. I just knew that I enjoyed standing out and exploring what life had to offer. I think if I talked to teenage me and told him what I do for a living he’d be like, “Oh shit. That’s kinda cool.” At least I like to think that’s how I’d respond. It would either be that or I’d be in a teenager mood and be like “Oh… okay… I guess that’s cool…”

What are your biggest goals as a curator?

My biggest goals are creating exhibitions that are impactful to the viewers and when people come here, I like them not knowing what to expect. I like giving exhibitions life in that way. We work with great artists so the art that’s going to be on these walls is going to be top-notch, but I also want the viewers to be wowed by the subject matter and I want them to be into the engagement stations I create. What I’m going for is that when people come in they really make their own connections. I want people to think, “Wow that’s deep!”

Upcoming exhibitions at Creative Alliance: We Are One: Ernest Shaw, Jerry Prettyman, Latoya Hobbs, Mark Fleuridor, and Monica Ikegwu (December 14–January 18, 2020); Helen Zughaib: Syrian Migration Series (March 11–April 7, 2020).

Photos by Jill Fannon

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