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Living With Art: Jackie Copeland

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The first piece of art Jackie Copeland ever bought is mounted on a wall right next to her desk in the second-floor study of her Pikesville home. It’s a wooden plank mask from the Mossi people of West Africa that Copeland, the former executive director of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African-American History and Culture, bought when she lived in Chicago in 1975.

On her desk is a Lorna Simpson mixed-media piece featuring a small, felt-lined wooden box that contains ceramic, rubber, and bronze wishbones. The shelves above her desk house rows of books ranging from contemporary art and photography to history, biographies, and artist books. A few frames sit in a row on the floor, waiting for open wall space: a Roy DeCarava print, an early painting by Shinique Smith, a work by the late David Driskell.

Opposite her desk is a compact sofa, on which sits a pillow whose cover features a textile rendering of a Black woman in soft pink holding an expansive bouquet. “A friend of mine gave this to me,” says Copeland, reaching for the pillow. “It’s from Manet’s Olympia. It’s the maid that is handing her the flowers.” She points out other items in her collection—Black memorabilia, daguerreotypes. “This is my little area here, a collector’s study. I love it.”

 

The range of works in Copeland’s collection highlights her discerning interests and tastes. “I blur the lines between craft and art,” she says. “I appreciate the skill it takes to create beautiful objects—whether they’re made for decoration or made as fine art. Things that I collect, which I may have purchased at a craft fair, I display as fine art.”

Her collection is also a reflection of the depth and width of her 30-year career in museums: contemporary art, functional works traditionally sidelined as craft, and objects of historical importance for what they remind us about where we come from. Copeland has spent considerable time working at a contemporary art museum, an encyclopedic museum, and at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum, whose understanding of the role visual art and culture plays in the human experience is hardwired into its mission.

The local institution felt like the ideal place for a museum professional whose personal collection includes African art, masks, and kente cloth, handmade pots and baskets, Joyce Scott sculptures, a Zanele Muholi photograph, works by Kara Walker and Glenn Ligon, and Black memorabilia. Copeland’s home is its own visual investigation of the Black experience in America, informed by a lifetime of looking at and thinking about art.

 

“I have booklets that I bought at the National Gallery of Art when I was 10 years old,” she says during an interview at her home. Born and raised in Washington, DC, Copeland says she also has a book from Tut Treasures, the first traveling exhibition of artifacts from the tomb of Tutankhamun, when it came to the Walters in 1963. Growing up, though, the National Gallery was her hometown museum.

“There is a painting there by Jan van Eyck, The Annunciation, that I thought was the most beautiful thing in the world. I think I responded to his ability to put three-dimensionality into a painting. He was using oil paint to tell the story, with all the symbolism in there. It was just immaculate.”

She’s been thinking about the historical and narrative power of visual information ever since. Copeland taught art history as an adjunct professor after training as an art historian at Muhlenberg College and the University of Rochester, before joining the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis as the co-director of education and community programs in 1990. She joined the museum’s staff at a fortuitous moment. The Walker’s late director Martin Friedman, whose tenure positioned the place as a forward-looking contemporary art museum in America, retired in 1990, and curator Kathy Halbreich succeeded him in 1991.

Halbreich continued the Walker’s cutting-edge mission, with diversity—of museum staff, exhibited and accessioned artists, and audience—education, and community assuming larger roles, before such programming and thinking became common institutional aspirations. Halbreich “saw the opportunities and potentials for the museum and really opened it up to lots of diverse artists,” Copeland says.

“The Walker is on land that had once been part of the Native community, and the museum was always sensitive to the Native American community. And it really made an outreach to African Americans as well.”

 

Copeland played a big role in the Walker’s African-American collecting practices and outreach, as well as the museum’s education efforts. She worked on ArtsConnectEd, the website developed by the Minneapolis Institute of Art and Walker Art Center and launched in 1998 that digitized the two institutions’ collections as an educational resource. (The site won a Best of the Web Educational Site from Museums and the Web and a Gold Muse Award from the American Association of Museums Media and Technology Committee in the spring of 1999.)

During the ’80s and ’90s, the Walker upped its African-American artists accessions, commissioning an outdoor sculpture by Martin Puryear and purchasing early works by then emerging Black artists such as Kara Walker, who did her first installation in the round at the museum. Copeland keeps a series of canisters and a vase made by Walker in her kitchen.

In the 1990s, Walker was among a handful of African-American artists—Michael Ray Charles, Ellen Gallagher, Kerry James Marshall, and others—who began confronting racist imagery found in American popular culture in their work. In the collecting world, such imagery is known as benign “Black memorabilia,” but Michigan’s Ferris State University, which collected more than 9,000 such artifacts created between the 1870s and the 1960s, more accurately identifies it with its Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia. (The Reginald F. Lewis Museum included the Jim Crow Museum’s traveling exhibition, Hateful Things, in 2018.)

 

Copeland started collecting such items herself in the 1970s. “While they are demeaning caricatures and stereotypes of Black people, I collect them because they reflect the history of this country, and I don’t want us to forget that,” she says. “I rarely collect anymore, but as an African-American, I feel that when I collect them, I am returning power back to images meant to be demoralizing.”

Art history, like all history, is as much about the present as is it about the past, and one of a museum’s challenges is getting people to look, listen, and engage with art to begin that contemplation. Copeland’s experiences at the Walker made her understand that addressing that challenge is “not really about academics but about people and how they’re going to connect with the art,” she says. “What is the importance of art to your life? I happen to think that art plays a big role in how we live and construct our lives. So having that focus on community [at the Walker] was really important, and I welcomed it.”

She brought that mindset with her when she became Director of Education at the Walters Art Museum in 2000. Going from a contemporary museum to an encyclopedic museum felt a bit like working in a university, and Copeland felt her role was to be a bit of a provocateur. “I brought a sensibility that was more about, ‘How are we connecting to the community?’ she says. As the education director, “I’m all about opening the museum up to visitors and making sure they have enough information to understand what the curators want to convey.”

During her tenure, the Walters’ Education Department developed an interactive game, “Waltee’s Quest,” which allowed children to explore the Walters’ digital collection with the museum’s mascot, Waltee. The game won a Muse award from the American Association of Museums in 2009. Copeland also curated a number of exhibitions: Barbara Chase-Riboud’s The Monument Series; Walter Wick: Games, Gizmos and Toys in the Attic; Portraits Re/Examined: A Dawoud Bey Project; and Jacob Lawrence’s Genesis Series.

 

Lawrence, the vividly narrative painter of African-American life and history, was also the subject of the first exhibition Copeland co-curated at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum. She retired from the Walters in 2015, and continued adjunct teaching art history and museum education at Towson University, but she wanted to do more. One of her friends and neighbors, Wanda Draper, was appointed executive director of the Lewis Museum in 2016 and soon after, Draper invited Copeland to work as a consultant.

Maryland Collects: Jacob Lawrence, the 2017 exhibition Copeland co-curated with Charles Bethea at the Lewis to mark the hundredth anniversary of the artist’s birth, was a compact knockout of a show, featuring more than 50 Lawrence prints culled from private collections throughout Maryland.

From there, “one thing led to another,” she says, and she was appointed the Director of Education and Visitor Services in 2017 before becoming the executive director the following year. “It doesn’t feel like work to me,” she says. “I consider myself really lucky because I don’t feel as though I’ve ever had to go to work because it’s such a passion.”

 

I spoke with Copeland in early March, before COVID-19 shut down businesses and museums, before the Black Lives Matter protests in response to the death of George Floyd, and while she was still the director at the Lewis Museum. (As of August 2020, Copeland is no longer with the Lewis Museum.)

Over the summer, Copeland and her staff pivoted to enhancing their digital offerings, while reaffirming the important role that African-American museums play in documenting Black history and telling Black stories. The current pandemic has dramatically altered exhibition schedules, postponed or canceled events, and fundamentally changed long-term planning, but Copeland says museums have seen this time period as an opportunity to reach people in new ways.

“We are deeply motivated, compassionate, and committed, and it’s a big responsibility, but the reward is enormous because it’s a vision for what this museum can become,” she says. “We are an aspirational institution. I always say it’s really a small museum in a big building because when I first came here, I heard people talk about the 82,000-square-foot building. That’s great, but we need to be talking about what’s inside the building. Our main asset, our DNA, is the collection, and what we do with it impacts Baltimoreans and Marylanders.”

Because you can never tell when a piece of art is going to rock somebody’s world—much as Jan van Eyck’s The Annunciation did to a young Copeland. “The first thing I did when I came back here in 2000 was to go see that work of art,” she recalls. “And it was so very small while in my mind, it was huge.”

 

Editor’s Note: This story was written for BmoreArt’s print magazine, published in early August, prior to Copeland’s departure from the Lewis Museum. The museum has also since reopened and requires visitors to wear masks and social distance inside the museum. 

This story is from Issue 09: Craft,

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